Tag: Eschatology

Books I Finished in July

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In July I took what passes for a vacation during these unusual times. I was gone for a week and a half, and I ended up stringing two vacations together. (This is the big reason this post is a little bit late.) The first was a family trip down to Georgia. It was an interesting trip, essentially 116 years ago my Great-Great Grandfather and Great-Great Grandmother were buried on a small family plot near Augusta but their graves were never marked, for reasons too complicated to get into. And over the years we even lost track of where the family plot was, once again for reasons too complicated to get into. Finally, to make things even more difficult, the land was purchased and incorporated into a nearby military base. But after a lot of hard work by my Aunt, and one of my cousins, the graves were finally located, and July 24th (a day of special importance to Mormons) was designated as the day when the graves would finally receive a monument. 

Of course all of that was decided at Thanksgiving of last year, and when the day finally arrived the pandemic had made things considerably more complicated, and it required a special dispensation from a general for us to even get on the base, but that dispensation was granted, and the whole thing was pretty awesome. 

While in Georgia I stopped by Stone Mountain to get a look at the giant bas-relief of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson before it’s inevitably dynamited, or something similar. I actually predicted all the way back in 2017 that it was no longer a question of if the Confederate monuments would come down, but when, so I’m not surprised that Stone Mountain is in the crosshairs, but I did think it was worth making an effort to see it before that happened. As part of it’s inevitable destruction they already seem to avoid any mention of who’s depicted in the carvings. The tram guide didn’t bring it up, and I saw no plaques with that information either.

The second half of the vacation was what passed for GenCon this year. It consisted of spending a week at my friend’s house, and doing a mix of in-person and virtual gaming. I hope things are back to normal by next year, but that’s by no means certain. 

Finally, a bit of meta commentary, someone mentioned that they liked the “Who should read this book?” Section of my reviews, which I had actually discontinued, but since it isn’t something that would be hard resurrect, I thought I’d go ahead and give the people what they want.


I- Eschatological Review

Super Cooperators: Evolution, Altruism and Human Behavior (Or, Why We Need Each Other to Succeed) 

By: Martin Nowak

330 Pages

Who should read this book?

If you’re really interested in the game theoretical case for cooperation, then this is a very comprehensive book, covering the research of one of the major figures in the field, but if that doesn’t describe you, you can probably skip it.

General Thoughts

This book was recommended to me by a friend when I mentioned my interest in cooperation from an evolutionary/game theory perspective. I have a great deal of respect for this friend’s opinion and so when he recommended it, I ordered it and began reading it without bothering to do much research on either the book or Nowak, so I was completely surprised when I came across this:

The phone rang one day, when I was at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Within a minute or two I found myself explaining my research to a stranger who had introduced himself as Jeffrey Epstein.

Nowak goes on to describe how he and Epstein immediately hit it off and from there it goes on to talk about how he visited Epstein’s “tropical island” and how Epstein was the “perfect host”. In fact everything he says about Epstein is laudatory. Of course, once I read about all of that, I did start looking into things, and discovered that I was not the only one concerned by this connection. That Harvard had placed Nowak on academic leave in May of this year because of his association with Epstein. In bringing all of this up, I’m not looking to discredit Nowak’s work, or even saying that Nowak is a bad guy, there’s always the possibility that he’s just incredibly naive. No, the reason I bring it up, besides it being newsworthy, is that it’s an interesting real world example of what Nowak is talking about.

This book is about how a naive assessment of Darwinian evolution would lead one to believe that organisms should never cooperate because cooperation imposes an expense on the fitness of the organism choosing to cooperate while giving another, competing organism a benefit. And yet we see cooperation in nature all the time. This presents something of a paradox and Nowak’s life work has been creating mathematical models which illustrate how this cooperation actually makes sense. 

The ur-model/example in this field is known as the prisoner’s dilemma. Two “prisoners” are presented with a choice of either staying silent (i.e. cooperating with the other prisoner) or turning on the other prisoner and blaming the crime on him (i.e. defecting). If both defect, both are punished. If one defects and the other stays silent the former is rewarded and the latter is punished, but if both cooperate (stay silent), both get rewarded. Though the reward for being a sole defector is greater. Civilization is based on creating systems that encourage people to cooperate, not only because that’s what works best for society as a whole but because even for the individuals it’s better than the possibility that both end up defecting. But despite this there’s always going to be a temptation to defect, particularly if you can count on the other party to cooperate.

Bringing it back to Nowak’s relationship with Epstein. I imagine that after studying the benefits of cooperation for years and years that Nowak has a strong impulse to do just that, whereas I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to call Epstein a defector, someone who preyed upon the strong desire to cooperate in society to get away with some absolutely horrible crimes.

Of course it’s possible I’m wrong and that Nowak was just as much of a defector as Epstein, which wouldn’t surprise me either, defectors are always going to be with us. But the more important point made by the book is that the stronger the expectation of cooperation, and the larger the number of cooperators, the better defection is as a strategy, and the greater the temptation for an individual to defect. 

What This Book Says About Eschatology

I said that prisoner’s dilemma was the model everyone starts with, but a single game doesn’t tell you much, so when someone like Nowak wants to model things they generally run iterated games of the dilemma where every agent has a particular strategy and they see what strategy dominates over the long run. This better models a population over time, and in this case, if the agents play a sufficient number of games cooperation comes to dominate, which is the point of the book, but it’s precisely when the population has reached this height of cooperation that a strategy to always defect works the best, and if allowed to crop up via a simulated mutation it promptly becomes the most successful strategy, e.g. defectors cause the most harm when cooperation is at its highest.

Combining this observation with our own situation creates a host of questions. Was Epstein able to get away with so much because he was operating in a society where cooperation is the norm? Are his crimes a modern phenomenon or the sort of thing that’s been happening forever? Have we reached some peak in cooperation which makes defection more successful? Is that what civilization is, peak cooperation? If so, should we be expecting widespread defections? Is that what Epstein was doing? Is that what Trump supporters are doing currently? Is that what the protests are? Is this baseless speculation or am I on to something here? 

Going down this path opens up a whole can of worms. Obviously society is more complicated than a game of prisoner’s dilemma, for one thing the benefits of cooperation could be asymmetrical. Poor people could get less out of it than rich people, making it understandable that they might want to defect. But that doesn’t change the fact that defection on a massive scale would be very bad, and according to the models, it’s exactly the sort of thing which should eventually happen. Is it? Is modern politics a massive shift from a policy of default cooperation to default defection? Maybe? I think all that can be said conclusively is that this possibility deserves a deeper discussion than what I was able to provide here.


II- Capsule Reviews

Hit Refresh: The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft’s Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone

By: Satya Nadella

304 Pages

Who should read this book?

I guess if you were the CEO of a mid-tier company looking to mimic Microsoft’s culture, this might be a good book for you, otherwise, unless you’re some sort of CEO-book completist, I don’t think I would recommend it.

General Thoughts

This is another book where I’m not entirely sure who recommended it, or why I decided to add it to my Audible library. It is short, which probably had a lot to do with it. 

In my reviews from last month I mentioned that White Fragility was an interesting snapshot into a certain moment in time, but that I doubt that it would be remembered at all 10 years from now. I could say the same about this book. It’s a very optimistic book, sort of Enlightenment Now if it was written by a tech CEO, and of course this book was written by a tech CEO, nor is it the first such book. In fact if we expand things to include all books written by CEOs there end up being so many they’re almost a genre unto themselves. And the question is always how much is a book by a CEO marketing for his company, and how much is it an instruction manual you can follow to duplicate their success?

Looking back on previous entries in this genre I would say that they certainly want you to think that it’s the latter. That they’re giving you the formula to run a successful company, but that it’s always at best an exaggeration, and at worst an outright lie. How much of whatever success Nadella has achieved is contained in his unique management style which he explains in the book, and how much is a pivot any reasonably competent CEO could have made if they had $22 billion in annual profits to throw around? 

That’s a really hard question to answer. I don’t deny that there are great CEOs. I just also know that there’s an awful lot of luck involved and even for those that have real skill I don’t know how much can be passed along. Look at Jack Welch and GE. Fortune named him the manager of the century in 1999, and now 20 years later GE has been delisted from the Dow, and most people think it’s all but dead. To be blunt one assumes that everyone that followed Welch as CEO read all of his books, to say nothing of being personally mentored by him. And yet…

Also, I’m not convinced there’s much unique to Nadella’s book. If Sundar Pichai had written a book about Google, I’m guessing it would read pretty much the same. There seems to be ideology that technology is the eventual answer to all of our problems common to these companies, and I’m not entirely sure how well that belief is going to survive 2020. 


The Chronicles of Prydain

By: Lloyd Alexander

The Book of Three 

190 Pages

The Black Cauldron

208 Pages

The Castle of Llyr

208 Pages

Taran Wanderer

256 Pages

The High King

272 Pages

Who should read these books?

If you like YA fantasy novels, or fantasy in general, or coming of age stories, or Wales, or just literature in general, you will like these books.

General Thoughts

I may have mentioned my recent goal to do more re-reading, and in a moment of nostalgia I decided to re-read this series. I first read them in the 5th grade, and while that wasn’t the last time I revisited Prydain, the last time I read them was probably 15 years ago. As is usually the case with stuff like this, you forget how delightful it is. I believe that these books are the equal of anything J. K. Rowling has put out and deserve far more attention than they currently receive. 

This is not to say that these books are the equal of the Harry Potter series in every respect. In some ways they are worse, but in many they are better. For example, I would say that some of the supporting characters are kind of one note (for example Gurgi and Fflewddur Fflam), but, on the other hand, Taran (the protagonist of these books) is miles ahead of Harry Potter as a character. In particular his growth, experiences, and overall arc are both more serious and more satisfying. I will admit that the movie adaptation of Harry Potter was handled much better than Disney’s adaptation of The Black Cauldron, which I’m sure has probably harmed the series in the long run, or at least not helped.

Speaking of The Black Cauldron, I think that book offers a good comparison between Taran and some of the other bildungsroman heroes in fantasy novels (including Harry Potter). Taran does some decidedly dumb things, like all of such heroes, but the growth from these mistakes is both obvious, and believable. In so many of these books the hero’s character is mentioned but they’re either inherently good or their growth is done in a kind of hand wavy fashion. Also in other books so much of the hero’s status comes not from their character, but from powers or a destiny inherent to them. Taran is not destined, and not special, and in the Black Cauldron, he actually acquires some powers, but by the end of the book he chooses to give them up for something more important. 

In any event, I thoroughly enjoyed these books. And I would definitely recommend them, particularly if you’re looking for something to give your child to read.


Euripides IV: Helen, The Phoenician Women, Orestes 

by: Euripides

290 pages

Who should read this book?

If you’re desperately trying to recreate the classical education you missed as a youth (or from being born in the 20th or 21st century) like me, then you should read Euripides, and frankly all of the Greek tragedies. But if you’re content to continue your vulgar plebeian lifestyle, I suppose you can skip them.

General Thoughts

What struck me while reading this latest collection of Greek tragedies was how focused the Greeks were on the stories of just a few families and events. Out of curiosity I decided to go back through all the books (and forward into the final book) and count it up. Here are the numbers I came up with:

Trojan War: 8 plays

The Family of Oedipus: 6 plays

Agamemnon’s Family: 8 plays

Hercules: 4 plays

None of the above: 8 plays

Does it seem interesting or remarkable to anyone other than me that over 75% of the extant plays are about four subjects? (And it might even be worse than that, the Trojan War looms pretty large in all of the plays about Agamemnon’s Family.) Surely I can’t be the only one who’s noticed this, but I don’t recall coming across any in-depth discussion of this quirk. Of course, I did use the word “extant” just then, and it’s possible that what I’m actually noticing is a selection bias present among the people preserving the plays, but that doesn’t change the strangeness it just moves it to a different location. Someone thought these few events and families were particularly important or story worthy, why was that? 

I don’t expect to offer any sort of satisfactory answer to that question in the space of a few paragraphs, but is it possible that we’re the outlier, not them? That most cultures and civilizations latch on to just a few defining events and stories, and that by having thousands of stories, we’re the weird ones? In support of that it would appear that this situation is relatively new historically. That before the advent of the TV, Americans were similar Greeks. Most of our stories were about the Founding or perhaps the Civil War. And before that stories from the Bible dominated things. 

As is so often the case in this blog we’re led to ask, has modernity made us better off or worse? What are the pros and cons? When there are only a few stories it’s easy to see how that might translate into a more unified culture, or even a religion. The Greeks had their pantheon of gods, and Christianity generally acted as a unifying force in the history of Western Europe. Finally the stories of the founding were unquestionably a large part of American civic religion. What happens if we don’t have stories to unify us? Does it indicate an inevitable fracturing of culture? If so is it a cause of the fracturing or a symptom?


A Secular Age

By: Charles Taylor

896 Pages

Who should read this book?

Someone who has many, many hours to spare and is deeply interested in modern secular behavior as compared to historical religious behavior, and how the latter led to the former.

General Thoughts

I mentioned this book in my last post, and it’s going to be impossible to do it justice in the space I have, not only is it long, but there are great insights on nearly every page, something illustrated by that last post when the whole thing derived from a single page of content.

Moving from the specific to the general, the book starts with the question, how did we go from a world in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which it’s just one choice among many, and not even a particularly high status one. The most common story told about this transition, particularly among unbelievers, is the story of subtraction. The idea that long ago the world was full of irrational ideas and behavior, but that progress and science gradually swept those things away, leaving only knowledge and morality until eventually all that was left was the enlightened state we’re in now. 

Taylor spends 800 pages comprehensively disproving that idea, if you’re lucky I may spend 8 paragraphs covering the whole book, but to give you a taste of the argument here’s one brief selection:

The logic of the subtraction story is something like this: once we slough off our concern with serving God, or attending to any other transcendent reality, what we’re left with is human good, and that is what modern societies are concerned with. But this radically under-describes what I’m calling modern humanism. That I am left with only human concerns doesn’t tell me to take universal human welfare as my goal, nor does it tell me that freedom is important, or fulfillment, or equality. Just being confined to human goods could just as well find expression in my concerning myself exclusively with my own material welfare, or that of my family or immediate milieu. The in fact very exigent demands of universal justice and benevolence which characterize modern humanism can’t be explained just by the subtraction of earlier goals and allegiances.

The key point Taylor is making is that our modern concept of human welfare isn’t what remains after we’ve eliminated religion, or even just once we’ve eliminated the “bad” parts, like superstitions and authoritarian tendencies. But rather religion is foundational and necessary. That even those parts people view as horribly backwards were important and necessary building blocks. That modern enlightened values would look very different if they didn’t start from a foundation of Western Christianty (and indeed such values are very different elsewhere in the world). 

I found this explanation interesting both for what it had to say about religion, but also what it had to say about progress in general. We see this same sense that subtraction is the answer in so much of the current social justice movement, for example the push to defund the police. With people claiming that if we just strip away the power of the police, that we’ll have less violence, but so far there’s good reason to believe that it’s the exact opposite. That modern policing has a lot of problems, but that it’s build on centuries of experimentation, that it’s not the last gasp of a racist past, but rather, as I said in another post, “it is the worst form of crime prevention except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

All of this ties into the deeper subject of human evil in a very interesting fashion. How do we deal with the fact that everyone is at least a little bit evil and some people are a lot evil. One answer, the one that people are protesting against, is that we set up a state, that state has a monopoly on the use of force and they grant that monopoly to the police, who then go around trying to prevent evil. But what Taylor points out is that the ideology of victimhood has a different answer for where evil resides and how to deal with it:

Then there is the victim scenario. This can colonize the Left. All evil is projected onto the others; they alone are the victimizers; we are pure victim. The liberal self feels relatively innocent, because (a) it sees the whole picture clearly, and (b) it is part of the solution. But this is compatible with recognizing some degree of one’s own fault in the disorder of the world. The victim scenario, on the other hand, a kind of deviant, secularized Christianity, achieves total innocence, at the cost of projecting total evil on the other. This can justify Bolshevik-type ruthlessness, as well as titanic action. We can see how this carries out both processes, which distance us from evil: we are part of the solution, and we are utterly other than those who inflict harm. We have no part with them.

I, for one, feel like he gets at something deep and important there, something entirely overlooked by other commenters. And also something that deserves a much fuller treatment than what I’m able to provide. Particularly since I still want to talk about the book from a religious angle. But I’ll put that in it’s own section. 


III- Religious Reviews 

A Secular Age (Continued)

Any discussion of a decline of religion, must inevitably touch on the place of religion in society. Is it, as atheists claim, the barbaric relic of an uncivilized past, something that should be dispensed with as soon as possible? Or is it a useful social construct, a piece of what it means to be civilized? Or is it a manifestation of something actually transcendent, whether that be God or some more nebulous universal force? Taylor himself is a believer, though I was hundreds of pages into the book before I was sure of that because his discussion of things was so objective. (Or so it appeared to me, I imagine others may quibble.)  And it was only at the end of the book that he really started to discuss the place of religion in society. And given that I can’t cover everything he discussed I’m going to focus on just a little over one page from the book, which has the added advantage of demonstrating how dense the book is. 

He starts by contrasting our belief in God to leaving the house without an umbrella:

I may leave the house without an umbrella because I believe the radio forecast to be reliable, and it predicted fair weather. But the difference between this kind of case and the issue we’re dealing with here, is first, that the weather, beyond the inconvenience of getting wet today, doesn’t matter to me in anything like the same way, and second that I have no alternative access to this afternoon’s weather than the forecast.

These two considerations are quite different when it comes to the existence of God. First, the answer to this question matters quite a bit, it may even be argued that the answer is the most important detail of our existence. Second, the whole promise of religion is that faith and the practice of that religion allows us an alternative and independent means of getting at the answer. Taylor points out that if we ignore these other means, and rely entirely on “science” to provide us with the answer that we are much like Othello in Shakespeare’s play of the same name.

I want to draw the Desdemona analogy. What makes Othello a tragedy, and not just a tale of misfortune, is that we hold its protagonist culpable in his too-ready belief of the evidence fabricated by Iago. He had an alternative mode of access to her innocence in Desdemona herself, if he could only have opened his heart/mind to her love and devotion. The fatal flaw in the tragic hero Othello is his inability to do this…

The reason why I can’t accept the arguments that “science has refuted God”, without any supplement, as an explanation of the rise of unbelief is that we are on this issue like Othello, rather than the person listening to the forecast as he hesitates before the umbrella stand. We can’t just explain what we do on the basis of the information we received from external sources, without seeing what we made of the internal ones.

[And so] the question remains: if the arguments in fact aren’t conclusive, why do they seem so convincing, where at other times and places God’s existence [seemed] just… [as] obvious? 

I latched on to this analogy because I have the same question as Taylor. I understand people who have queried these internal sources and in return have gotten nothing but silence. Who realize the importance of the question, just as Othello should have, and have done everything in their power to get information from Desdemona only to find her evasive or unavailable. It is the people who have never bothered to “question Desdemona” that I find so baffling. 


Let’s be honest I’m a pretty small fish, in a massive pond, but the advantage of that for you is that I’m actually very responsive to feedback. For example reinstituting one of my book review sections based on an off-handed remark on Twitter. But of course what I respond the best to are donations.


Picking an End Point for the Revolution

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For the moment let’s assume that things need to change in the US, and probably the entire world. That we have serious and urgent problems which need fixing. For most people I imagine this assumption isn’t particularly controversial, though before we proceed with it, it’s probably worth at least mentioning the idea that this assumption could be wrong, that perhaps the problems we experience are neither serious nor particularly urgent. To at least entertain the notion that things are actually awesome and all of the current turmoil is self-generated drama. That, as Steven Pinker says in the opening to his book Enlightenment Now, a “bleak assessment of the state of the world is wrong. And not just a little wrong—wrong wrong, flat-earth wrong, couldn’t-be-more-wrong.”

Of course as anyone who has dealt with self-generated drama knows, it can cause quite a few problems without necessarily being based on anything concrete. Which is to say even if we factor Pinker’s assertion into our calculations I still think it’s pretty safe to assume that things need to change. From here we can imagine two ways that this might happen. We could work within the existing system, and make gradual changes to the framework that already exists. Or we can ditch the old system and replace it with a completely new and presumably better system. 

In my last post I examined a proposal that fell into the latter category, one that proposed a completely new system of racial justice, and found that it suffered from a distressing lack of pragmatism. In this post I want to examine the general idea of completely replacing a system rather than gradually modifying the current system. And right off the bat I want to make the bold claim that a complete replacement never works, or if it does it takes so much longer than anyone ever thought it would when things began that the effect is the same.

To be clear when I’m talking about a complete replacement I mean nothing less than a revolution. Something which clearly separates one form of government and ideology from another. In the interest of full disclosure I draw most of my knowledge about revolutions from the excellent podcast of the same name by Mike Duncan, and out of the modern revolutions he covers I think three are worth discussing here: the American, French and Russian.

To begin with you may already be thinking, “But the American Revolution worked! I thought you said revolutions never worked?” I actually didn’t say that, I said a complete replacement never works. And, while it’s impossible to completely replace your system of government without a revolution, it is possible to have a revolution without completely replacing your system of government. To illustrate what I mean it’s instructive to contrast the American and French Revolutions. Why was one successful, while the other was largely unsuccessful? (Unless you consider Napoleon some sort of win condition…) This disparity would make sense if the unsuccessful revolution had occurred first. You could imagine that the second time someone attempted an “enlightened” revolution that the revolutionaries would have learned from all the mistakes of the first, and as such it would be more likely to be successful, but in fact it’s the reverse.  Another factor that might have played a role in things was the fact that the Americans were rebelling against an external power, while the French were largely rebelling against themselves. Certainly this disparity has to be taken into account, but I wouldn’t put too much weight on it. The Revolutionary War was more loyalists vs. patriots than it was colonists vs. England, and it was much closer to a civil war than an indigenous rebellion. So why did the one fail while the other succeeded?

I’ve been interested in this question for a long time, how is it that these two revolutions, so close in time and goals, had such different outcomes? Just recently I read something which seemed to answer it. It was a passage in the book, A Secular Age by Charles Taylor. It’s a massive, incredibly dense tome which clocks in at 874 pages. And I’m going to attempt to do some justice to it in the July book review round-up, but for now I just want to focus on one little part of it: a section comparing the American and French Revolutions:

The [American] revolutionary forces were mobilized largely on the basis of the old backward-looking legitimacy idea. [The revolution] will later be seen as the exercise of a power inherent in a sovereign people. The proof of its existence and legitimacy lies in the new polity it created. But popular sovereignty would have been incapable of doing this job if it had entered the scene too soon. The predecessor idea, invoking the traditional rights of a people defined by its ancient constitution, had to do the original heavy lifting…

…this projection backwards of the action of a sovereign people wouldn’t have been possible without the continuity in institutions and practices which allowed for the reinterpretation of past actions as the fruit of the new principles. The essence of this continuity resided in the virtually universal acceptance among the colonists of elected assemblies as legitimate forms of power. Popular sovereignty could be embraced because it had a clear and uncontested institutional meaning. This was the basis of the new order. 

In other words the American Revolution worked because of the things it modified rather than the things it dispensed with. The various legislative bodies present in the colonies and in the mother country formed the foundation for the new system they ended up with. Without that foundation already in place they would have found it impossible to build something new. On the other hand:

Quite different was the case in the French Revolution, with fateful effects. The impossibility remarked by all historians of “bringing the Revolution to an end” came partly from this, that any particular expression of popular sovereignty could be challenged by some other, with substantial support. Part of the terrifying instability of the first years of the Revolution stemmed from this negative fact, that the shift from the legitimacy of dynastic rule to that of the nation had no agreed meaning in a broadly based social imaginary. 

[Edmund] Burke’s advice to the revolutionaries was to stick to their traditional constitution and amend it piecemeal. But this was already beyond their powers. It was not just that the representative institutions of this constitution, the Estates General, had been in abeyance for 175 years. They were also profoundly out of sync with the aspiration to equal citizenship…That is why virtually the first demand of the Third Estate in 1789 was to abolish the separate chambers, and bring all the delegates together in a single National Assembly. 

Even more gravely, outside of [the] educated elites, there was very little sense of what a representative constitution might mean.

In both revolutions they had the idea of popular sovereignty, the difference was that for the American Revolution popular sovereignty had a “clear and uncontested institutional meaning” whereas in the French Revolution, there was “very little sense of what a representative constitution might mean.” And consequently any “particular expression of popular sovereignty” could be supplanted by any other “expression of popular sovereignty”. The American Revolution had a logical endpoint, the French Revolution didn’t. That was why one was a success and one wasn’t and it’s also the key difference between making changes within a system and trying to implement an entirely new system, as long as you keep the old system you also keep an endpoint, but once you abandon it, you also abandon any obvious markers for declaring the thing finished. 

I leave it for the reader to judge whether the current political unrest represents an example of something where the radical changes being demanded will nevertheless ultimately use the current system as a foundation, i.e. is there in fact an obvious stopping point. Or whether it falls into the category of revolutions which entirely reject the old system. Or whether it should be considered to be a revolution at all. What I’m more interested in at the moment is the historical perspective. Which takes us to the other revolution I said I was going to cover, the Russian Revolution.

There is an argument to be made that this was both a successful revolution and a revolution that thoroughly and comprehensively rejected the previous system. For myself, I would certainly agree with the last half of the argument, Russian communism was clearly something entirely new, it’s the first half that I take issue with. Yes, if your sole criteria is whether a new ideology took power, and held onto that power, it was a success, but when you consider the millions and millions of people who died in the course of making that happen, it’s not a success I think that anyone should want to emulate. And in any consideration of the Russian revolution that would be the lesson I’d want people to come away with. But if you assure me that you have absorbed that lesson, I think the lessons that came from how that revolution ended are valuable as well.

To pull all three revolutions together, and restate things: in order for the revolution to end there has to be a point where most people admit that it has ended. For the American Revolution that end point was independence and a revised system of elected assemblies. For the French Revolution they had the supposed end point of achieving popular sovereignty, but no one could agree on precisely how they would know when that was achieved. The end point of the Russian Revolution was more complicated, there was the overt and widely proclaimed goal of total economic leveling, but this was combined with the more covert endpoint of a select group of people seizing power. In making these comparisons I’m hand waving numerous very complex situations, but distilled out, I think the Russian Revolution provides two additional examples of how things might end, 1) the ideology motivating the revolution could provide a clearly defined endpoint. Or 2) the revolution could be led by people powerful enough to call a halt to things when they’re satisfied. Out of these two it is unclear if either is sufficient to end things by itself, but if one of them is, it would have to be having strong leaders.

As I said, I’m not ready to declare what sort of revolution is taking place right now, or if it even is a revolution. But if it is, then it would appear to be in danger of falling prey to the phenomenon I’ve been talking about, the lack of any obvious endpoint. The clearest way this manifests is in the lack of leaders, something which has been brought up a lot in this space particularly in the comments, but which seems to pass mostly unremarked upon everywhere else. Or at least I haven’t seen any really serious grappling with what this might mean in the mainstream press. Which is surprising because it represents a huge difference between past protests and now. And even if I’m over-reaching when I argue that this lack of leaders is going to make it harder to bring things to a close, I can’t see anyone arguing that it doesn’t significantly alter the dynamic. 

The effect of ideology is more nebulous, but as I argued in previous posts, the protesters seem to have a whole constellation of demands, none of which are particularly pragmatic, or even well-defined. But from a high level view, and at the risk of being too simplistic, it feels like if the French Revolution was motivated by popular sovereignty that the current protests are motivated by the idea of justice. And if anything it seems even tricker to decide when justice has been achieved than it was to establish when popular sovereignty had been. As Taylor pointed out, “any particular expression of popular sovereignty could be challenged by some other, with substantial support.” Couldn’t we adapt that, and with equal accuracy say, “any particular demand for justice could be superseded by some other, with substantial support”?

You might assert that simplifying things down to the idea of justice goes too far, that they are not demanding some form of unreachable platonic justice, for all people and for all times, that their ideology is more complicated, but if anything doesn’t that make it even worse? If the French couldn’t agree on the meaning of popular sovereignty, and the Russian revolution only stopped after millions of deaths, and the imposition of a dictatorship, what makes you think, should this actually be a true revolution, that having lots of competing ideas about what needs to be accomplished will make declaring an end to things easier?

Lest you think I’m overstating the complexity of things here is just a half dozen points from the website blacklivesmatter.com:

  1. We make space for transgender brothers and sisters to participate and lead.
  2. We are self-reflexive and do the work required to dismantle cisgender privilege.
  3. We build a space that affirms Black women and is free from sexism, misogyny, and environments in which men are centered.
  4. We disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement.
  5. When we gather, we do so with the intention of freeing ourselves from the tight grip of heteronormative thinking.
  6. We embody and practice justice, liberation, and peace.

I’m not necessarily saying that any of the above is bad (though I think some points bring a lot of negative second order effects) nor am I necessarily claiming blacklivesmatter.com speaks for all of the protestors (though that takes us back to the lack of leadership) I’m saying that these points are nebulous (what has to occur for us to be sure that cisgender priviledge is dismantled?) and also numerous. 

As I mention, I’m not sure how this is going to play out over the next few weeks and months (or years). What I am saying is that if the protests are expected to continue until every item on the list is checked off, then the expected duration starts to approach infinity. Of course, no one is patient enough for an infinitely long process, which is why people want to speed things up. And that’s how we switch from gradually remaking the existing system into violently imposing an entirely new system. 

In the end, the caution I’m urging here is closely related to the caution I’ve been urging in all of my recent posts:

  • Don’t panic so much over the first mistake, that you make a second bigger mistake. While I’m not saying the excesses of the French Revolution were worse than the abuses of the Ancien Régime. It should have been possible to do something about those abuses without The Terror.
  • If you are going to try something radical, try it on a small scale rather than at the level of the entire nation. In 1900 it was reasonable to argue that Communism would be a better system of government than market capitalism, but rather than start with a modest experiment, they imposed it at the point of a gun in two of the biggest nations in the world, Russia and China, and it led to millions of deaths.
  • Things are more complicated than you think. At the time of the French Revolution, (particularly in light of the American Revolution) it may have seemed straightforward to implement something completely new, but there are always all manner of complexities and systems you’re almost entirely unaware of.
  • There are lots of different ways of viewing the world, and getting everyone on the same page is more difficult than you think. If you’re creating chaos in an attempt to disrupt the current system, how do you turn that chaos off? For the French it was essentially Napoleon. For the Russians it was Lenin or possibly Stalin. For the Americans it was elected assemblies. Who or what turns off the current chaos?
  • And of course the last post where I directly address the lack of pragmatism in the ideology of Critical Race Theory.

To all of that I would like to repeat my caution from the beginning of the post, trying to completely replace the system never works. So if we want to succeed, if we want to address the problems of police brutality and income inequality and the rest, we need to build on what we have. I know that this is not what people want to hear, but before you dismiss it, take a minute to consider the differences between the American and French Revolutions, and in particular the horrors of the Russian Revolution. I know it seems impossible to go from what’s happening now, to either the French or Russian Revolutions, but had you asked the French in May of 1789 or the Russians in January of 1917 I’m sure that what actually happened would have seemed impossible to them as well…


This is actually my 200th post. I thought about doing something meta, or special, but in the end I decided not to. However, if you wanted to give me a gift, becoming a patreon would be at the top of my list…


Liberalism vs. Critical Race Theory (A Distressing Lack of Pragmatism)

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As you may or may not have noticed one of my primary intellectual projects since the death of George Floyd has been an attempt to understand the underlying issues (some might say the underlying corruption) which lead to his death, and to further understand the various proposals being put forth for fixing these issues (or uprooting this corruption). I will say that in the beginning, my lack of understanding led me to avoid the subject, or at least approach it very gingerly, which was almost certainly the best course of action, and it might still be the wisest course of action. But given that the debate which ensued shows no signs of fading away and, added to that, recent developments like the Harper’s Letter and letters written in opposition to that letter, and violent clashes between BLM and Blue Lives Matter protesters, ignoring things seems increasingly a form of abdication, particularly when I see very important points apparently getting overlooked by everyone.

This time around my attention was drawn to these “overlooked things” by an article in the Economist: Enlightenment liberalism is losing ground in the debate about race, by Diane Ejaita. This article was sent to me by a friend who has, himself, followed a trajectory of growing disenchantment with “Enlightenment liberalism” and who appreciated this article:

I like the way this article balances the issue. The author clearly leans towards enlightenment liberalism but frankly acknowledges the fact that it has failed to bring about adequate solutions to the problems of race in America.

To begin with, he’s correct. I don’t know that I’ve seen a better attempt than this article at explaining the conflict between these two ideologies, a conflict which has gotten increasingly heated, particularly among those traditionally on the classically liberal left. And yet despite this article being as good as it gets, I believe that it contains a number of egregious assumptions that need to be pointed out. It’s perhaps arrogant of me to think that I’m the man to do it, but it really feels like someone has to. 

Before getting to that, it’s possible that you’re not clear on what the two competing ideologies are. From the article:

To understand all this, it is worth going back to the battle of ideas. In one corner is liberalism, with its tarnished record, and in the other the anti-liberal theories emerging from the campus to challenge it.

It is indeed worth discussing this battle of ideas, in fact while other things might be more important in the short term, ten or twenty years from now the results of this ideological debate will be the element that had the greatest impact on the world.

As I said, on the whole, the article was a great discussion of the tensions currently in play and why liberalism is “on the ropes”. It’s not it’s general point, but rather the assumptions and evidence used to buttress that general point that need to be reexamined. Yes there is a conflict between these two ideologies, and there should be, but Ejaita makes several points which serve to understate the strengths of liberalism and overstate the case for anti-liberal alternatives. Accordingly the rest of the post will largely be me quoting a specific passage and then pointing out what’s wrong with it. As I do this it’s possible I’ll read too much into these individual statements, that I’ll miss some of the nuances, or that my objections will veer towards stridency. Feel free to call me out on that, as I said this debate is important, and I genuinely don’t want to strawman the other side.

With all that out of the way, here’s the first statement that jumped out at me:

But [liberalism’s] poor record on race, especially with regard to African-Americans, stands out. Income, wealth, education and incarceration remain correlated with ethnicity to a staggering degree. True, great steps have been taken against overt racial animus. But the lack of progress means liberals must have either tried and failed to create a society in which people of all races can flourish, or failed to try at all.

This paragraph manages to be contradictory, and overly simplistic at the same time. In one breath it mentions the “great steps” which have been taken against “overt” racial animus, and then goes on to speculate that liberalism might have failed to try “at all”. Which is it? Because it clearly can’t be both. Or does all of this hinge on the overt part? Is it that liberalism has failed to make any attempt at eradicating inner racism? First, efforts were being made to police language, jokes and attitudes as far back as the 70s. So, secondly, it seems clear that the answer is that they tried and failed, because third, it’s an exceptionally difficult problem, and it’s not as if “anti-liberal theories emerging from campuses” have stumbled on a fool-proof way of accomplishing it which people have just refused to adopt. If anything they seem equally clueless, a point I’ll be returning to.

Ejaita goes on:

And although slavery is a near-universal feature of pre-Enlightenment societies, the Atlantic slave trade is notable for having been tied to notions of racial superiority.

This is a very strange sentence. Is she actually implying that enlightenment societies, which she admits are the only societies where slavery ended up not being “nearly universal” should nevertheless share equal (or perhaps greater?) guilt with pre-Enlightenment societies because the slavery of those societies wasn’t racist? First I’m not entirely sure it’s as clear cut as she claims, every civilization had an out-group that they considered worthy of enslavement, and while I’m no expert on this, I’d be surprised if there weren’t other examples of enslavement based around race. And there was certainly enslavement based on nationality and religion. Also even if the Atlantic slave trade was uniquely bad because it was based on racial superiority, do the enlightenment societies not get any credit for being the first societies to put and end to it? And in the case of the US, at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives?

The article then spends a few paragraphs talking about colonialism, and insofar as The Economist is a UK publication that makes sense, but even in the UK, I don’t think it does much to illuminate the problem, and it’s a particularly weird tangent when you turn to a discussion of the United States. I haven’t heard any reports of Filipino grievances being part of the recent protests, and while the Puerto Rican independence movement was a big thing in the middle of the last century, including an attempted assassination of Truman, the last time a vote was taken on independence 60% wanted to be a state and only 5.5% wanted independence, and that percentage has been stable going all the way back to 1967.

After this detour into colonialism, Ejaita makes her way into the 60s and discusses the civil rights era and affirmative action. Shortly thereafter is also when the main competitor to liberalism enters the story:

As the gains of the civil-rights era failed to translate into sustained progress for African-Americans, dissatisfaction with liberalism set in. One of the first to respond was Derrick Bell, a legal scholar working at Harvard in the 1970s. “Critical race theory”, which fused French post-modernism with the insights of African-Americans like Frederick Douglass, an abolitionist and former slave, and W.E.B. Du Bois, a sociologist, then emerged.

Over the decades other concepts like intersectionality (“A black woman could lose a case of discrimination against an employer who could show that he did not discriminate against black men or white women”) have been added to this package, until eventually:

[C]ritical race theory has flourished, spreading to education, political science, gender studies, history and beyond. HR departments use its terminology. Allusions to “white privilege” and “unconscious bias” are commonplace. Over 1,000 CEOs, including those of firms such as JPMorgan Chase, Pfizer and Walmart, have joined an anti-racism coalition and promised that their staff will undertake unconscious-bias training (the evidence on its efficacy is limited). Critical race theory informs the claim that the aim of journalism is not “objectivity” but “moral clarity”.

There’s a lot to unpack here… First off, if critical race theory is ubiquitous, why is it also largely ineffective? We come to this conclusion based not only on the fact that injustice is still ubiquitous (should we not be able to point to someplace as a success story? Perhaps academia?) but also the admission of the article itself, which offers one concrete recommendation and then goes on to say, “the evidence on its efficacy is limited”. Are you beginning to see a thread? Critical race theory (CRT) seems big on rhetoric, but short on practical solutions. Secondly she makes this incredibly sweeping claim in the last sentence, that the “aim of journalism is not ‘objectivity’ but ‘moral clarity’”. If clarity is not objective it can only be subjective, and subjective clarity seems at best an oxymoron and at worst the sort of thing that proceeds all of the worst revolutionary excesses throughout history. Beyond this, attempts to achieve “moral certainty” stretch back at least to the Greeks, so I’m inclined to doubt that we’ve suddenly solved it in the last few decades with the invention of CRT. 

In fact, that last sentence actually reminds me a lot of the most striking passage from Bari Weiss’ resignation letter:

Instead, a new consensus has emerged in the press, but perhaps especially at this paper: that truth isn’t a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job is to inform everyone else. 

Weiss offers it up as a criticism but Ejaita seems to be offering up a functionally identical statement, and touting it as a strength. It can’t be both, and it seems far more likely for it to be the former than the latter. Moving on: 

The philosophical mechanics that bolt together critical race theory can be obscure. But the approach is elegantly engineered into bestselling books such as “How To Be An Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi and “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo.

I have not read Kendi’s book, but I did read DiAngelo’s and it was anything but elegant. Not only is her argument undermined by the paradox I mentioned in that previous discussion. (Racism is fantastically evil. All white people are racist. But white people are fragile if they ever react negatively to being accused of racism.) But she frequently admits as part of the book the same thing mentioned in the article, that her trainings don’t appear to have any noticeable effect on people’s attitude, to say nothing of actually solving the problem. 

I think you’ve probably long ago been able to see where I was going with all of this, but before we get there, one more quote from the article:

The appeal of critical race theory—or at least its manifestation in popular writing—is partly that it confidently prescribes what should be done to fight injustice….

Liberals have no such simple prescription. 

Here we see, spelled out, my central problem with CRT. From everything I can see the situation is exactly the opposite of the section I just quoted. Enlightenment liberalism has a whole host of pragmatic techniques and suggestions which have been tried and tested over hundreds of years. CRT is the side that appears completely lacking in pragmatism.

Let’s compare, liberalism’s first great idea for fighting injustice was very straightforward, let’s end slavery. Which they did. No only is this a “simple prescription” but it’s very important to remember that before liberalism, as the article itself admits, slavery was nearly universal. Liberalism is essentially the first system to come up with this idea and implement it on a large scale. 100 years later when that didn’t work liberalism next recommended passing laws that further outlawed discrimination, while also allowing for positive, “rectificatory justice” (a phrase from the article) like affirmative action. Finally, underlying all of this was the commitment to a free and open exchange of ideas so that if there were any areas where we hadn’t arrived at the truth, we eventually would. I bow to no one in my criticism of the idea that enlightened liberalism is some sort of unstoppable force. I think there’s all sorts of reasons why it’s force might be spent, but it should at least get credit for what it already accomplished!

In the other corner, critical race theory, which as far as I can tell has three major practical, policy recommendations: unconscious-bias training, defunding the police, and reparations. We’ve already discussed how evidence for the effectiveness of the first is limited. Defunding the police is an interesting idea, which I’ve expressed support for trying on a limited basis, but I have yet to see someone offer up a community or nation as an example of where this is already working (most examples I’ve seen of better policing involve giving the police more money) which makes it less a practical suggestion than an untested hypothesis. Finally there’s reparations, which again, is an interesting idea, but from the standpoint of practicality, it’s a nightmare of genealogy, logistics, history and ideology.

Now to be clear, here is what I’m not arguing. I’m not arguing that liberalism is fast. I’m not arguing that there are no blind spots. I’m not arguing that eventually liberalism will fix everything if we just wait long enough. I’m not even arguing that CRT doesn’t have anything useful to add to policies and behavior. Rather what I am arguing is that most of the criticisms of liberalism which have gotten so much attention over the last few weeks share a distressing lack of pragmatism. And that people don’t even seem to be aware of this weakness. Arguing, as for example in this article, that it’s in fact the other way around, that CRT has “confident prescriptions”, that it’s possible that liberalism has “failed to try at all” and that CRT brings a “moral clarity” which has somehow been overlooked for centuries. 

Pulling everything together, it’s not entirely clear what the article’s point is. There are lots of parts (like the ones I’ve quoted) where Ejaita frames things as a contest between liberalism and anti-liberal theories, in particular CRT, and indicates that the latter has the edge in this contest. But then in the concluding paragraph there’s no mention of the competition or of anti-liberal alternatives:

Plenty of people are trying to work out what [putting right past failures] entails, but the practicalities are formidable. Having failed adequately to grapple with racial issues, liberals find themselves in a political moment that demands an agenda which is both practically and politically feasible. The risk is that they do not find one.

I couldn’t agree more that the “practicalities are formidable” and that the “political moment…demands an agenda that is both practically and politically feasible.” What I don’t understand is what Ejaita means by that very last sentence. I see three possible interpretations:

  1. The “risk” being discussed is a risk to the project of liberalism. If it can’t come up with an “agenda which is both practically and politically feasible”, it and its supporters will be sidelined, similar to what happened to, say, communists, but the world as a whole will pivot to anti-liberal theories and be fine. 
  2. Despite significant discussion of alternatives to liberalism, Ejaita understands that it is really the only game in town, and the risk to us all is that if it can’t figure out how to fix racial disparities there’s nothing concrete to take its place and we’re all doomed.
  3. That despite only mentioning liberals in the concluding paragraph, the point of the article is that all ideologies find themselves in this same political moment with the same demands for an “agenda which is both practically and politically feasible” and the “risk” is that no ideology will find itself adequate to the task, and we’re all doomed. 

You can see how the text seems to point strongly in the direction of the first interpretation, which in my opinion is naive to the point of being dangerous. Because as far as I can tell a practical and politically feasible agenda is precisely what CRT and anti-liberal theories lack. My own opinion would be closer to the second interpretation, and it is possible that’s what she’s saying, certainly if you consider the final paragraph in isolation, that seems like the most straightforward reading. 

But if we grant that CRT or something similar is a viable alternative (frankly, I’m not convinced that it is) then it should be held to the same standards of practicality and political feasibility as liberalism, or what I pointed out as the final interpretation. But neither this article nor the many supporters of anti-liberal theories seem to be demanding that standard or putting forth this interpretation of our “political moment”. But the risk that no ideology will find itself equal to the task is very real.

I understand the concerns of my friends and of this article and others like it about the weaknesses of liberalism, but if the choice is between something which has been working (albeit nowhere close to perfectly) for centuries, and something entirely unproven, with recommendations that are either vague, radical or both, I choose to be a defender of liberalism.


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Traffic Lights and Modern Epistemology

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The other day I was on Hacker News, and someone had taken advantage of the Ask HN feature  to inquire where they could go for dispassionate discussion now that Slate Star Codex was gone. I have tried to go back and find that post, and I couldn’t, so I may be misrepresenting some of the details here, but if my memory is correct the top comment was by someone who made the point that a dispassionate discussion of something could only occur if it didn’t involve the people affected, which was exactly the wrong way to have a discussion and what has been happening with too many social issues up until this point. Implied further in this comment was the idea that dispassionate discussion was the wrong way to solve a problem.

This comment brought up an important and necessary point… Up until the moment where it started talking about solutions. Certainly you wouldn’t want to exclude the people affected by an issue from a discussion of that issue. Even if, and perhaps especially if, the issue made them angry, and the discussion ended up not being dispassionate because of that anger. But at a certain point, what we really want to do is solve the problem in the best fashion possible, which requires objectivity, and yes, some dispassionate discussion. In other words it may be perfectly justifiable for people to be angry; it may be and probably is important for them to have their say, to explain exactly why they’re so angry; but in the end anger is rarely the best strategy for solving the problem. In fact, if you allow the most angry to dominate the discussion, you’re far more likely to end up with a really bad solution than the best solution.

Perhaps an analogy would help to illustrate what I mean. To leave my neighborhood and head south I nearly always have to stop at a particular traffic light. On occasion I end up waiting at this light for what seems like forever, because it’s heavily biased in the other direction. As the minutes drag on (full disclosure: I believe the longest I’ve ever waited is a hair under three minutes) I get understandably annoyed, and sometimes, if I’m already in a bad mood, by the time the light changes I’m pretty angry.

The other morning that’s exactly what was happening, I was waiting at this light for what seemed like a very long time and getting increasingly annoyed at it. But this time I noticed something, after all that time when it eventually turned green, there were only two cars waiting, me and another guy opposite me, while during the time I had been waiting many cars had passed in the other direction. Which led me to wonder if perhaps, when considering all the traffic that passed through that intersection, if the system made sense. This was actually not the first time I had had this thought (though it was the first time I noticed how meager the traffic was on my street) but it’s easy to forget the system as a whole when you’re being inconvenienced by one part of the system. 

But what does it mean for the system to “make sense”? Or to consider my specific case, I was angry at this light because it was constantly causing me discomfort, but I had never really engaged with the question: what system should be used to calibrate that light? 

Some possibilities:

  1. Would you calibrate it based on time of day? (Indeed if you show up before 6:30 the light just automatically changes as soon as someone approaches the intersection, and I definitely prefer the system in operation before 6:30 to the one after.) 
  2. Would you base it on what the city council felt was fair? Perhaps take a vote on the calibration of every intersection? Maybe even expand that vote to everyone? 
  3. Perhaps, rather than try to optimize every intersection you might just place every street into one of three buckets based on the level of traffic, perhaps high, medium and low, and then categorize intersections based on a matrix. The intersection of two high traffic streets would get one setting, while the intersection of a low traffic street with a high traffic street (my intersection, presumably) would get a different setting.
  4. Would you measure traffic in each direction? Track the time each car had to wait, add it together and try to make the two directions equal? (i.e. If I have to wait for three minutes then that’s fair if it equals 6 cars waiting 30 seconds in the other direction).
  5. Similar to the foregoing but with a different metric, you might be trying to minimize the pollution generated by idling cars, and while time spent waiting would be part of it there might be other factors as well, like managing how many cars are accelerating after being stopped.
  6. Finally, we might use anger as our guide for adjusting the light. Perhaps the method just mentioned of aggregating the wait times in both directions never makes the people going the other direction annoyed, but makes the people going my direction furious. You might try to optimize for lowest aggregate anger, and find that you could make people going the other direction stop more often without an appreciable increase in their anger but with a significant reduction in my anger.

Beyond the methods mentioned above there are still other standards I didn’t mention, for example I had a co-worker many years ago who was convinced that businesses paid the city to increase stoppage at nearby intersections as a form of advertising. The point being that, while it would certainly be unfair if I had no say in how this traffic light worked, the problem of calibrating even a single traffic light is pretty complicated one. It may be that when you really dig into things, the best system might end up being one which causes me quite a bit of delay. And as you can see, even deciding on the system to decide if a delay is justified is complicated.

All of the foregoing falls under the heading of epistemology: the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion. Am I justified in believing the traffic light is unfair, or is that just an opinion, how do we define what’s fair? I might prefer it if the light just changed as soon as I approached it, but that system is almost certainly not optimal during rush hour. I might accept that total aggregate time is a good way of determining fairness without necessarily being happy about it, and depending on the evidence, I’m sure I could be talked into a road classification system of three categories, on the basis that the measurements required for other systems are difficult to make. In fact, I’d probably be okay with any of the methods I mentioned (not the businesses paying for stoppage one of course, and the aggregate anger one probably leads somewhere bad as well). Of course, part of being this magnanimous is that this issue is very low stakes. 

But what if the stakes were much greater? What if I was convinced that one method for determining the length of a traffic light increased the chances of me dying at the intersection? Or that another method might cut economic growth in half? I might be far more invested in how this decision was made, and far less likely to accept any old system. And it gets even worse when all methods have seriously bad outcomes and we’re being asked merely to choose which bad outcome we prefer. I might choose a small increase in the fatality rate over halving economic growth, whereas someone else might make the opposite choice, and assume I’m a horrible person for putting people’s lives at risk.

Of course this is not a new problem, rather it’s a very old problem, and in the past intractable problems have been solved by things like war, enslavement, dictatorial powers, and just about any other injustice you can imagine. But over the last several centuries we developed some tools for avoiding the worst of those injustices. Things like freedom of religion and speech, widespread democracy, rule of law, etc. Now I’m not suggesting that any of these things are free of flaws, they are in fact riddled with them, but before we cast them aside it’s important to remind ourselves how bad it was historically.

At this point it would probably be beneficial to talk about epistemology using examples of things people are actually getting worked up about, rather than the example of a nearby traffic light. In doing this I hope to pick topics where the differences in opinion are easy to see, but not so great that they overwhelm the discussion, I’m not sure I’ll succeed in this, so I ask for some patience as I proceed. With that said let’s look at some current events through the lens of a few different epistemological frameworks.

One well known framework that seems to be getting a lot of attention these days is the one Scott Alexander described in his post Conflict vs. Mistake (link goes to an archive.org version since SSC is still deleted, and the NYT still hasn’t published its article). It’s a pretty good post and you should probably just read it, but for those that don’t. It describes two ways of viewing political struggles, mistake theory and conflict theory: 

Mistake theorists treat politics as science, engineering, or medicine. The State is diseased. We’re all doctors, standing around arguing over the best diagnosis and cure. Some of us have good ideas, others have bad ideas that wouldn’t help, or that would cause too many side effects.

Conflict theorists treat politics as war. Different blocs with different interests are forever fighting to determine whether the State exists to enrich the Elites or to help the People.

Clearly my description of the traffic light issue is a description from the perspective of mistake theory. (Though the aggregate anger methodology comes close to conflict theory.) That there is some optimal way to time traffic lights, and we just need to figure out what it is, that there is no war between people traveling north and south at the intersection and those traveling east and west. But of course when you scale things up, things become a lot more muddy, which takes us to the subject of statues. 

As I believe I mentioned, one of the statues which got torn down was that of an abolitionist who fought and died in the Civil War. People operating from mistake theory will describe that as a mistake and go on to identify similar mistakes on both sides of the issue. It was a mistake to put up statues to Confederate generals. It was a mistake (a very bad one) when George Floyd was killed, so if we can identify what statues are mistakes and which are not, we’ll take the former down and leave the latter alone, and if we can identify the policies and training and culture which lead to Floyd’s death we’ll fix those too and eventually we’ll be able to put the whole issue to bed.

On the other hand, from the conflict theory side of things focusing on mistakes is just a way of getting back to the same crappy status quo as soon as possible. Of deflecting the discussion away from systemic racism into a discussion of whether people went too far when they tore down the statue of Frederick Douglass. Of a path that leads to a few tiny reforms, but that basically keeps the same corrupt police around doing the same awful things. Conflict theory would go on to say that TV networks didn’t do dumb things like remove episodes of Golden Girls, Community and 30 Rock, because they’re combatting racism, they did it because they’re obviously on the side of the elites, and doing that deflects attention away from real grievances to trivial ones. And finally, that it doesn’t matter which statues get torn down, because tearing down statues is a great way of showing passion, and passion is the only thing that’s going to sustain the unity of the oppressed long enough for them to get what has long been denied them. 

When considering this dichotomy of mistakes vs. conflicts, it’s hard for me not to see the world through the lens of mistake theory, and I think most of my posts, including this one, naturally proceed from that epistemology. But in my more pessimistic moments it seems obvious that at some fundamental level it’s all about conflict, and always has been, and that the enlightenment tools I mentioned earlier, like freedom of speech, etc. were just exceptionally clever ways of masking the conflict, or that they contained the conflict, but only temporarily. Or perhaps they represent a Noble Lie, an ideology that is fundamentally untrue, but which works to maintain social harmony.

As something of an aside, it’s interesting to note that you can see this epistemological split in the political parties, and it appears to be widening. On the right clearly the Trump/alt-right branch are the conflict theorists, and the Mitt Romney/Neo-con branch are the mistake theorists. While on the left Obama/Biden/Clinton are largely mistake theorists, while Sanders and the people currently protesting are conflict theorists. I couldn’t say what this means for the country as a whole, but it’s probably bad.

Mistake vs. conflict is not the only way of looking at things, though it covers a lot of territory, and the next framework I describe may just be a subcategory of it.

There was a time, and I’m old enough to remember it, when the history of the country was pretty sanitized. People who talked about Washington didn’t mention his slaves, and when discussing JFK you didn’t mention his mistresses. Manifest destiny was the obvious next step in the progress of the nation, and the cowboys were always the good guys. I want to call this an epistemology of national greatness. That what was true, or at least what was emphasized were those things that made the country and its history look noble, and of course this took in all the things that led to the formation of the US, so Columbus is obviously a great figure with statues and holidays, not the first in a long line of bad Europeans. 

Of course this way of determining truth or what to celebrate and emphasis isn’t particularly scientific, or empirical. And so at some point in the last century (almost certainly before I was in school, but these things take a while to trickle down) that narrative switched to an emphasis on not only uncovering the bad things, but emphasizing them to make up for lost time. Of making sure that when you talk about Jefferson his affair with Sally Hemmings has a prominent place. That when talking about westward expansion you discuss the Native Americans and broken treaties for at least as much time as you discuss the settlers, and so forth.

What’s interesting about this, and really why I’m talking about this framework at all, is that it turns out it’s much more difficult to achieve agreement and unity under this system than using the national greatness system. You would think that by really emphasizing facts, that it would be easier to get people on the same page, but it’s actually harder. Under national greatness, if someone or something was important in the history of the country then they’re worth celebrating. It’s a narrative that’s self reinforcing. We celebrate important events and people. How do we know they’re important? Because we celebrate them! But once you pivot to facts you can generate all manner of narratives. 

How does the fact of Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemmings relate to the fact that Jefferson was the author of the Declaration of Independence? Oh, and are you 100% sure Jefferson did have a relationship with Hemmings? Under the standard of national greatness the narrative is easy, Jefferson was important in the history of the country so we celebrate him, and put up statues and monuments to him regardless of his failings, which we either ignore or mention in some footnote. Under a standard of using the facts to determine whether we should celebrate Jefferson, we can come up with at least a dozen narratives, and each one has a different recommendation for what to do with the Jefferson Memorial. And to be clear I’m not saying this is bad, I prefer to get the facts out, but when you compare the America of today with the America of, say, the 60s one of the big differences is the shift from a patriotic, national greatness epistemology to this one.

As one final thought before we move on, I’ve never quite understood why the North was so willing to spend massive amounts of blood and treasure to prevent the South from seceding. But just now I reconsidered it through the epistemological framework of national greatness and it clarified things in a way that nothing previously had, which is not to say I don’t still have questions, but viewing it through that lens was very illuminating.

The final framework I want to consider is the one I mentioned in my previous post, If We Were Amusing Ourselves to Death in the 80s, What Are We Doing Now? And rather than rehashing it in its entirety, I’m more interested in taking another crack at answering the question what are we doing now? For those that haven’t read that post it was a discussion of the book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman, published in 1985. Postman’s thesis is an extension of Marshall Mcluhan’s observation that the “medium is the message” and boils down to the idea that there is a “connection between forms of human communication and the quality of a culture.” For Postman, culture was of a higher quality when communication largely took place via print (newspapers, books, etc.) and that it took a dive in quality with the introduction of the TV. From the book:

[U]nder the governance of the printing press, discourse in America was different from what it is now—generally coherent, serious and rational; …under the governance of television, it has become shriveled and absurd…like the printing press, television is nothing less than a philosophy of rhetoric. To talk seriously about television, one must therefore talk of epistemology. All other commentary is in itself trivial. 

One can grant that the dominant medium of communication strongly impacts epistemology without necessarily granting Postman’s further claim that it’s all been downhill. Indeed I find it hard to imagine how anyone could deny the effect of the medium of social media on our current epistemology. The question I continue to grapple with, is what are those effects? I’m starting to feel pretty comfortable declaring that they’re, on net, bad but the specifics of their “badness” is something I’m still working through. I have high hopes for the grandstanding theory, which I encountered the other day on a podcast, but I’ve yet to read the associated book. I’ll report back when I do. However, it does seem certain that if nothing else, social media has fractured epistemology and discourse. That under national greatness there was obviously only one thing to do with the Jefferson Memorial, that as people started focusing more on Jefferson’s failings you can imagine the options splitting into three, to be decided by congress, leave it alone, add some additional plaques to explain things, or tear it down, and to be honest the third one would never get serious consideration. But currently I’m sure there are at least a dozen proposals, ranging from ringing it with an alt-right militia, to replacing it with a statue of Sally Hemmings, and everything in between.

There’s a quote I keep coming back to in this blog, from Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes:

Between two groups that want to make inconsistent kinds of world[s] I see no remedy but force.

I’d like to think that this statement is actually not true, that over the last few centuries we have developed other remedies besides force. Freedom of conscience (of which freedom of speech is a part) was, I believe, particularly successful. (We’re not immediately going to go to war over differing beliefs.) Solving things by voting on them was also a major step forward. But it’s interesting how, beyond all of the other ways in which these tools are under attack, they just don’t work nearly as well when you end up with more than two or three sides. When the narrative has fractured into dozens of pieces, as appears to be the case at the moment, these tools become more difficult to use. Taking free speech as an example, even if sensible suggestions are being made somewhere by someone how do you find them amongst all the yelling? And this is without the additional problem of free speech increasingly being seen as outmoded and a tool the majority uses to silence the oppressed. 

As far as voting, that works pretty well if there are only two sides. Making deals involves only two parties, and even if you can’t make a deal your side will eventually be in power and waiting your turn seems preferable to bloodshed, that’s not the case when you’re a member of one of 30 factions, also how much voting do we actually do on the most contentious issues of the day? Certainly the vast majority of social issues have never been voted on. Voting can be a tool for remedying inconsistent worlds, but you have to use it first. And added to all of this, everything increasingly seems like a zero sum game

I feel like it’s safe to say that no one is clear on where things are headed, or that it will inevitably be bad because discourse has moved to social media, but when you tie all of it together, toss in a profusion of conspiracy theories, and an exceptionally divided country, I think what can be said for sure is that from an epistemological perspective, we’re in a very weird place.

It’d be nice if things were as simple and straightforward as agreeing on a system for the traffic light. They’re obviously not, but nor do I think they necessarily need to be as complicated as we’ve made them. I think it’s easy to forget how much progress actually has been made over the last several centuries, and it’s even easier to forget how fragile that progress is.


Is it true that you should donate to this blog? What standard would you use to decide whether it’s a justified belief as opposed to just my opinion? Well, there is another framework I didn’t mention, that you uncover the truth of something by doing it. Maybe you should give it a try.


Books I Finished in June

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The Accidental Superpower: The Next Generation of American Preeminence and the Coming Global Disorder By: Peter Zeihan
The Good Soldier Švejk By: Jaroslav Hasek
The Diaries of Adam and Eve By: Mark Twain
White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism By: Robin DiAngelo
Guns of August By: Barbara W. Tuchman
Euripides III: Heracles, The Trojan Women, Iphigenia among the Taurians, Ion (The Complete Greek Tragedies) By: Euripides
Acid Test: LSD vs. LDS By: Christopher Kimball Bigelow
The Lost 116 Pages: Reconstructing the Book of Mormon’s Missing Stories By: Don Bradley


Over the last few months I’ve taken the opportunity to put a little bit of personal news into the beginning of my monthly book review round-ups. But of course what’s been happening to me personally is completely overshadowed by what’s been happening in the wider world. The biggest event being the killing of George Floyd of course. I said quite a bit about this in my last post, which amounted to, “This is a really complicated situation.” With that in mind I don’t think I’ll try to do any simplification in this space

I will say that I was very surprised by what happened at the beginning of the week in Provo. For those that don’t know, Provo is the home of BYU and often considered to be one of the most conservative towns in America. Accordingly I was a little surprised to discover that protests were even a thing there, more surprised to find out that they were still happening, still more surprised to find out that the protestors were numerous and aggressive enough to be blocking traffic, and outright flabbergasted to discover that while one of these cars was being blocked from moving, someone walked up and shot the driver

Fortunately it looks like the driver is going to be okay, but in order to get out of there he had to push through the protesters with his car and some who didn’t get out of the way were knocked aside. Honestly I think I would have behaved very similarly if protestors were blocking my car and then someone shot me. Particularly given that the gunman ran after the car and fired a second shot! (I mean what was this guy thinking?!?)

Of course, as you might imagine there was a lot of focus on the driver knocking people down, with much of the early focus on protestors who had been knocked down, and interviews where they emphasized that this was a peaceful protest. I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that if you’re blocking an intersection and banging on cars, that on the continuum between Gandhi and riot that you might be closer to the riot end of the spectrum

Beyond that I’d like to wish everyone a happy Independence Day. Apparently national pride has fallen to a record low. I know some people would suggest that this is a positive development, but I’m pretty sure it’s not.


I- Eschatological Review

The Accidental Superpower: The Next Generation of American Preeminence and the Coming Global Disorder

By: Peter Zeihan

384 Pages

General Thoughts

This book was recommended to me by one of my readers, and I couldn’t have enjoyed it more. So much fascinating discussion of geopolitical trends, the strengths and weaknesses of every country, predictions for the future, etc. It really felt like a peek behind the curtains of power, into the deep underbelly where the true engine of the world creaks away.

In another sense the book is similar to Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond, but with both a more narrow and more recent focus. Zeihan’s primary focus is geography, which permeates the discussion and informs everything from why Iran is so belligerent (mountainous agriculture leads to feast-famine cycles of aggression) to predictions about what will happen with China (the geography naturally splits the country in three sections, which will become increasingly difficult to hold together). 

I made so many notes about this book, and marked so many pages that it’s difficult to know how to summarize it or what points to emphasis. But I’ll give it a shot:

The post World War II era represents an incredibly unusual period where normal geopolitics was suspended under American hegemony. This hegemony largely relieved countries from the need to focus on military and security concerns and allowed them to turn the attention to economic expansion. It was the perfect time for it because the Americans also decided to enforce free trade. This era is coming to an end because the US doesn’t need the rest of the world, in large part because of shale (though 3d printing factors in as well) and underlying all of it, the US has the best geography in the world. 

After establishing this premise, the rest of the book examines the challenges the rest of the world will face as the US withdraws from things, and it’s been a long time since I’ve been more engaged by a book and its conclusions.

That said, even if the conclusions were engaging that doesn’t mean some of them weren’t inaccurate. I’ll get to my two major complaints in the next section, but for now let’s just focus on the critical place shale holds in Zeihan’s predictions. I don’t think I’m overstating things to say that American shale and the energy it provides is one of the top three components of the world Zeihan predicts. He devotes a whole chapter to it in the book (out of 15). And while in general it’s a very solid and compelling argument, it might entirely fall apart if oil ends up being cheaper than he expected. I’m not an expert on shale, but as far as I can, oil has to be north of $50/barrel in order for shale to be cost effective. As I write this it’s closer to $40, with it being as low as $20 earlier in the year. The point of all this is not to falsify Zeihan’s theory, but to point out that even in the near term, fairly safe predictions like: “the price of oil is going to keep going up” turn out to be subject to unexpected events. Which might point to the overarching weakness of Zeihan’s book. It doesn’t pay enough attention to Black Swans, which brings me to the next section.

What This Book Says About Eschatology

In addition to his assumptions about shale oil, where Zeihan could be wrong, but should that be the case, the consequences are low, there are at least two other areas where I think he might be wrong with far more severe consequences. 

First in predicting American preeminence (which is right there in the title) he seems to be imagining that America will remain a unified, well-functioning state. One that intelligently pursues its global interests and acts as a single entity when it comes to foreign policy. For example when he predicts that the US will absorb Alberta, he points out how entirely sensible such a course is. And indeed from a realpolitik standpoint, it seems obvious. The kind of thing where if Kissinger were on one side and Bismarck on the other, the outcome would be a foregone conclusion. But the US is unlikely to be led by anything resembling these two individuals, and in fact it appears increasingly unlikely that the US will be “led” by much of anyone in the coming years. 

In other words, when one sees how big the partisan divide is on something like masks, it’s hard to imagine there wouldn’t be similar turmoil on something as big as annexing parts of Canada. Accordingly, before I’m ready to agree with Zeihan that the US will deftly seize the entire world in the coming decade, I’d like to see some evidence of it deftly seizing anything at all, and at the moment, such evidence is scarce. For America to be preeminent it first has to persist.

Second, while one can imagine the transfer of Alberta happening peacefully, other territorial changes Zeihan imagine seem much less likely to happen without war being declared, and from there it’s not difficult to imagine that a nation in decline might decide to use their nuclear arsenal rather than go down without a fight. As an example of what I mean consider this selection from the book:

[Japan’s] first military target is likely to be Russia’s Sakhalin Island. It is just off the coast of Japan’s northernmost Hokkaido Island, putting it well within Japan’s naval and air force power projection range. It’s infrastructure was largely built by Japanese firms, that infrastructure terminates on the island’s southern tip, the Japanese have the technical skill to keep all of Sakhalin’s offshore energy production running, the Russians do not, and Japanese nationalists still fume that the Russians seized it from Japan in the wars of the first half of the twentieth century. Securing Sakhalin would place just under 300,000 bpd of crude production and 3 Bcf/d (billion cubic feet per day) of natural gas production into Japan’s output column. Seizing Sakhalin will also permanently sever any chance of having positive relations with Moscow, but to be blunt, Moscow is five thousand miles away, so the consequences of breaking that relationship aren’t very high. 

Wait… what? The consequences for pissing off Moscow aren’t very high?! As I said I loved this book, but Zeihan has either completely ruled out the use of nukes, which is something he never even mentions, let alone explains. Or he has a major blind spot on that issue. Certainly no reference to nuclear weapons appears in the index. He does have two more recent books, including one released just this year, so maybe he has since rectified this blind spot. And I enjoyed this book enough that I definitely intend to read his other books eventually, so we’ll find out.  But beyond all that you can hopefully see what I mean. He offers up a very compelling argument based on proximity, infrastructure, history, and most of all geography for things to go a certain way. And if Russia was led by Henry Kissinger perhaps that’s exactly the way it would go. But as you may have noticed Putain is no Kissinger (though he comes closer than many of today’s leaders) and it’s hard to imagine him just rolling over if Japan tried to seize Russian territory by force. 

Perhaps another way of describing the disconnect is that Zeihan looks at the world with piercing and refreshing sanity, but the world itself just continues to get more insane.


II- Capsule Reviews

The Good Soldier Švejk

By: Jaroslav Hasek

752 Pages

This book is what Catch-22 would have been if it was written about Czechoslovakian conscripts during World War I rather than American bomber pilots during World War II. Indeed Joseph Heller said that he never would have written Catch-22 if he hadn’t read this novel first. And I swear to you I came up with that comparison before I knew this fact.

Saying that it’s the World War I Czechoslovakian Catch-22 may not give an entirely accurate portrait of the novel, but it’s the best short description I could come up with. There are also bits that remind me of Vonnegut, with maybe even smaller bits of Douglas Adams tossed in there as well. Beyond that it fits into the genre of literature, where a seemingly foolish individual ends up being the wisest character of all. And you can never tell whether these “fools” are feigning ignorance or if they’re genuinely foolish, but perhaps wise because of that rather than in spite of it. I can’t pin down a name for this genre, but it made me think of medieval jesters or maybe Sancho Panza from Don Quixote.

On top of that, it’s very discursive. The main plot is quite short, but Švejk is constantly relating some story about a villager of his acquaintance the situation reminds him of. And every time a minor character is introduced they get a whole sub-story as well. Which reminded me a little bit of Canterbury Tales or The Book of the New Sun or the stories Woody would tell on Cheers. And once again I have no idea what this genre of literature is called. (You would think that if I got nothing else out of my English degree I would at least have a better grasp of the various genres, but no…)

Beyond that, according to Wikipedia, in addition to being the greatest Czechoslovakian novel of all time (or at least the most translated), it has credible claim to being the very first anti-war novel as well. 

Having laid out this menagerie of qualities, you may still be unsure, whether you should read it. To that I would say, if you don’t find yourself in the position of Rene Zwellenger in Jerry McQuire, “You had me at ‘World War I Czechoslovakian Catch-22’”, then you probably shouldn’t. I enjoyed it, but I’m weird. Also having read the whole thing, I kind of think this is one of those cases where being a completist doesn’t add much. In fact Hasek didn’t finish the series, so rather than having a well defined plot and a dramatic ending, (though spoiler the Austro-Hungarian Empire lost.) Švejk just kind of peters out. As it’s largely a collection of vignettes, which end up being essentially equal in their satirical delightfulness, I would say that if you selected 50 pages at random you would probably get the majority of what the book has to offer, or at least a pretty good idea if you wanted to read 700 pages more of it. 


The Diaries of Adam and Eve

By: Mark Twain

128 Pages

This very short book was funny, but not uproarious, it was well written, but not a classic, and it was witty but that wit often relied on somewhat antiquated stereotypes. But it’s just slightly over an hour on Audible, and it’s by freaking Mark Twain, one of the greatest American authors. How many mediocre podcasts have you listened to that clocked in at over an hour? Whatever else may be said this book will be better than that. Accordingly, you should listen to this book. It provides a decent glimpse into an America that is all too quickly being forgotten when it is not being actively attacked.


White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism

By: Robin DiAngelo

192 Pages

In my last post I already spoke quite a bit about this book, and in particular the paradox it presents. For those that didn’t get a chance to read the last post. DiAngelo makes the claim that racism is ubiquitous among white people, and when accused of it they invariably get defensive, which is understandable if racism is evil, but DiAngelo wants to get past a black and white understanding of the problem, to an understanding that the racism of white people is largely unconscious but if you can bring it up without them being defensive, you can make people less racist. Of course the problem is that everything else in the present moment is geared towards asserting that racism is awful and murderous. Nor does DiAngelo spend much effort refuting that, and seems to want to have it both ways.

Because of this and other issues I would say that the book was mediocre. It certainly has significant value as something of a manifesto for a certain philosophy of racism and how it works. But given, as I pointed out in the first paragraph, that it’s not even particularly vigorous in defense of that ideology, I’m not sure how valuable it is even towards that end. I will say that after reading this book I think I understand racism better from what might be called an HR perspective, but if you’re looking for insight into the problems of policing, this book is essentially valueless.

You may think I’m being unusually harsh, but there’s an argument to be made that I’m actually being kind. Matt Taibbi posted an absolutely savage review of the book just a few days ago. Sample quote:

When one employee responds negatively to the training, DiAngelo quips the person must have been put off by one of her Black female team members: “The white people,” she says, “were scared by Deborah’s hair.” (White priests of antiracism like DiAngelo seem universally to be more awkward and clueless around minorities than your average Trump-supporting construction worker). 

DiAngelo doesn’t grasp the joke flopped and has to be told two days later that one of her web developer clients was offended. In despair, she writes, “I seek out a friend who is white and has a solid understanding of cross-racial dynamics.” …(everyone should have such a person on speed-dial)

I include this section because I had basically the same reaction upon reading it. Nor is Taibbi the only person to dislike the book. David Brooks, who’s conservative, but of the most moderate type called the book, “the dumbest book ever written. It makes The Art of the Deal read like Anna Karenina.” And while the book itself has a 4.2 out of 5 star rating on Amazon the top seven(!) most helpful reviews are all one star.

This book is interesting as one snapshot of the current moment, but I can hardly imagine that it will be remembered at all 10 years from now. 


Guns of August

By: Barbara W. Tuchman

510 Pages

If you were only going to read one history book ever, this might be it. I could fill up page after page with a discussion of this book. Tuchman does a truly unbelievable job of eloquently pulling together a whole host of people and events, using prose that strikes you again and again with it’s craft and eloquence.

Given that I could say a whole host of things about the book, but that the space I have is limited, what am I going to say? Upon reflection, I guess the most useful take away, for me, from the first month of World War I is how many incorrect assumptions governments, leaders and people had going into the war. Assumptions which were only proved incorrect in the unforgiving crucible of war and at the cost of millions of deaths. (See one of my previous posts for a discussion of war as the ultimate test of rationality.) What were some of those assumptions? 

  • The whole French plan assumed that the Germans couldn’t field nearly as many men as they actually did.
  • The Germans assumed the Russians would take six weeks to deploy, they deployed in two.
  • Everyone overestimated the Austro-hungarians
  • French war doctrine before and during the initial stages of the war all revolved around going on the offense, and emphasized bravery and guts as the key components.
  • The Germans thought the Belgians would just let the Germany army pass through their country without a fight.
  • The French and British thought that the Belgian forts would hold out for months, they held out for days.
  • The British entirely dismissed the importance of the Ottomans, and did nothing to keep them out of the war and several stupid things to bring them in.

As you can see, just a discussion of bad pre-war assumptions would take up quite a bit of space and the list above is far from complete. But after reviewing that list aren’t you struck with a profound need to know what incorrect assumptions we might be laboring under? And might the biggest one of all be that war between the great powers is a thing of the past?


Euripides III: Heracles, The Trojan Women, Iphigenia among the Taurians, Ion (The Complete Greek Tragedies)

By: Euripides

306 Pages

As I review more and more of these collections of Greek Tragedies, it starts to become harder to come up with things to say. But after saying in a previous post that “trust me, Odysseus was a jerk” one of my readers questioned first, whether he should trust me on anything, which is a fair point, and second whether Odysseus was actually a jerk or if I was applying 21st century morals to the situation. In response I offer up the following exchange between the herald of the Greeks (remember he’s on the same side as Odysseus) and Andromache.

TALTHYBIUS

O wife of Hector, once the bravest man in Troy,

do not hate me. This is the will of the Danaans and

the kings. I wish I did not have to give this message.

ANDROMACHE

What can this mean, this hint of hateful things to come?

TALTHYBIUS

The council has decreed that your son—how can I say this?

ANDROMACHE

That he shall serve some other master than I serve?

TALTHYBIUS

No man of the Achaea shall ever make this boy his slave

ANDROMACHE

Must he be left behind in Phrygia, all alone?

TALTHYBIUS

Worse; horrible. There is no easy way to tell it.

ANDROMACHE

I thank your courtesy—unless your news be really good.

TALTHYBIUS

They will kill your son. It is monstrous. Now you know the truth.

ANDROMACHE

Oh, this is worse than anything I heard before

TALTHYBIUS

Odysseus. He urged it before the Greeks, and got his way

ANDROMACHE

This is too much grief, and more than anyone could bear.

So don’t just take my word for it, It seems clear that even the ancient Greeks thought Odysseus went overboard with this act.


Acid Test: LSD vs. LDS

By: Christopher Kimball Bigelow

296 Pages

I should mention before I dive in, that this book showed up, unannounced, in the mail one day. There wasn’t even a note attached. Someone just decided to send it to me. I assume they wanted me to read and review it, but for future reference, if you’re going to do this, including a note might be nice. 

Also, I debated whether to stick this review in the religious section or keep it in the main section. As a compromise I stuck it at the end of the main section. Because, while this book does have a lot of Mormonism in it, I don’t think that a deep knowledge of the religion is necessary to appreciate it. Particularly if you’re my age or a little bit older (as is the case with the author), and even more especially if you grew up in Utah in the 80s. Because even more than religion, this book is an autobiographical retelling steeped in that time and place. And on that metric I thought Bigelow did a fantastic job. 

The book was strongly nostalgic for me, especially the first few pages, which were so evocative that I almost declared the book a masterpiece without reading any further. (In particular being reminded of the $3.35/hour minimum wage really took me back.)

Unfortunately for me and my desire to read a blow by blow retelling of my own youth, after the first couple of chapters Bigelow’s path diverges fairly strongly from my own (he jumped from new wave to punk, while I stayed with new wave). Despite this, the stories he tells are still very relatable. As I said, while the book has a fairly strong religious component, the story of someone making the transition into adulthood and not knowing what the heck they were doing, is pretty universal, and though Bigelow went a lot farther than I did in his search for meaning, I still think his stories of trying to figure things out can be appreciated by everyone.

Supposedly this is the first book in an autobiographical trilogy, and I’m looking forward to the next two.


III- Religious Review 

The Lost 116 Pages: Reconstructing the Book of Mormon’s Missing Stories

By: Don Bradley

318 Pages

I know Don Bradley, not super well, but I’ve ended up in short conversations with him a half a dozen or so times, and once he was in the group I went to lunch with at the Mormon History Association. I mention this both because it probably impairs my objectivity, but also to just put out there that he’s a super nice guy and I couldn’t be happier that he’s been able to publish this book, which as I understand it represents something he’s been working on for many, many years.

With my prejudices noted, let me say I quite enjoyed this book, in addition to learning a lot. I don’t read as many LDS books as some people I know, but I don’t remember another book length treatment of this subject, and certainly if there was one I can’t imagine that it was nearly so comprehensive. 

For those non-Mormons who may be reading this, I’ll try to briefly summarize the subject. After Joseph Smith had been translating the Book of Mormon for awhile, and had assembled a significant number of pages (116 as the story goes), Martin Harris, a gentleman who had been assisting him both as a scribe and with a significant amount of money, wanted to show these pages to his wife, who was not as excited about things as he was and kept demanding to see what he had been working on. Harris asked Joseph if he could show the translated pages to his wife, Joseph inquired of the Lord who said no. Harris persisted. Joseph asked again, and again the answer was no. Harris pleaded yet again, Joseph asked yet again, and finally the Lord said, yes. Or more likely some version of, “Fine, go ahead, but don’t be surprised if something bad happens.” And indeed something bad did happen. The pages went missing and have never been seen since. Joseph was instructed not to retranslate that section and since then they’ve been referred to as the lost 116 pages. 

One of the first things Bradley points out is that given that the current Book of Mormon is 532 pages, you might imagine that if 116 pages went missing that this represents 18% of the intended volume. But he points out that this almost certainly understates the content that was lost. The figure of 116 is probably just an after the fact estimate which may have been derived from the fact that the section which replaced it happened to be 116 pages in the printer’s manuscript. At other times it was referred to as closer to 200 pages, and also, because of the larger size of the transcribed pages even if it was 116 it would have probably translated to more than that when it was printed.

Beyond that Bradley spends most of the book attempting to reconstruct what might have been on those pages from things that were said at the time. Either by Smith or Harris, or by people they talked to and who then subsequently recorded those conversations. The narrative he pieces together is excellent and painstaking work, and beyond that very interesting. None of what Bradley assembles comes completely out of left field, but I was very impressed by how much he was able to stitch together.

Of course in a reconstruction like this, you walk a fine line between making too many connections on the one hand or on the other, making too few, of being too conservative about filling in the gaps or too liberal. If it were me I might have erred on the side of being a little bit more conserative, but as I said it’s a difficult balance to strike, and if I was writing this review a month from now, maybe I’d say it was just right. 

In any event for those who do read a lot of LDS books, or even those who only read a few, I can unhesitatingly recommend this book.


You know what else I can unhesitatingly recommend? The pot stickers at David’s Kitchen in South Salt Lake. Oh, and also I suppose donating to this blog, although if your excuse is that you need that money in order to buy the pot stickers, I’d be okay with that.


Things Are More Complicated Than You Think (BLM)

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As anyone who has read my blog for any length of time knows I’m a big fan of Scott Alexander and his blog Slate Star Codex. You may have also heard that he recently deleted that blog in its entirety in response to the New York Times insisting that they were going to reveal his real name. (Scott Alexander is just his first and middle name.) You can check out his one remaining post for his argument on why that would be a bad thing. Or any of the dozens of other articles that have been written about the subject (see for example here, here or here). I want to take things in another direction. I want to talk about what I see as an attack on reasonable debate and disagreement. And to start we need to examine why the NYT was (and apparently is) so determined to use Alexander’s real name.

The claim the reporter has made is that it’s the newspaper’s policy to include people’s real names when reporting on them. That was quickly shown to be at best a policy to which they had made frequent exceptions to, and at worst an outright lie. The NYT had previously reported on Chapo Trap House (whose book I reviewed here) and had no problem using only a pseudonym for one of the people involved there. This would appear to be prima facie evidence of bias, though it remains to be seen what sort of bias it is. We are advised by Hanlon’s Razor to avoid attributing to malice what can more easily be explained by stupidity. Despite this people have made the strong case that the planned article about Alexander is designed to be an exposé. 

If based on the foregoing we decide that the article was/is going to be an attack on Alexander, then what does that mean? I worry that it means that rational discourse is on the verge of becoming impossible. I understand that sounds like a sweeping and extreme statement, but on those few occasions when Alexander questioned the liberal orthodoxy he did it as mildly, as nicely, as rationally, and in the most limited fashion possible, and if even that makes him subject to being targeted by some place like the NYT then it’s really hard to imagine what sort of questioning is allowed. 

Which takes us to the current moment, and the hesitation I have in speaking about it. I am definitely not as mild or as nice or as rational as Alexander, nor do I expect to be as limited in scope. Accordingly, I have mostly avoided getting too deeply into the protests and the Black Lives Matter moment we’re currently having. Certainly over the last few posts I’ve mentioned it here and there in the context of my worries that we might all make the same mistake, but I have, somewhat reluctantly, decided to wade in more fully. Why? Honestly I’m not sure. It would probably be easier to just not say anything, and I fully acknowledge that it might be better for society as a whole as well. But I honestly feel that certain things are being overlooked, and that if I can see them and I don’t mention them that I’m guilty of making the problem worse through inaction. And I am fully aware that the assistance I might give to fixing a situation as intractable as the one we’re currently dealing with is so tiny as to be almost non-existent, which is exactly why it would be so easy to just pass the topic by, but I won’t. Hopefully that isn’t going to end up being a mistake.

To start, if I were to try to sum up my worries, it would go something like, “This is a very complicated problem and if we’re going to fix it we need to make sure we don’t over simplify it.” Also I might add, “Historically things done in haste and anger have often turned out bad.”

Before we can discuss why the problem is complicated we might need to identify what the problem is. And here we encounter the first thing I think people are overlooking. There are actually two problems (at least). First there’s the eternal problem of racism. Second, there’s the problem of what to do about abuses committed by police. Since these abuses appear predominantly directed at poor minorities, it certainly follows that if we can just fix the problem of racism the problem with the police will be fixed at the same time. That sounds reasonable, but we’ve been attempting to fix racism since at least the Civil RIghts Act of 1964 (CRA) over 50 years ago and it might be useful to examine why in spite of this effort and all the subsequent efforts racism still persists.

If we confine this question to just the CRA the first possibility is that it didn’t go far enough. That it needed more clauses to cover more types of behavior, that the government needed to enforce even greater integration for an even longer period of time. That it failed because the government was uncommitted. It failed because not enough pressure was applied from the top. It’s hard to imagine how that would have worked without the government being even more draconian, and isn’t that kind of the whole complaint now? One might argue that the government needed to be harsher on whites and less harsh towards minorities. Perhaps such a distinction was possible, but I’m libertarian enough to think that when you give the government more power it’s hard to keep them from using it indiscriminately. 

Also while I’m no expert on the act or the times in which it was passed, it seems like if you looked at the reality on the ground just enforcing what they did was hard enough. Certainly there is an argument that we needed to strike while the iron was hot, that we gave up before finishing the job, and that because of that we’re forced to finish it now. But once again I feel like the measures being taken back then were near the edge of what the country could handle as it was. But perhaps not, in any case nothing can be done about it now.

(The post Civil War era may have been another such missed opportunity. But discussing what should have been done then is even more fraught, so I’ll just acknowledge that’s the case and move on.)

Also, any discussion of not going far enough, immediately leads to the question of how far do we have to go? Is there some graceful and straightforward way of putting this issue to bed forever? (outside of a few extremists remaining on both sides.) Because if there is, sign me up! Let’s do that. As long as it was a fixed cost that I could conceivably bear I would happily do it. $10,000? Done. Paying $1000/year for the rest of my life? Done. Tearing down all the statues ever erected? Done. Wearing a collar that prevented me from committing microagressions? I’d certainly consider it. The problem of course is that no such solution exists, certainly not one that requires just my participation, and particularly not one that doesn’t have second order effects which might end up being far worse than the problem we’re trying to solve. (Even if I was willing to wear a collar, trying that on the nation as a whole would be unlikely to end well.)

To return to the questions I just posed, and the idea that the solution should come from the top down, the one proposal people keep bringing up as both a next step, and something of a final destination is reparations. I don’t know if I’ve heard anyone claim that it would put the issue to bed forever, but it’s hard to imagine it wouldn’t be a massive undertaking not only financially but politically, so I think it’s reasonable to expect that in order to be worthwhile reparations would have to significantly improve things.  So this is one way forward, and insofar as it costs me less than $10k up front or $1k/year per year, then I’ve already said I’m on board. So I’m more open to the idea, than I once was, but my prediction continues to be that it’s not going to be nearly as effective or as easy to pull off as people think. Though my full reasoning for that prediction is outside the scope of this post.

That covers the difficulties, limitations and hopes for a top down solution, what about a bottom up approach? Or to put it another way, have all previous attempts failed because they failed to change the hearts and minds of the individuals who were being racist. That whatever people say, their innate racism is not going to be altered by the passage of a law. That despite an attempt from the top down to enforce a lack of racism, there was still a lot of racism out there and that’s what led to all the things people complain about like white flight, aggressive policing of minorities, and a huge increase in the minority prison population. 

This leads to three possibilities, the first would be the arc of history/march of progress possibility. That people are gradually getting less racist, and as a consequence eventually this problem will go away. That the current support we’re seeing from academia, corporations, and suburban Mormon moms is evidence of the progress we’ve made. Additionally, most people I talk to about this mention the lack of racism among younger generations, and the hope it brings them. I talk about this a lot in my blog, but this is essentially Steven Pinker’s position in his book Enlightenment Now. That things are currently pretty good and if we’re just patient, and don’t do anything crazy, they’re just going to get better. The question that arises from this is, can we hurry it up? Or do we just have to be patient and mostly work for small incremental gains, for people to die off? It’s obvious that this is what’s happening right now, people are trying to hurry up, but I think the jury is still out on whether the current methodology being employed will ultimately have that effect. 

For the moment let’s assume that things have been and are progressing but that we can speed it up. How might we go about that? Well as much as it pains true believers to be reminded of this, you have to get some of the people in the middle on your side. Some of the people like me who are appalled by police abuses, and the special privileges that unions have carved out for themselves, but also think that the police are probably not modern day Nazis. And if the rest of the moderates are anything like me then extreme actions are not going to help. I know people want to go faster, but when people tear down statues of abolitionists who died in the Civil War and toss them into the lake or when Hulu removes an episode of Golden Girls that actually aimed to be sympathetic to racial issues, these things don’t make the vast number of mostly apathetic people want to go faster, it makes them think we’re going too fast. And I understand arguments about the harm of signal boosting of trivialities, like those I mentioned, but that’s the world we live in, and so we need to work around it.

Which is to say despite the urgency of the issue, I would argue that it is possible to go too fast. Though the late 60’s and early 70s are dim in most people’s minds, it should be noted that things got pretty crazy. As an example, people have completely forgotten that in 1972 we had over nineteen hundred domestic bombings in the United States. (That’s a direct quote from an FBI agent active at the time.) Furthermore, I think there’s a credible argument to be made that millions of people have died in revolutions caused by trying to go too fast. Revolutions where essentially everything the revolutionaries wanted came to pass eventually, just not as quickly as they had hoped.

Another possibility is that progress isn’t inevitable, or hasn’t been happening, but that it can happen if people rise up and make their voices heard. I understand this sentiment, but it seems belied by all the data on generational attitudes, all the progress that has been made, even if racism still exists, no what seems more likely is a third possibility, that there is a small irreducible kernel of racism in everyone. That beyond a certain point people are just selfish and stupid and no matter how bad we make them feel or how much we educate them, or how much they want to be completely free of in-group bias that the great mass of people never will be. Note that this is particularly likely to be true if we keep expanding the definition of racism. 

I understand that this is kind of a extreme position so let me offer up a couple of stories:

One of my friends is super liberal, he’s not the most liberal person I know, but he’s pretty far out there. We had a long talk over the weekend about this issue, and he was pretty strident about it. Years ago he and I were at the same wedding, and he approached a black gentleman to ask where the bathroom was. As you may have guessed this person was not part of the staff he was on the bride’s side of things (we were friends of the groom). This friend of mine felt awful for the rest of the evening, he still feels bad if I bring it up today. I see lots of stories of these sorts of small racially biased acts, and it seems that a large part of the racism people point to currently are situations similar to this. But if these sorts of things happen even to people who are firmly committed to not being racists, what kind of policy/spending/training/extreme measures are we going to have to resort to in order to purge the world of them? And do such measures even exist?

Second story, there’s a person I know, very politically active, about as liberal as you can get in Utah. Strident facebook posts about the liberal outrage de jure. They frequently go out canvassing for the local liberal candidate and one time this person came to my door and I was talking to them and they wanted me to vote for a particular candidate because this candidate wanted to turn the nearby high school which the district had closed because of falling enrollment into a community center. Otherwise they told me, it will be used to build “low income housing”. Now perhaps this person is just prejudiced against the poor, but it is of a sort with all the other examples people give, white flight, sending kids to far away schools, etc. 

What’s further interesting about both those stories is that I don’t think I’ve ever made the mistake my friend did, nor would I have used the phrase “low income housing” when out canvassing. As someone who leans conservative, or at least away from progressivism, I understand the mistakes I’m likely to make, so I police myself pretty thoroughly. 

Which takes us to the book White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo, which I recently finished. I’ll post a review of it in the monthly wrap up, but for now I want to bring in what the book has to say about this subject. To begin with she mentions that people who think they’re not racist can be the worst of all, the ones most likely to show fragility and to come up to her after her diversity training and point out all the black friends they have or the fact that they’re Italian and Italians were once also a discriminated class. Basically to strenuously assert that they couldn’t possibly be racist. DiAngelo herself shares many stories of her own unintentional racism. Here stories are similar to the stories I mentioned above, mistakes that I don’t think I’ve ever made.

Now note what’s happening there. People come up to her after the training. And she made these mistakes despite all of her own education and efforts. If we decide to treat this as authoritative, (and I’m not saying we necessarily should, DiAngelo is just one voice among many, though a popular one). And after combining it with the stories I related, eliminating every shred of racism starts to look like a really difficult problem. And furthermore a somewhat paradoxical one as DiAngelo illustrates. Though without apparently recognizing the paradox. 

One of the things she claims is that the sorts of behavior just described are nearly ubiquitous among whites, and as such we need to get past a good and evil dichotomy, because people naturally bristle if you tell them that their evil, which is what being accused of racism equates to in this day and age. So she wants to tell them that they’re racist, that all white people are racist, but without necessarily further implying that they are also therefore irretrievably evil. But yet isn’t the idea that racism is evil, perhaps the greatest evil, the fundamental message of the protests that are currently taking place? Thus the paradox…

What I’m trying to illustrate by all of this is just how complicated the situation is, and all of the complicated ways people recommend for merely identifying it, let alone solving it. That we have somehow lumped the behavior of my very progressive friend assuming that if someone is black he has to be an employee as belonging to exactly the same category of behavior as minorities being unjustly killed by police.

Which takes us back to the beginning when I said that there are really two problems (at least). There’s the problem illustrated by the killing of George Floyd, and the problem of causal and widespread racism described by White Fragility (among other places). And I’m going to assert that trying to simplify both of these into a single problem is probably a mistake, or at least something that makes this effort less likely to succeed. That ideally we should focus on one problem, police brutality, rather than attempting to cure the entire country of racism at a stroke. And of course even with this focus we still are faced with a pretty complicated problem, but at least it allows us to rigorously define what we’re trying to do and track whether our efforts are working or not. Indeed I am suggesting that if we want to succeed we need to exercise as much dispassionate objectivity as possible, and I fear this is the attribute most lacking in the current climate. As an example, rather than focusing all of our efforts on a somewhat ephemeral push to defund the police, we should be able to look at various police funding levels and the various strategies implemented by different municipalities in the wake of these protests and compare them, ideally using some fairly robust measurement.

It needs to be something where the measurement is tangible (i.e. not based on someone’s perception of harm) and ideally we should zero in on the greatest harms. It should also be a measurement where we have a lot of data and it’s easy to collect more of it. Putting all this together I suggest that we should use the murder rate as a measurement we’re trying to optimize around. It fits all three of the criteria and I would think that all sides should agree that we want it to be as low as possible. Then the question becomes how do the various policy proposals affect this measurement? Particularly the massive push to defund or eliminate police?

I am not suggesting that I can solve this question in the limited space I have remaining, but at a first glance it appears that the recent unrest has, on this measure, been a bad idea. For example:

104 shot, 15 fatally, over Father’s Day weekend in Chicago (Key quote, “The weekend saw more shooting victims but less fatalities than the last weekend of May, when 85 people were shot, 24 of them fatally — Chicago’s most deadly weekend in years.” The other deadly weekend was also post George Floyd.)

Gun Violence Spikes in N.Y.C., Intensifying Debate Over Policing (Opening paragraph: “It has been nearly a quarter century since New York City experienced as much gun violence in the month of June as it has seen this year.”)

CMPD: 180+ shots fired from multiple weapons during deadly Charlotte block party (“Police say at least 181 shots were fired into a crowd of around 400 people during a block party Monday. The shooting and chaos that followed left four people dead and 10 others injured.”)

Note I am not saying this proves anything one way or the other, I am suggesting that it’s enough evidence to create caution in how we proceed and what we encourage. It also does appear to point towards what some people have called the Ferguson Effect, the idea that when cops are placed under increased scrutiny following a major incident of misconduct they back off from policing, and that this has the effect of encouraging more crime. In support of this I offer not only the above stories, but this study that came out in June that found when a police department is investigated in the normal course of events, that police department improves. Unless the investigation comes after a “viral” incident in which case:

In stark contrast, all investigations that were preceded by “viral” incidents of deadly force have led to a large and statistically significant increase in homicides and total crime. We estimate that these investigations caused almost 900 excess homicides and almost 34,000 excess felonies.

To reiterate, in putting this out there I am not claiming to have proved anything, except perhaps the idea of a link between police and the murder rate, and the idea that caution should be exercised. I am definitely not claiming that we should roll over and let the police get away with whatever they want. I’m saying that it’s a complex system, with significant costs if we get it wrong. And that what we really need to do is split things up into tractable problems, and then apply as much rational examination of the data as possible, the kind of stuff where Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex was a viking, before he felt forced to take his blog down.

I certainly hold out hope that policing can be done better. And in fact I would be very surprised if there aren’t all sorts of improvements what can be made, but when it comes to the more radical proposals, I’m inclined to adapt a phrase from Churchill:

Many forms of policing have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that current policing is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that it is the worst form of crime prevention except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.… 


If you actually like Churchill, and some of the other people whose statues are being threatened (Lord Baden Powell anyone?) then consider donating. I promise that I will never use that money in the removal of any statues.


Elon Musk and the Value of Localism or What We Should Do Instead of Going to Mars

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I.

Elon Musk has asserted, accurately in my opinion, that unless humanity becomes a two planet species that we are eventually doomed (absent some greater power out there which saves us, which could include either God or aliens). And he has built an entire company, SpaceX, around making sure that this happens (the two planet part, not the doomed part). As I mentioned, I think this is an accurate view of how things will eventually work out, but it’s also incredibly costly and difficult. Is it possible that in the short term we can achieve most of the benefits of a Mars colony with significantly less money and effort? Might this be yet another 80/20 situation, where 80% of the benefits can be achieved for only 20% of the resources?

In order to answer that question, it would help to get deeper into Musk’s thinking and reasoning behind his push for a self-sustaining outpost on Mars. To quote from the man himself:

I think there are really two fundamental paths. History is going to bifurcate along two directions. One path is we stay on Earth forever, and then there will be some eventual extinction event — I don’t have an immediate doomsday prophecy … just that there will be some doomsday event. The alternative is to become a space-faring civilization and a multiplanet species.

While I agree with Musk that having a colony on Mars will prevent some doomsday scenarios, I’m not sure I agree with his implied assertion that it will prevent all of them, that if we choose the alternative of being a space-faring civilization, that it forever closes off the other alternative of doomsday events. To see why that might be, we need to get into a discussion of what potential doomsdays await us, or to use the more common term, what existential risks, or x-risks are we likely to face?

If you read my round up of the books I finished in May, one of my reviews covered Toby Ord’s book, The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity which was entirely dedicated to a discussion of this very subject. For those who don’t remember, Ord produced a chart showing what he thought the relative odds were for various potential x-risks. Which I’ll once again include.

Existential catastrophe via Chance within the next 100 years
Asteroid/comet Impact ~1 in 1,000,000
Supervolcanic eruption ~1 in 10,000
Stellar explosion ~1 in 1,000,000
Total natural risk ~1 in 10,000
Nuclear war ~1 in 1,000
Climate change ~1 in 1,000
Other environmental damage ~1 in 1,000
Naturally arising pandemics ~1 in 10,000
Engineered pandemics ~1 in 30
Unaligned artificial intelligence ~1 in 10
Unforeseen anthropogenic risks ~1 in 30
Other anthropogenic risks ~1 in 50
Total anthropogenic risks ~1 in 6
Total existential risk ~1 in 6

Reviewing this list, which x-risks are entirely avoided by having a self-sustaining colony on Mars? The one it most clearly prevents is the asteroid/comet impact, and indeed that’s the one everyone thinks of. I assume it would also be perfect for protecting humanity from a supervolcanic eruption and a naturally arising pandemic. I’m less clear on how well it would do at protecting humanity from a stellar explosion, but I’m happy to toss that in as well. But you can instantly see the problem with this list, particularly if you read my book review. These are all naturally arising risks, and as a category they’re all far less likely (at least according to Ord) to be the cause of our extinction. What we really need to be hedging against is the category of anthropogenic risks. And it’s not at all clear that a Mars colony is the cheapest or even the best way to do that. 

The risks we’re trying to prevent are often grouped into the general category of “having all of our eggs in one basket”. But just as we don’t want all of our eggs in the “basket” of Earth, I don’t think we want all of our risk mitigation to end up in the “basket” of a Mars colony. To relate it to my last post, this is very similar to my caution against a situation where we all make the same mistake. Only this time rather than a bunch of independent actors all deciding to independently take the same ultimately catastrophic action, here the consensus happens a little more formally, with massive time and effort put into one great effort. One of the reasons this effort seems safe is that it’s designed to reduce risk, but that doesn’t really matter, it could still be a mistake. A potential mistake which is aggravated by focusing on only one subset of potential x-risks, naturally occurring ones, and this one method for dealing with them, a Mars Colony. In other words in attempting to avoid making a mistake we risk making a potentially different mistake. The mistake of having too narrow a focus. Surviving the next few hundred years is a hugely complicated problem (one I hope to bring greater attention to by expanding the definition and discipline of eschatology). And the mistakes we could make are legion. But, in my opinion, focusing on a Mars Colony, as the best and first step in preventing those mistakes turns out to be a mistake itself

II.

At this point it’s only natural to ask what I would recommend instead. And as a matter of fact I do have a proposal:

Imagine that instead of going to Mars that we built a couple of large underground bunkers, something similar to NORAD. In fact we might even be able to repurpose, or piggyback on NORAD for one of them. Ideally the other one would be built at roughly the opposite spot on the globe from the first. So maybe something in Australia. Now imagine that you paid a bunch of people to live there for two years. You would of course supply them with everything they needed, entertainment, food, power, etc. In fact as far as food and power you’d want to have as robust a supply of those on hand as you could manage. But as part of it they would be completely cut off from everything for those two years, no internet connection, no traffic in our out, no inbound communication of any sort. You would of course have plenty of ways to guarantee the necessities like air, food and water. Basically you make this place as self-contained and robust as possible. 

When I say “a bunch of people”, you’d want as many as you could afford, but in essence you want to have enough people in either bunker that by themselves they could regenerate humanity if, after some unthinkable tragedy, they were all that remained. The minimum number I’ve seen is 160, with 500 seeming closer to ideal. Also if you wanted to get fancy/clever you could have 80% of the population be female, with lots of frozen sperm. Also it should go without saying that these people should be of prime child bearing age, with a fertility test before they went in.

Every year you’d alternate which of the bunkers was emptied and refilled with new people. This ensures that neither bunker is empty at the same time and that the period where even one bunker was empty would only be a week or so.

Beyond all of the foregoing, I’m sure there are many other things one could think of to increase the robustness of these bunkers, but I think you get the idea. So now let’s turn to Ord’s list of x-risks and compare my bunker idea to Musks’ Mars plan. 

All natural risks: Mars is definitely superior, but two things to note, first, even if you combine all possible natural risks together, they only have a 1 in 10,000 chance, according to Ord, of causing human extinction in the next century. I agree that you shouldn’t build a bunker just to protect against natural x-risks, but it also seems like a weak reason to go to Mars as well. Second, don’t underestimate the value the bunker provides even if Ord is wrong and the next giant catastrophe we have to worry about is natural. There are a whole host of disasters one could imagine where having the bunker system I described would be a huge advantage. But, even if it’s not, we’re mostly worried about anthropogenic risks, and it’s when we turn to considering them that the bunker system starts to look like the superior option. 

Taking each anthropogenic risk in turn:

Nuclear war- Bunkers as a protection against nuclear weapons is an idea almost as old as the weapons themselves. Having more of them, and making sure they’re constantly occupied, could only increase their protective value. Also Ord only gives nuclear war a 1 in 1000 chance of being the cause of our extinction, mostly because it would be so hard to completely wipe humanity out. The bunker system would make that even harder. A Mars colony doesn’t seem necessarily any better as a protection against this risk, for one thing how does it end up escaping this hypothetical war? And if it doesn’t, it would seem to be very vulnerable to attack. At least as vulnerable as a hardened bunker and perhaps far more so given the precariousness of any Martian existence.

Climate Change- I don’t deny the reality of climate change, but I have a hard time picturing how it wipes out every last human. Most people when pressed on this issue say that the disruption it causes leads to Nuclear War, which just takes us back to the last item. 

Environmental Damage- Similar to climate change, also if we’re too dumb to prevent these sorts of slow moving extinction events on Earth, what makes you think we’ll do any better on Mars? 

Engineered Pandemics- The danger of the engineered pandemic is the malevolent actor behind it, preventing this x-risk means keeping this malevolent actor from infecting everyone, in such a way that we all die. Here the advantage Mars has is its great distance from Earth, meaning you’d have to figure out a way to have a simultaneous outbreak on both planets. The advantage the bunker has is that it’s whole function is to avoid x-risks. Meaning anything that might protect from this sort of threat is not only allowed but expected. The kind of equipment necessary to synthesis a disease? Not allowed in the bunker. The kind of equipment you might macgyver into equipment to synthesis a disease? Also not allowed. You want the bunker to be hermetically sealed 99% of the time? Go for it. On the other hand Mars would have to have all sorts of equipment and tools for genetic manipulation, meaning all you would need is someone who is either willing or could be tricked into synthesizing the disease there, and suddenly the Mars advantage is gone.

Unaligned artificial intelligence- This is obviously the most difficult threat of all to protect against, since the whole idea is that we’re dealing with something unimaginably clever, but here again the bunker seems superior to Mars. Our potential AI adversary will presumably operate at the speed of light, which means that the chief advantage of Mars, it’s distance, doesn’t really matter. As long as Mars is part of the wider communication network of humanity, the few extra minutes it takes the AI to interact with Mars isn’t going to matter. On the other hand, with the bunker, I’m proposing that we allow no inbound communication, that we completely cut it off from the internet. We would allow primitive outbound communication, we’d want them to be able to call for help, but we allow nothing in. We might even go so far as to attempt to scrub any mention of the bunkers from the internet as well. I agree that this would be difficult, but it’s easier than just about any other policy suggestion you could come up with for limiting AI Risk (e.g. stopping all AI research everywhere).

It would appear that the bunker system might actually be superior to a Mars colony when it comes to preventing x-risks, and we haven’t even covered the bunker system’s greatest advantage of all, it would surely be several orders of magnitude cheaper than a Mars colony. I understand that Musk thinks he can get a Mars trip down to $200,000, but first off, I think he’s smoking crack. It is never going to be that cheap. And even if by some miracle he does get it down to that price, that’s just the cost to get there. The far more important figure is not the cost to get there, but the cost to stay there. And at this point we’re still just talking about having some people live on Mars, for this colony to really be a tool for preventing doomsdays it would have to be entirely self sufficient. The requirement is that Earth could disappear and not only would humanity continue to survive, they’d have to be able to build their own rockets and colonize still further planets, otherwise we’ve just kicked the can one planet farther down the road.

III.

I spent more time laying out that idea than I had intended, but that’s okay, because it was a great exercise for illustrating the more general principle I wanted to discuss, the principal of localism. What’s localism? Well in one sense it’s the concept that sits at the very lowest scale of the ideological continuum that includes nationalism and globalism. (You might think individualism would be the lowest -ism on that continuum, but it’s its own weird thing.) In another sense, the sense I intend to use it in, it’s the exact opposite of whatever having all of your “eggs in one basket” is. It’s the idea of placing a lot of bets, of diversifying risk, of allowing experimentation, of all the things I’ve alluded to over the last several posts like Sweden foregoing a quarantine, or Minneapolis’ plan to replace the police, and more generally, ensuring we don’t all make the same mistake.

To be clear, Musk’s push for a Mars Colony is an example of localism, despite how strange that phrase sounds. It keeps humanity from all making the same unrecoverable mistake of being on a single planet should that planet ever be destroyed. But what I hoped to illustrate with the bunker system is that the localism of a Mars Colony is all concentrated in one area, distance. And that it comes not by design, but as a byproduct. Mars is its own locality because it’s impossible for it to be otherwise. 

However, imagine that we figured out a way to make the trip at 1% the speed of light. In that case it would only take 12 hours to get from Earth to Mars, and while it would still offer great protection against all of humanity being taken out by an asteroid or comet, it would offer less protection against pandemics than what is currently enforced by the distance between New York and China. In such a case would we forego using this technology in favor of maintaining the greater protection we get from a longer trip? No,the idea of not using this technology would be inconceivable. All of which is to say that if you’re truly worried about catastrophes and you think localism would help, then that should be your priority. We shouldn’t rely on whatever localism we get as byproducts from other cool ideas. We should take actions whose sole goal is the creation of localism, actions which ensure our eggs have been distributed to different baskets. This intentionality is the biggest difference of all between the bunker system and a Mars Colony (Though, obviously the best idea of all would be a bunker on Mars!)

In a larger sense one of the major problems of the modern world is not merely a lack of intentional localism, but that we actually seem to be zealously pursuing the exact opposite course. Those in power mostly seem committed to making things as similar and as global as possible. It’s not enough that Minneapolis engage in radical police reform, your city is evil if it doesn’t immediately follow suit. On the other hand the idea that Sweden would choose a different course with the quarantine was at a minimum controversial and for many, downright horrifying

I’m sure that I am not the first to propose a system of bunkers as a superior alternative to a Mars colony if we’re genuinely serious about x-risks, and yet the latter still gets far more attention than the former. But to a certain extent, despite the space I’ve spent on the topic, I’m actually less worried about disparities of attention at this scale. When it comes to the topic of extreme risks and their mitigation, there are a lot of smart people working on the problem and I assume that there’s a very good chance they’ll recognize the weaknesses of a Mars colony, and our eventual plans will proceed from this recognition. It’s at lower scales that I worry, because the blindness around less ambitious localism seems even more pervasive, with far fewer people, smart or otherwise, paying any sort of attention. Not only are the dangers of unifying around a single solution harder to recognize, but there’s also lots of inertia towards that unity, with most people being of the opinion that it’s unquestionably a good thing.

IV.

In closing I have a theory for why this might be. Perhaps by putting it out there I might help some people recognize what’s happening, why it’s a mistake, and maybe even encourage them towards more localism, specifically at lower scales.

You would think that the dangers of “putting all of your eggs in one basket” would be obvious. That perhaps the problem is not that people are unaware of the danger, but that they don’t realize that’s what they’re doing. And while I definitely think that’s part of it, I think there is something else going on as well. 

In 1885, Andrew Carnegie in a speech to some students, repudiated that advice. In a quote you may have heard, he flipped things around and advised instead that we should, “Put all your eggs in one basket, and then watch that basket.” This isn’t horrible advice, particularly in certain areas. Most people, myself very much included, would advise that you only have one husband/wife/significant other. Which is essentially having all of your eggs in one basket and then putting a lot of effort into ensuring the health of that basket. Of course this course of action generally assumes that your choice of significant other was a good one. That in general with sufficient patience any relationship can be made to work, and that both parties accept that not everything is going to be perfect. 

If we take these principles and expand on them, we could imagine, as long as we’re making a good choice up front, and taking actions with some margin for error, that we should default towards all making the same good decision. Of having all of our eggs in one basket, but being especially vigilant about that basket. So far so reasonable, but how do we ensure the decision we’ve all decided to take is a good one? For most people the answer is simple, “Isn’t that the whole point of science and progress? Figuring out what the best decisions are and then taking them?”

Indeed it is, and I’m thankful that these tools exist, but it’s entirely possible that we’re asking more from them than they’re capable of providing. My contention is that, culturally, we’ve absorbed the idea that we should always be making the best choice. And, further because of our modern understanding of science and morality this should be easy to do. That lately we have begun to operate under the assumption that we do know what the best choice is, and accordingly we don’t need to spread out our eggs because science and moral progress has allowed us to identify the best basket and then put all of our eggs in that one. But I think this is a mistake. A mistake based on the delusion that the conclusions of science and progress are both ironclad, and easy to arrive at, when in fact neither of those things is true. 

I think it’s easy enough to see this delusion in action in the examples already given. You hardly hear any discussion of giving the police more money, because everyone has decided the best course of action is giving them less money. And already here we can see the failure of this methodology in action. The only conceivable reason for putting all of your eggs in one basket is that you’re sure it’s the best basket, or at least a good one, and yet if anything the science on what sort of funding best minimizes violent crime points towards spending more money as the better option, and even if you disagree with that, you’d have a hard time making the opposite case that the science is unambiguous about lower funding leading to better outcomes.

There are dozens if not hundreds of other examples, everything from the CDC’s recommendation on masks to policies on allowing transgender athletes to compete (would it that terrible to leave this up to the states, people can move), but this post is already running a little long, so I’ll wrap it up here. I acknowledge that I’m not sure there’s as much of a through line from a colony on Mars to defunding the police as I would like, but I’ll close by modifying the saying one further time.

Only put all of your eggs in one basket if you really have no other choice, and if you do, you should not only watch that basket, but make extra sure it’s the best basket available.


My own reservations about the Mars Colony aside, I would still totally want to visit Mars if I had the money. You can assist in that goal by donating, I know that doesn’t seem like it would help very much, but just you wait, if Elon Musk has his way eventually that trip will be all but free!


Don’t Make the Second Mistake

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Several years ago, when my oldest son had only been driving for around a year, he set out to take care of some things in an unfamiliar area about 30 minutes north of where we live. Of course he was using Google Maps, and as he neared his destination he realized he was about to miss his turn. Panicking, he immediately cranked the wheel of our van hard to the right, and actually ended up undershooting the turn, running into a curb and popping the front passenger side tire. 

He texted me and I explained where the spare was, and then over several other texts I guided him in putting it on. When he was finally done I told him not to take the van on the freeway because the spare wasn’t designed to go over 55. An hour later when he wasn’t home I tried calling him thinking that if he was driving I didn’t want him trying to text. After a couple of rings it went to voicemail, which seemed weird, so after a few minutes I tried texting him. He responded with this message:

I just got in another accident with another driver I’m so so so sorry. I have his license plate number, what else do I need to do?

Obviously my first question was whether he was alright. He said he was and that the van was still drivable (as it turned out, just barely…) He had been trying to get home without using the freeway and had naturally ended up in a part of town he was unfamiliar with. Arriving at an intersection, and already flustered by the blown tire and by how long it was taking, he thought it was a four-way stop, but instead only the street he was on had a stop sign. In his defence, there was a railroad crossing right next to the intersection on the other street, and so everything necessary to stop cross traffic was there, it just wasn’t active. Nor did it act anything like a four way stop.

In any event, after determining that no one else was stopped at what he thought were the other stop signs he proceeded and immediately got hit on the passenger side by someone coming down the other street. As I said the van was drivable, but just barely, and the insurance didn’t end up totaling it, but once again just barely. As it turns out the other driver was in a rental car, and as a side note, being hit by a rental car with full coverage in an accident with no injuries led to the other driver being very chill and understanding about the whole thing, so that was nice. Though I imagine the rental car company got every dime out of our insurance, certainly our rates went up, by a lot.

Another story…

While I was on my LDS mission in the Netherlands, my Dad wrote to me and related the following incident. He had been called over to my Uncle’s house to help him repair a snowmobile (in those days snowmobiles spent at least as much time being fixed as being ridden). As part of the repair they ended up needing to do some welding, but my dad only had his oxy acetylene setup with him. What he really needed was his arc welder, but that would mean towing the snowmobile trailer all the way back to his house on the other side of town, which seemed like a lot of effort for a fairly simple weld. He just needed to reattach something to the bulkhead. 

In order to do this with an oxy acetylene welder you had to put enough heat into the steel for it to start melting. Unfortunately on the other side of the bulkhead was the gas line to the carburetor, and as it started absorbing heat the line melted and gasoline poured out on to the hot steel immediately catching on fire. 

With a continual stream of gasoline pouring onto the fire, panic ensued, but it quickly became apparent that they needed to get the snowmobile out of the garage to keep the house from catching on fire. So my Father and Uncle grabbed the trailer and began to drag it into the driveway. Unfortunately the welder was still on the trailer, and it was pulling on the welding cart which had, among other things, a tank full of pure oxygen. My Dad saw this and tried to get my Uncle to stop, but he was far too focused on the fire to pay attention to my Father’s warnings, and so the tank tipped over.

You may not initially understand why this is so bad. Well, when an oxygen tank falls over the valve can snap off. In fact when you’re not using them there’s a special attachment you screw on to cover the valve which doesn’t prevent it from snapping off, but prevents it from becoming a missile if it does. Because, that’s what happens, the pressurized gas turns the big metal cylinder into a giant and very dangerous missile. But beyond that it would have filled the garage they were working in, the garage that already had a significant gasoline fire going with pure oxygen. Whether the fuel air bomb thus created would have been worse or better than the missile which had been created at the same time is hard to say, but both would have been really bad.

Fortunately the valve didn’t snap off, and they were able to get the snowmobile out into the driveway where a man passing by jumped out of his car with a fire extinguisher and put out the blaze. At which point my Father towed the trailer with the snowmobile over to his house, got out his arc welder, and had the weld done in about 30 seconds of actual welding.

What do both of these stories have in common? The panic, haste, and unfamiliar situation caused by making one mistake directly led to making more mistakes, and in both cases the mistakes which followed ended up being worse than the original mistake. Anyone, upon surveying the current scene would agree that mistakes have been made recently. Mistakes that have led to panic, hasty decisions, and most of all put us in very unfamiliar situations. When this happens people are likely to make additional mistakes, and this is true not only for individuals at intersections, and small groups working in garages, but also true at the level of nations, whether those nations are battling pandemics or responding to a particularly egregious example of police brutality or both at the same time.

If everyone acknowledges that mistakes have been made (which I think is indisputable) and further grants that the chaos caused by an initial mistake makes further mistakes more likely (less indisputable, but still largely unobjectionable I would assume). Where does that leave us? Saying that further mistakes are going to happen is straightforward enough, but it’s still a long way from that to identifying those mistakes before we make them, and farther still from identifying the mistakes to actually preventing them, since the power to prevent has to overlap with the insight to identify, which is, unfortunately, rarely the case. 

As you might imagine, I am probably not in a position to do much to prevent further mistakes. But you might at least hope that I could lend a hand in identifying them. I will do some of that, but this post, including the two stories I led with, is going to be more about pointing out that such mistakes are almost certainly going to happen, and our best strategy might be to ensure that such mistakes are not catastrophic. If actions were obviously mistakes we wouldn’t take those actions, we only take them because in advance they seem like good ideas. Accordingly this post is about lessening the chance that seemingly good actions will end up being mistakes later, and if they do end up being mistakes, making sure that they’re manageable mistakes rather than catastrophic mistakes. How do we do that?

The first principle I want to put forward is identifying the unknowns. Another way of framing this is asking, “What’s the worst that could happen?” Let me offer two competing examples drawn from current events:

First, masks: Imagine, if, to take an example from a previous post, the US had had a 30 day stockpile of masks for everyone in America, and when the pandemic broke out it had made them available and strongly recommended that people wear them. What’s the worst that could have happened? I’m struggling to come up with anything. I imagine that we might have seen some reaction from hardcore libertarians despite the fact that it was a recommendation, not a requirement. But the worst case is at best mild social unrest, and probably nothing at all.

Next, defunding the police: Now imagine that Minneapolis goes ahead with it’s plan to defund the police, what’s the worst that could happen there? I pick on Steven Pinker a lot, but maybe I can make it up to him a little bit by including a quote of his that has been making the rounds recently:

As a young teenager in proudly peaceable Canada during the romantic 1960s, I was a true believer in Bakunin’s anarchism. I laughed off my parents’ argument that if the government ever laid down its arms all hell would break loose. Our competing predictions were put to the test at 8:00 a.m. on October 7, 1969, when the Montreal police went on strike. By 11:20 am, the first bank was robbed. By noon, most of the downtown stores were closed because of looting. Within a few more hours, taxi drivers burned down the garage of a limousine service that competed with them for airport customers, a rooftop sniper killed a provincial police officer, rioters broke into several hotels and restaurants, and a doctor slew a burglar in his suburban home. By the end of the day, six banks had been robbed, a hundred shops had been looted, twelve fires had been set, forty carloads of storefront glass had been broken, and three million dollars in property damage had been inflicted, before city authorities had to call in the army and, of course, the Mounties to restore order. This decisive empirical test left my politics in tatters (and offered a foretaste of life as a scientist).

Now recall this is just the worst case, I am not saying this is what will happen, in fact I would be surprised if it did, particularly over such a short period. Also, I am not even saying that I’m positive defunding the police is a bad idea. It’s definitely not what I would do, but there’s certainly some chance that it might be an improvement on what we’re currently doing. But just as there’s some chance it might be better, one has to acknowledge that there’s also some chance that it might be worse. Which takes me to the second point.

If something might be a mistake it would be good if we don’t end up all making the same mistake. I’m fine if Minneapolis wants to take the lead on figuring out what it means to defund the police. In fact from the perspective of social science I’m excited about the experiment. I would be far less excited if every municipality decides to do it at the same time. Accordingly my second point is, knowing some of the actions we’re going to take in the wake of an initial mistake are likely to be further mistakes we should avoid all taking the same actions, for fear we all land on an action which turns out to be a further mistake.

I’ve already made this point as far as police violence goes, but we can also see it with masks. For reasons that still leave me baffled the CDC had a policy minimizing masks going all the way back to 2009. But fortunately this was not the case in Southeast Asia, and during the pandemic we got to see how the countries where mask wearing was ubiquitous fared, as it turned out, pretty well. No imagine that the same bad advice had been the standard worldwide. Would it have taken us longer to figure out that masks worked well for protecting against COVID-19? Almost certainly. 

So the two rules I have for avoiding the “second mistake” are:

  1. Consider the worst case scenario of an action before you take it. In particular try to consider the decision in the absence of the first mistake. Or what the decision might look like with the benefit of hindsight. (One clever mind hack I came across asks you to act as if you’ve been sent back in time to fix a horrible mistake, you just don’t know what the mistake was.)
  2. Avoid having everyone take the same response to the initial mistake. It’s easy in the panic and haste caused by the initial mistake for everyone to default to the same response, but that just makes the initial mistake that much worse if everyone panics into making the same wrong decision.

There are other guidelines as well, and I’ll be discussing some of them in my next post, but these two represent an easy starting point. 

Finally, I know I’ve already provided a couple of examples, but there are obviously lots of other recent actions which could be taken or have been taken and you may be wondering what their mistake potential is. To be clear I’m not saying that any of these actions are a mistake, identifying mistakes in advance is really hard, I’m just going to look at them with respect to the standards above. 

Let’s start with actions which have been taken or might be taken with respect to the pandemic. 

  1. Rescue package: In response to the pandemic, the US passed a massive aid/spending bill. Adding quite a bit to a national debt that is already quite large. I have maintained for a while that the worst case scenario here is pretty bad. (The arguments around this are fairly deep, with the leading counter argument being that we don’t have to worry because such a failure is impossible.) Additionally while many governments did the same thing, I’m less worried here about doing the same thing everyone else did and more worried about doing the same thing we always do when panic ensues. That is, throw money at things. 
  2. Closing things down/Opening them back up: Both actions seemed to happen quite suddenly and in near unison, with the majority of states doing both nearly simultaneously.  I’ve already talked about how there seemed to be very little discussion of the economic effects in pre-pandemic planning and equally not much consideration for what to do in the event of a new outbreak after opening things back up. As far as everyone doing the same thing, as I’ve mentioned before I’m glad that Sweden didn’t shut things down, just like I’d be happy to see Minneapolis try a new path with the police.
  3. Social unrest: I first had the idea for this post before George Floyd’s death. And at the time it already seemed that people were using COVID as an excuse to further stoke political divisions. That rather than showing forth understanding to those who were harmed by the shutdown they were hurling criticisms. To be clear the worst case scenario on this tactic is a 2nd civil war. Also, not only is everyone making the same mistake of blaming the other side, but similar to spending it also seems to be our go-to tactic these days.

Moving on to the protests and the anger over police brutality:

  1. The protests themselves: This is another area where the worst case scenario is pretty bad. While we’ve had good luck recently with protests generally fizzling out before anything truly extreme happened, historically there have been lots of times where protests just kept getting bigger and bigger until governments were overthrown, cities burned and thousands died. Also while there have been some exceptions, it’s been remarkable how even worldwide everyone is doing the same thing, gathering downtown in big cities and protesting, and further how the protests all look very similar, with the police confrontations, the tearing down of statues, the yelling, etc.
  2. The pandemic: I try to be pretty even keeled about things, and it’s an open question whether I actually succeed, but the hypocrisy demonstrated by how quickly media and scientists changed their recommendations when the protests went from being anti-lockdown to anti police brutality was truly amazing both in how blatant and how partisan it was. Clearly there is a danger that the protests will contribute significantly to an increase in COVID cases, and it is difficult to see how arguments about the ability to do things virtually don’t apply here. Certainly whatever damage has been caused as a side effect of the protests would be far less if they had been conducted virtually… 
  3. Defunding the police: While this has already been touched on, the worst case scenario not only appears to be pretty bad, but very likely to occur as well. In particular everything I’ve seen since things started seems to indicate that the solution is to spend more money on policing rather than less. And yet nearly in lock stop most large cities have put forward plans to spend less money on the police

I confess that these observations are less hard and fast and certainly less scientific than I would have liked. But if it was easy to know how we would end up making the second mistake we wouldn’t make it. Certainly if my son had known the danger of that particular intersection he would have spent the time necessary to figure out it wasn’t a four way stop. Or if my father had known that using the oxy acetylene welder would catch the fuel on fire he would have taken the extra time to move things to his house so he could use the arc welder. And I am certain that when we look back on how we handled the pandemic and the protests that there will be things that turned out to be obvious mistakes. Mistakes which we wish we had avoided. But maybe, if we can be just a little bit wiser and a little less panicky, we can avoid making the second mistake.


It’s possible that you think it was a mistake to read this post, hopefully not, but if it was then I’m going to engage in my own hypocrisy and ask you to, this one time, make a second mistake and donate. To be fair the worst case scenario is not too bad, and everyone is definitely not doing it.


Books I Finished in May

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The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity By: Toby Ord
Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction By: Philip E. Tetlock and Dan Gardner
Dune By: Frank Herbert
Marriage and Civilization: How Monogamy Made Us Human By: William Tucker
Euripides II: Andromache, Hecuba, The Suppliant Women, Electra By: Euripides
10% Less Democracy: Why You Should Trust Elites a Little More and the Masses a Little Less By: Garett Jones
Saints Volume 2: No Unhallowed Hand By: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints


Some of you might have noticed that May was a pretty slow month as far as posts. Part of that was due to the last post, which was not only long, but seemed to require some additional care and attention. Some of it was due to spending several days traveling from Utah to Arizona to New Mexico and then back to Utah on a trip to help my brother move. But most of it is that I’m trying to make sure I spend some of my writing time every day working on a book. I’m pretty sure I mentioned my intention to write a book previously in this space, but it is definitely happening and I expect it to be out this year for sure, and maybe if I’m lucky it will be out this fall.

Beyond that 2020 continues to be interesting, in the sense of the apocryphal Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.” And as an (aspiring, mostly secular) eschatologist, it seems like I should say something about the ongoing protests/unrest/riots happening in the wake of George Floyd’s death. but I think now is not the time. (Though I may allude to it here and there in my reviews) It will probably come up as part of the next post, though as more of a tangent than the primary subject.  Also I think it’s easier to be wise when events aren’t quite so fresh. For now I would just refer people to my post about civil unrest being like Godzilla trudging back and forth through your town.


I- Eschatological Reviews

The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity

By: Toby Ord
480 Pages

General Thoughts

As you might imagine I’ve read several books with more or less the same subject as The Precipice. And, as of this moment, if I were asked which of them I would recommend as an entry point, it’d probably be this one. It’s short — the page count above is misleading, the book ends on page 241 and the other half is appendices, notes, etc. — well written, and a good introduction without being dumbed down. And if you do want to dig deeper the other half of the book contains pointers to all the additional information you could ever want. Finally, while I’m wary of placing precise numbers on the chances of a particular existential risk (x-risk) happening, since I worry those numbers will be used to justify inaction, for those that are prepared to use them responsibly, having numbers provides a useful place to start a discussion. Assuming that all of my readers fall into this latter category here they are:

Existential catastrophe via Chance within the next 100 years
Asteroid/comet Impact ~1 in 1,000,000
Supervolcanic eruption ~1 in 10,000
Stellar explosion ~1 in 1,000,000
Total natural risk ~1 in 10,000
Nuclear war ~1 in 1,000
Climate change ~1 in 1,000
Other environmental damage ~1 in 1,000
Naturally arising pandemics ~1 in 10,000
Engineered pandemics ~1 in 30
Unaligned artificial intelligence ~1 in 10
Unforeseen anthropogenic risks ~1 in 30
Other anthropogenic risks ~1 in 50
Total anthropogenic risks ~1 in 6
Total existential risk ~1 in 6

In addition to the value of having an estimate of the various odds, of even more interest is comparing the categories against one another. To begin with Oord contends that anthropogenic risks completely overwhelms natural risks. Which is to say that we will probably be the architects of our own destruction. Of further interest, his rating of the risk from artificial intelligence almost completely overwhelms the other anthropogenic risks. I don’t agree with this second contention, though given my uncertainty, I suspect the amount of money I want to spend on the issue is not all that different from Oord’s figure. At a minimum we both want to spend more. 

All of which is to say it’s a great book which makes a powerful case for paying attention to existential risks, and it backs up this case with a large quantity of useful information. If I had any complaint it would be that it doesn’t mention Fermi’s Paradox. As anyone who has followed my blog for any length of time knows, from a purely secular perspective I believe that the paradox represents the best proof of x-risks, particularly of the anthropogenic sort, which Oord himself considers to be the most dangerous, and the idea that intelligent species inevitably sow the seeds of their own destruction remains one of the leading explanations for the paradox. All of this combines to leave the paradox as one of the best reasons to take x-risks seriously. Which is why it’s unfortunate he doesn’t include it as part of the book. Even more unfortunate is the reason why.

When I said it wasn’t included in the book, I meant it wasn’t included in the main text. It is brought up in the supplementary material, and it turns out that Oord was one of the co-authors of the infamous (at least in my eyes) paper that claimed to dissolve Fermi’s Paradox. I have written extensively about my objections to that paper, and it was only after I finished Precipice that I made the connection and I have to say it surprised me. And it may be the one big criticism I have of the book and of Oord in general.

What This Book Says About Eschatology

I’m sure that other people have said this elsewhere, but Oord’s biggest contribution to eschatology is his unambiguous assertion that we have much more to worry from risks we create for ourselves than any natural risks. Which is a point I’ve been making since my very first post and which bears repeating. The future either leads towards some form of singularity, some event that removes the risks brought about by progress and technology (examples might include a benevolent AI, brain uploading, massive interstellar colonization, a post-scarcity utopia, etc.) or it leads to catastrophe, there is no a third option. And we should be a lot more worried about this than we are.

In the past it didn’t really matter how bad a war or a revolution got, or how angry people were, there was a fundamental cap on the level of damage which humans could inflict on one another. However insane the French Revolution got, it was never going to kill every French citizen, or do much damage to nearby states, and it certainly was going to have next to no effect on China. But now any group with enough rage and a sufficient disregard for humanity could cripple the power grid, engineer a disease (something I touched on in a previous post) or figure out how to launch a nuke. For the first time in history technology has provided the means necessary for any madness you can imagine.


II- Capsule Reviews

Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction

By: Philip E. Tetlock and Dan Gardner
352 Pages

After writing the post Pandemic Uncovers the Limitations of Superforecasting (originally ‘limitations’ was ‘ridiculousness’) I got some pushback. And it occurred to me that it would be easier to respond to criticism if I had read the book. So I did. And then I wrote another post on the subject. As such most of my thoughts on the book and the topic will appear in one of those two posts. In those posts I was trying to be as objective as possible, but I would assume that I’ll be forgiven if in the actual review I end up being slightly more opinionated. 

To begin with the idea of tracking and grading predictions is a good one, and an obvious refinement from making random pronouncements on TV. The first part of the book is largely Telock railing against these bad predictions and the bad predictors of the past. Which I suppose is interesting, but it’s also largely unsurprising. The last part of the book is a gushing love letter to superforecasters, with over half the book talking about how great they are and how to achieve this greatness on your own. This part is interesting but, and it should be noted that I’m pretty biased, I found it to be heavy handed with large doses of self-congratulation in there as well.

What he didn’t spend much time on was proving the connection between accurate forecasting and better decisions based on that forecasting. But I’ve spent far too much time on that subject already.

In the end, and with my biases once again noted. I thought it was the kind of thing where 95% of the book could be gleaned from a long article.


Dune

By: Frank Herbert
518 Pages

I think I already mentioned this, but I’m experimenting with doing more re-reading of books I’ve enjoyed in the past, which is how I came to read Dune for (I’m guessing) the fourth or fifth time. 

Dune is inarguably one of the greatest science fiction novels ever, which came back to me powerfully as I was reading it. But, also, as I carefully went through it again, marking passages I liked, and really attempting to breathe deeply of it, I noticed that some aspects of the novel are actually a little bit silly. 

To be fair, much of this is due to the fact that I’ve gone from being the wide-eyed youth who read it for the first time in high school, to an obvious curmudgeon. But on top of that, noticing what was silly made me appreciate even more the bits of the book that were so fantastic. So which parts were silly? Well to pick just a couple, and remember I love this book:

First, the ecology of the sandworm makes very little sense. Herbert imagines a species of megafauna a hundred times larger than anything which ever existed on Earth, and puts them in the most inhospitable place imaginable. What do they eat? They have these giant maws which are great for swallowing thopters and spice harvesters, but what are they used for in the absence of these things? 

Second, a great deal of the plot revolves around the idea that difficult conditions produce better warriors, and moreover that this is some kind of secret. For example the fact that there’s a connection between the Sardukaur and the Emperor’s prison planet is incredibly dangerous to even mention. But the general connection between fighting and difficult training has been known since at least the time of Alexander and presumably long before that.

I could go on, but it’s not my point to savage Dune. I come to praise it not to bury it. And my point is that knowing about some of its weaknesses makes its strengths all the more remarkable. What are those strengths? I think it mostly boils down to his depiction of the Fremen. And there’s one scene in particular that encapsulates this the best. Thufir Hawat, the Atreides mentat, has survived the betrayal and encountered some Fremen. His goal is to continue fighting, but he’s got numerous wounded men, and he’s hoping that the Fremen will help him with both problems, but they keep telling him that he hasn’t made the “water decision”. 

[Hawat] “I wish to be freed of the responsibility for my wounded that I may get about it.”

The Fremen scowled. “How can you be responsible for your wounded? They are their own responsibility. The water’s at issue, Thufir Hawat. Would you have me take that decision away from you?”

“What do you do with your own wounded?” Hawat demanded.

“Does a man not know when he is worth saving?” the Fremen asked. “Your wounded know you have no water.” He tilted his head, looking sideways up at Hawat. “this is clearly a time for water decision. Both wounded and unwounded must look to the tribe’s future.”

The Fremen is asking which of his wounded men Hawat wants to sacrifice and have their water rendered out, because without water nothing can happen on Arrakis.  There’s other great stuff going on in this scene as well, but I think much of the appeal of Dune crystalizes around the purity of the Fremen’s relationship with water. It combines stoicism, sacrifice, and being part of a closely bound tribe. (For more on why that’s appealing see my review of the book of the same name.) It’s a world stripped down to only the essentials. Something that was lacking even in 1965 when the book was written and is even more sorely missing now.

As much as we love our comforts there’s something deeply appealing about the Fremen and their water.


Marriage and Civilization: How Monogamy Made Us Human

By: William Tucker
290 Pages

Marriage and Civilization covers much of the same territory as Sex and Culture, by J.D. Unwin, a book I reviewed previously, but whereas Sex and Culture was deep, anthropological and freudian, Marriage and Civilization is broad, evolutionary, and current. And if you’re one of those rare people who’s on the fence about whether monogamy is important and you’re looking for a book to help you decide I would definitely recommend the latter over the former. 

Of course most people aren’t on the fence. Most people have already taken sides in the debate on marriage and monogamy, and from my perspective most people have decided it doesn’t matter. The question is, what’s in this book that might convince them to change their mind? Well frankly lots, though out of a consideration for space I’ve found a quote that hopefully gives a pretty good summary:

…the modern package of monogamous marriage [has] been favoured by cultural evolution because of [its] group-beneficial effects—promoting success in inter-group competition. In suppressing intrasexual competition and reducing the size of the pool of unmarried men, normative monogamy reduces crime rates, including rape, murder, assault, robbery…fraud…personal abuses…the spousal age gap…gender inequality… [and] increases savings, child investment and economic productivity.

The anthropological record indicates that approximately 85 per cent of human societies have permitted men to have more than one wife…The 15 per cent or so of societies… with monogamous marriage fall into two disparate categories: (i) small-scale societies inhabiting marginal environments with little status distinctions among males [i.e. hunter-gatherers] and (ii) some of history’s largest and most successful ancient societies.

Lest you think that’s an example of Tucker’s writing, it’s actually a quote from a paper he excerpted from called The Puzzle of Monogamous Marriage, but it was the best summary I could find quickly. And it’s interesting that there have been papers on it, since when I reviewed Sex and Culture I wondered why no one had tried to Unwin’s findings, and I continue to be pretty sure no one has, particularly the zoistic, manistic, diestic split, but here we have a paper which does basically confirm his central point. And the excerpt I included can be found in a book full of similar pieces of evidence.

As I’ve said before and I’ll say again. People living in the past were not nearly as ignorant as some people think, in fact they may have even been on to something important.


Euripides II: Andromache, Hecuba, The Suppliant Women, Electra

By: Euripides
268 Pages

For those who’ve been following my path through the Greek tragedies, this collection continues the trend I mentioned before of lionizing Athens. This time around I recognized how often Theseus, the rule of Athens, swoops in at the end of the play and manages to “save the day.” Growing up, I remember people talking about the Greek tradition of deus ex machina, which is when a god shows up at the end and solves everything, but from what I’ve seen Theseus ex machina is a lot more common.

Beyond this I continue to be surprised by the antiquity of civilized customs. This time around it was respect for the dead of your enemy, something which everyone agrees is civilized, but which we have a hard time doing even now. But in the play The Suppliant Women people are willing to go to war not merely to recover their own war dead, but to recover the war dead of another city state. Any guess who these people might be? Yep. The Athenians, and they’re led into war by Theseus…


10% Less Democracy: Why You Should Trust Elites a Little More and the Masses a Little Less

By: Garett Jones
234 Pages

Growing up I read a lot of politically themed science fiction collections which had been edited by Jerry Pournelle. The best known of which was the There Will be War series. (The first volume featured the short story version of Ender’s Game.) Intermixed with science fiction short stories were essays, some by Pournelle, and in my memory a significant fraction of his essays dealt in some fashion or another with restricting democracy. Pournelle’s idea being that a government was only as good as it’s rulers, and given that the rulers of a democracy are its voters, it might make sense to not let just anybody do it. That restrictions put in place to improve the quality of the voters would be a good thing. Those were simpler times, calls for restricting democracy are more dangerous these days, and yet Jones has decided to brave the same treacherous waters as Pournelle did back in the 80s with a book calling for exactly that.

Despite the aforementioned danger I will admit that I have a certain amount of sympathy for these arguments. As a thought experiment, imagine a policy that takes the segment of the population who’s never voted, who doesn’t want to vote, who’s apathetic and uninformed about the issues and makes these people vote, does this improve our system of government or not? If the number of voters added is small enough, it probably doesn’t matter, but if we imagine that this group comprises 33 million people (or 10% of the country) would adding these millions of voters improve things or make them worse?

This is along the lines of what Garret’s imagining as well. He feels that Democracy might be similar to taxes, that just as taxes of 100% wouldn’t maximize revenue, 100% democracy doesn’t maximize good governance. From there he suggests various ways to make slight reductions to democracy in a targeted fashion. Examples range from things like not letting felons vote, appointed, rather than elected judges, and independent central banks through things like longer terms for elected officials, and restoring earmarks, all the way up to proposals like making the Senate into a Sapientum, by requiring that only people with college degrees are allowed to vote in those elections.

All, or at least most of these proposals are encapsulated by the subtitle of the book, “Why You Should Trust Elites a Little More and the Masses a Little Less”. As I’ve said I have some sympathy for some of these ideas, but I also have a big problem with elite consensus, and the key word in that phrase is “consensus”. I worry that if we’re all doing the same thing and if that thing ends up being a mistake, then everyone ends up making that mistake. Which is not only bad in and of itself but given that the damage from mistakes often scales exponentially rather than linearly with the number of people making mistakes widespread mistakes are generally far worse than mistakes made insolation.


III- Religious Reviews 

Saints Volume 2: No Unhallowed Hand

By: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints
833 Pages

Several years ago, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) decided to be more proactive about confronting and explaining subjects that some people found troublesome, mostly subjects of doctrine and history. In other words they essentially created an internal apologetics department. As part of this initiative they released the Gospel Topics Essays. These mostly focused on the doctrine side of things. For dealing with the history side of things they put together a group of editors and writers and tasked them with producing multi volume history of the Church. The first volume was released in 2018 and covers from Joseph Smith’s youth all the way up to the dedication of the Nauvoo Temple in 1846 (two years after Smith’s martyrdom). This is a review of volume 2 of that project which picks up where the last one left off and goes up through the dedication of the Salt Lake Temple in 1893. 

As I indicated, one of the major motivations for the project was apologetic, and to be honest I’m not sure I’m a fan of how this gets reflected in the writing and tone of the book. In particular two, somewhat objectionable things end up happening. First, because good apologetics requires a strict adherence to primary sources the writers have no latitude for embellishment. They can’t speculate on what an early saint might have been thinking or on their inner motivations or anything like that. If it isn’t mentioned in a primary source like a journal or a newspaper article, it isn’t included.

Second, because it’s a work of apologetics it has to make sure to hit all of the incidents and events which might benefit from an apologetic defence. This leads to a lot of jumping around, where once incident after another is touched on and explained, but without much space to do anything beyond that. In my opinion this has resulted in a choppy and disjointed style, though I will say that I thought Volume 2 was much better about this than Volume 1. So, perhaps I wasn’t the only one who remarked on the problem and they have worked to smooth it out in the second volume. 

These are all fairly minor quibbles. What’s most important is that this period of LDS history is objectively amazing and interesting even if you aren’t a member of the church, and I’m looking forward to volume 3.


I’ve been saying for a long time that bad things have not been eliminated by progress and technology. In a moment filled with bad things I warned about, let me reiterate the other thing I’m always saying, “I would have rather been wrong.” If you’d like me to continue saying things that might later turn out to be true but hopefully won’t be, consider donating.


My Final Case Against Superforecasting (with criticisms considered, objections noted, and assumptions buttressed)

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

Or download the MP3


I.

One of my recent posts, Pandemic Uncovers the Limitations of Superforecasting, generated quite a bit of pushback. And given that in-depth debate is always valuable and that this subject, at least for me, is a particularly important one. I thought I’d revisit it, and attempt to further answer some of the objections that were raised the first time around. While also clarifying some points that people misinterpreted or gave insufficient weight to. 

To begin with, you might wonder how anybody could be opposed to superforecasting, and what that opposition would be based on. Isn’t any effort to improve forecasting obviously a good thing? Well for me it’s an issue of survival and existential risk. And while questions of survival are muddier in the modern world than they were historically, I would hope that everyone would at least agree that it’s an area that requires extreme care and significant vigilance. That even if you are inclined to disagree with me, that questions of survival call for maximum scrutiny. Given that we’ve already survived the past, most of our potential difficulties lie in the future, and it would be easy to assume that being able to predict that future would go a long way towards helping us survive it, but that is where I and the superforecasters part company, and the crux of the argument.

Fortunately or unfortunately as the case may be, we are at this very moment undergoing a catastrophe, a catastrophe which at one point lay in the future, but not any more. A catastrophe we now wish our past selves and governments had done a better job preparing for. And here we come to the first issue: preparedness is different than prediction. An eventual pandemic was predicted about as well as anything could have been, prediction was not the problem. A point Alex Tabarrok made recently on Marginal Revolution:

The Coronavirus Pandemic may be the most warned about event in human history. Surprisingly, we even did something about it. President George W. Bush started a pandemic preparation plan and so did Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in CA but in both cases when a pandemic didn’t happen in the next several years those plans withered away. We ignored the important in favor of the urgent.

It is evident that the US government finds it difficult to invest in long-term projects, perhaps especially in preparing for small probability events with very large costs. Pandemic preparation is exactly one such project. How can we improve the chances that we are better prepared next time?

My argument is that we need to be looking for the methodology that best addresses this question, and not merely how we can be better prepared for pandemics, but better prepared for all rare, high impact events.

Another term for such events is “black swans”, after the book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Which is the term I’ll be using going forward. (Though, Taleb himself would say that, at best, this is a grey swan, given how inevitable it was.) Tabarrok’s point, and mine, is that we need a methodology that best prepares us for black swans, and I would submit that superforecasting, despite its many successes, is not that method. And in fact it may play directly into some of the weaknesses of modernity that encourage black swans, and rather than helping to prepare for such events, superforecasting may in fact discourage such preparedness.

What are these weaknesses I’m talking about? Tabarrok touched on them when he noted that, “It is evident that the US government finds it difficult to invest in long-term projects, perhaps especially in preparing for small probability events with very large costs.” Why is this? Why were the US and California plans abandoned after only a few years? Because the modern world is built around the idea of continually increasing efficiency. And the problem is that there is a significant correlation between efficiency and fragility. A fragility which is manifested by this very lack of preparedness.

One of the posts leading up to the one where I criticized superforecasting was built around exactly this point, and related the story of how 3M considered maintaining a surge capacity for masks in the wake of SARS, but it was quickly apparent that such a move would be less efficient, and consequently worse for them and their stock price. The drive for efficiency led to them being less prepared, and I would submit that it’s this same drive that led to the “withering away” of the US and California pandemic plans. 

So how does superforecasting play into this? Well, how does anyone decide where gains in efficiency can be realized or conversely where they need to be more cautious? By forecasting. And if a company or a state hires the Good Judgement Project to tell them what the chances are of a pandemic in the next five years and GJP comes back with the number 5% (i.e. an essentially accurate prediction) are those states and companies going to use that small percentage to justify continuing their pandemic preparedness or are they going to use it to justify cutting it? I would assume the answer to that question is obvious, but if you disagree then I would ask you to recall that companies almost always have a significantly greater focus on maximizing efficiency/profit, than on preparing for “small probability events with very large costs”.

Accordingly the first issue I have with superforecasting is that it can be (and almost certainly is) used as a tool for increasing efficiency, which is basically the same as increasing fragility. That rather than being used as a tool for determining which things we should prepare for it’s used as an excuse to avoid preparing for black swans, including the one we’re in the middle of. It is by no means the only tool being used to avoid such preparedness, but that doesn’t let it off the hook.

Now I understand that the link between fragility and efficiency is not going to be as obvious to everyone as it is to me, and if you’re having trouble making the connection I would urge you to read Antifragile by Taleb, or at least the post I already mentioned. Also, even if you find the link tenuous I would hope that you would keep reading because not only are there more issues but some of them may serve to make the connection clearer. 

II.

If my previous objection represented my only problem with superforecasting then I would probably agree with people who say that as a discipline it is still, on net, beneficial. But beyond providing a tool that states and companies can use to justify ignoring potential black swans superforecasting is also less likely to consider the probability of such events in the first place. 

When I mentioned this point in my previous post, the people who disagreed with me had two responses. First they pointed out that the people making the forecasts had no input on the questions they were being asked to make forecasts on and consequently no ability to be selective about the predictions they were making. Second, and more broadly they claimed that I needed to do more research and that my assertions were not founded in a true understanding of how superforecasting worked.

In an effort to kill two birds with one stone, since that last post I have read Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction by Phillip Tetlock and Dan Gardner. Which I have to assume comes as close to being the bible of superforecasting as anything. Obviously, like anyone, I’m going to suffer from confirmation bias, and I would urge you to take that into account when I offer my opinion on the book. With that caveat in place, here, from the book, is the first commandment of superforecasting:

1) Triage

Focus on questions where your hard work is likely to pay off. Don’t waste time either on easy “clocklike” questions (where simple rules of thumb can get you close to the right answer) or on impenetrable “cloud-like” questions (where even fancy statistical models can’t beat the dart-throwing chimp). Concentrate on questions in the Goldilocks zone of difficulty, where effort pays off the most.

For instance, “Who will win the presidential election twelve years out, in 2028?” is impossible to forecast now. Don’t even try. Could you have predicted in 1940 the winner of the election, twelve years out, in 1952? If you think you could have known it would be a then-unknown colonel in the United States Army, Dwight Eisenhower, you may be afflicted by one of the worst cases of hindsight bias ever documented by psychologists. 

The question which should immediately occur to everyone: are black swans more likely to be in or out the Goldilocks zone? It would seem that, almost by definition, they’re going to be outside of this zone. Also, just based on the book’s description of the zone and all the questions I’ve seen both in the book and elsewhere, it would seem clear they’re outside of the zone. Which is to say that even if such predictions are not misused, they’re unlikely to be made in the first place. 

All of this would appear to heavily incline superforecasting towards the streetlight effect, where the old drunk looks for his keys under the streetlight, not because that’s where he lost them, but because that’s where the light is the best. Now to be fair, it’s not a perfect analogy. With respect to superforecasting there are actually lots of useful keys under the streetlight, and the superforecasters are very good at finding them. But based on everything I have already said, it would appear that all of the really important keys are out there in the dark, and as long as superforecasters are finding keys under the streetlight what inducement do they have to venture out into the shadows looking for keys? No one is arguing that the superforecasters aren’t good, but this is one of those cases where the good is the enemy of the best. Or more precisely it makes the uncommon the enemy of the rare.

It would be appropriate to ask at this point, if superforecasting is good, then what is “best”, and I intend to dedicate a whole section to that topic before this post is over, but for the moment I’d like to direct your attention to Toby Ord, and his recent book The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity, which I recently finished. (I’ll have a review of it in my month end round up.) Ord is primarily concerned with existential risks, risks which could wipe out all of humanity. Or to put it another way the biggest and blackest swans. A comparison of his methodology with the methodology of superforecasting might be instructive.  

Oord spends a significant portion of the book talking about pandemics. On his list of eight anthropogenic risks, pandemics take up 25% of the spots (natural pandemics get one spot and artificial pandemics get the other). On the other hand, if one were to compile all of the forecasts made by the Good Judgement Project since the beginning, what percentage of them would be related to potential pandemics? I’d be very much surprised if it wasn’t significantly less than 1%. While such measures are crude, one method pays a lot more attention than the other, and in any accounting of why we weren’t prepared for the pandemic, a lack of attention would certainly have to be high on the list.

Then there are Oord’s numbers. He provides odds that various existential risks will wipe us all out in the next 100 years. The odds he gives for that happening with a naturally arising pandemic are 1 in 10,000, the odds for an engineered pandemic are 1 in 30. The foundation of superforecasting is the idea that we should grade people’s predictions. How does one grade predictions of existential risk? Clearly compiling a track record would be impossible, they’re essentially unfalsifiable, and beyond all that they’re well outside the Goldilocks zone. Personally I’d almost rather that Oord didn’t give odds and just spent his time screaming, “BE VERY, VERY AFRAID!” But he doesn’t, he provides odds and hopes that by providing numbers people will take him more seriously than if he just yells. 

From all this you might still be unclear why Oord is better than the superforecasters. It’s because our world is defined by black swan events, and we are currently living out an example of that: our current world is overwhelmingly defined by the pandemic. If you were to selectively remove knowledge of just it from someone trying to understand the world absolutely nothing would make sense. Everyone understands this when we’re talking about the present, but it also applies to all past forecasting we engaged in. 99% of all superforecasting predictions lent nothing to our understanding of this moment, but 25% of Oord’s did. Which is more important: getting our 80% predictions about uncommon events to 95% or gaining any awareness, no matter how small, of a rare event which will end up dominating the entire world?

III.

At their core all of the foregoing complaints boil down to the idea that the methodology of superforecasting fails to take into account impact. The impact of not having extra mask capacity if a pandemic arrives. The impact of keeping to the Goldilocks zone and overlooking black swans. The impact of being wrong vs. the impact of being right.

When I made this claim in the previous post, once again several people accused me of not doing my research. As I mentioned, since then I have read the canonical book on the subject, and I still didn’t come across anything that really spoke to this complaint. To be clear, Tetlock does mention Taleb’s objections, and I’ll get to that momentarily, but I’m actually starting to get the feeling that neither the people who had issues with the last point, nor Tetlock himself really grasp this point, though there’s a decent chance I’m the one who’s missing something. Which is another point I’ll get to before the end. But first I recently encountered an example I think might be useful. 

The movie Molly’s Game is about a series of illegal poker games run by Molly Bloom. The first set of games she runs is dominated by Player X, who encourages Molly to bring in fishes, bad players with lots of money. Accordingly, Molly is confused when Tobey Mcquire, Player X brings in Harlan Eustice, who ends up being a very skillful player. That is until one night when Eustice loses a hand to the worst player at the table. This sets him off, changing him from a calm and skillful player, into a compulsive and horrible player, and by the end of the night he’s down $1.2 million.

Let’s put some numbers on things and say that 99% of the time Eustice is conservative and successful and he mostly wins. That on average, conservative Eustice ends the night up by $10k. But, 1% of the time, Eustice is compulsive and horrible, and during those times he loses $1.2 million. And so our question is should he play poker at all? (And should Player X want him at the same table he’s at?) The math is straightforward, his expected return over 100 average games is -$210k. It would seem clear that the answer is “No, he shouldn’t play poker.”

But superforecasting doesn’t deal with the question of whether someone should “play poker” it works by considering a single question, answering that question and assigning a confidence level to the answer. So in this case they would be asked the question, “Will Harlan Eustice win money at poker tonight?” To which they would say, “Yes, he will, and my confidence level in that prediction is 99%.” That prediction is in fact accurate, and would result in a fantastic Brier score (the grading system for superforecasters), but by repeatedly following that advice Eustice eventually ends up destitute.

This is what I mean by impact, and why I’m concerned about the potential black swan blindness of superforecasting. When things depart from the status quo, when Eustice loses money, it’s often so dramatic that it overwhelms all of the times when things went according to expectations.  That the smartest behavior for Eustice, the recommended behavior, should be to never play poker regardless of the fact that 99% of the time he makes thousands of dollars an hour. Furthermore this example illustrates some subtleties of forecasting which often get overlooked:

  • If it’s a weekly poker game you might expect the 1% outcome to pop up every two years, but it could easily take five years, even if you keep the probability the same. And if the probability is off by even a little bit (small probabilities are notoriously hard to assess) it could take even longer to see. Which is to say that forecasting during that time would result in continually increasing confidence, and greater and greater black swan blindness.
  • The benefits of wins are straightforward and easy to quantify. But the damage associated with the one big loss is a lot more complicated and may carry all manner of second order effects. Harlan may go bankrupt, get divorced, or even have his legs broken by the mafia. All of which is to say that the -$210k expected reward is the best outcome. Bad things are generally worse than expected. (For example it’s been noted that even though people foresaw a potential pandemic, plans almost never touched on the economic disruption which would attend it, which ended up being the biggest factor of all.)

Unless you’re Eustice, you may not care about the above example, or you may think that it’s contrived, but in the realm of politics this sort of bet is fairly common. As an example cast your mind back to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Imagine that in addition to his advisors, that at that time Kennedy also could draw on the Good Judgement Project and superforecasting. Further imagine that the GJP comes back with the prediction that if we blockade Cuba that the Russians will back down, a prediction they’re 95% confident of.  Let’s further imagine that they called the odds perfectly. In that case, should the US have proceeded with the blockade? Or should we have backed down and let the USSR base missiles in Cuba? When you just look at that 95% the answer seems obvious. But shouldn’t some allowance be made for the fact that the remaining 5% contains the possibility of all out nuclear war?

As near as I can tell, that part isn’t explored very well by superforecasting. Generally they get a question, they provide the answer and assign a confidence level to that answer. There’s no methodology for saying that despite the 95% probability that such gambles are bad ideas because if we make enough of them eventually we’ll “go bust”. None of this is to say that we should have given up and submitted to Soviet domination because it’s better than a full on nuclear exchange. (Though there were certainly people who felt that way.) More that it was a complicated question with no great answer (though it might have been a good idea for the US to not to put missiles in Turkey.) But by providing a simple answer with a confidence level of 95% superforecasting gives decision makers every incentive to substitute the true, and very difficult questions of nuclear diplomacy with the easy question of whether to blockade. That rather than considering the difficult and long term question of whether Eustice should gamble at all, we’re substituting the easier question of just whether he should play poker tonight. 

In the end I don’t see any bright line between a superforecaster saying there’s a 95% chance the Cuban Missile Crisis will end peacefully if we blockade, or a 99% chance Eustice will win money if he plays poker tonight, and those statements being turned into a recommendation for taking those actions, when in reality both may turn out to be very bad ideas.

IV.

All of the foregoing is an essentially Talebian critique of superforecasting, and as I mentioned earlier, Tetlock is aware of this critique. In fact he calls it, “the strongest challenge to the notion of superforecasting.” And in the final analysis it may be that we differ merely in whether that challenge can be overcome or not. Tetlock thinks it can, I have serious doubts, particularly if the people using the forecasts are unaware of the issues I’ve raised. 

Frequently people confronted with Taleb’s ideas of extreme events and black swans end up countering that we can’t possibly prepare for all potential catastrophes. Tetlock is one of those people and he goes on to say that even if we can’t prepare for everything that we should still prepare for a lot of things, but that means we need to establish priorities, which takes us back to making forecasts in order to inform those priorities. I have a couple of responses to this. 

  1. It is not at all clear that the forecasts one would make about which black swans to be most worried about follow naturally from superforecasting. It’s likely that superforecasting with its emphasis on accuracy and making predictions in the Goldilocks zone systematically draws attention away from rare impactful events.  Oord makes forecasts, but his emphasis is on identifying these events rather making sure the odds he provides are accurate. 
  2. I think that people overestimate the cost of preparedness and how much preparing for one thing, makes you prepared for lots of things. One of my favorite quotes from Taleb illustrates the point:

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

As Taleb points out stockpiling reserves of necessities blunts the impact of most crises. Not only that, but even preparation for rare events ends up being pretty cheap when compared to what we’re willing to spend once the crisis hits. As I pointed out in a previous post, we seem to be willing to spend trillions of dollars once the crisis hits, but we won’t spend a few million to prepare for crises in advance.  

Of course as I pointed at at the beginning having reserves is not something the modern world is great at. Because reserves are not efficient. Which is why the modern world is generally on the other side of Taleb’s statement, in debt and trying to ensure/increase the accuracy of their predictions. Does this last part not exactly describe the goal of superforecasting? I’m not saying it can’t be used in service of identifying what things to hold in reserve or what rare events to prepare for I’m saying that it will be used far more often in the opposite way, in a quest for additional efficiencies and as a consequence greater fragility.

Another criticism people had about the last episode was that it lacked recommendations for what to do instead. I’m not sure that lack was as great as some people said, but still, I could have done better. And the foregoing illustrates what I would do differently. As Tabarrok said at the beginning, “The Coronavirus Pandemic may be the most warned about event in human history.” And yet if we just consider masks our preparedness in terms of supplies and even knowledge was abysmal. We need more reserves, we need to select areas to be more robust and less efficient in, we need to identify black swans, and once we have, we should have credible long term plans for dealing with them which aren’t scrapped every couple of years. Perhaps there is some place for superforecasting in there, but that certainly doesn’t seem like where you would start.

Beyond that, there are always proposals for market based solutions. In fact the top comment on the reddit discussion of the previous article was, “Most of these criticisms are valid, but are solved by having markets.” I am definitely also in favor of this solution as well, but there’s a lot of things to consider in order for it to actually work. A few examples off the top of my head:

  1. What’s the market based solution to the Cuban Missile Crisis? How would we have used markets to navigate the Cold War with less risk? Perhaps a system where we offer prizes for people predicting crises in advance. So maybe if someone took the time to extensively research the “Russia puts missiles in Cuba” scenario, when that actually happens they gets a big reward?
  2. Of course there are prediction markets, which seems to be exactly what this situation calls for, but personally I’m not clear how they capture impact problem mentioned above, also they’re still missing more big calls than they should. Obviously part of the problem is that overregulation has rendered them far less useful than they could be, and I would certainly be in favor of getting rid of most if not all of those regulations.
  3. If you want the markets to reward someone for predicting a rare event, the easiest way to do that is to let them realize extreme profits when the event happens. Unfortunately we call that price gouging and most people are against it. 

The final solution I’ll offer is the solution we already had. The solution superforecasting starts off by criticizing. Loud pundits making improbable and extreme predictions. This solution was included in the last post, but people may not have thought I was serious. I am. There were a lot of individuals who freaked out every time there was a new disease outbreak, whether it was Ebola, SARS or Swine Flu. And not only were they some of the best people to listen to when the current crisis started, we should have been listening to them even before that about the kind of things to prepare for. And yes we get back to the idea that you can’t act on the recommendations of every pundit making extreme predictions, but they nevertheless provide a valuable signal about the kind of things we should prepare for, a signal which superforecasting rather than boosting actively works to suppress.

None of the above directly replaces superforecasting, but all of them end up in tension with it, and that’s the problem.

V.

It is my hope that I did a better job of pointing out the issues with superforecasting on this second go around. Which is not to say the first post was terrible, but I could have done some things better. And if you’ll indulge me a bit longer (and I realize if you’ve made it this far you have already indulged me a lot) a behind the scenes discussion might be interesting. 

It’s difficult to produce content for any length of time without wanting someone to see it, and so while ideally I would focus on writing things that pleased me, with no regard for any other audience, one can’t help but try the occasional experiment in increasing eyeballs. The previous superforecasting post was just such an experiment, in fact it was two experiments. 

The first experiment was one of title selection. Should you bother to do any research into internet marketing they will tell you that choosing your title is key. Accordingly, while it has since been changed to “limitations” the original title of the post was “Pandemic Uncovers the Ridiculousness of Superforecasting”. I was not entirely comfortable with the word “ridiculousness” but I decided to experiment with a more provocative word to see if it made any difference. And I’d have to say that it did. In their criticism of it, a lot of people mentioned that world or the attitude implied in the title in general. But it also seemed that more people read it in the first place because of the title. Leading to the perpetual conundrum: saying superforecasting is ridiculous was obviously going too far, but would the post have attracted fewer readers without that word? If we assume that the body of the post was worthwhile (which I do, or I wouldn’t have written it) is it acceptable to use a provocative title to get people to read something? Obviously the answer for the vast majority of the internet is a resounding yes, but I’m still not sure, and in any case I ended up changing it later.

The second experiment was less dramatic, and one that I conduct with most of my posts. While writing them I imagine an intended audience. In this case the intended audience was fans of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in particular people I had met while at his Real World Risk Institute back in February. (By the way, they loved it.) It was only afterwards, when I posted it as a link in a comment on the Slate Star Codex reddit that it got significant attention from other people, who came to the post without some of the background values and assumptions of the audience I’d intended for. This meant that some of the things I could gloss over when talking to Taleb fans were major points of contention with SSC readers. This issue is less binary than the last one, and other than writing really long posts it’s not clear what to do about it, but it is an area that I hope I’ve improved on in this post, and which I’ll definitely focus on in the future.

In any event the back and forth was useful, and I hope that I’ve made some impact on people’s opinions on this topic. Certainly my own position has become more nuanced. That said if you still think there’s something I’m missing, some post I should read or video I should watch please leave it in the comments. I promise I will read/listen/watch it and report back. 


Things like this remind me of the importance of debate, of the grand conversation we’re all involved in. Thanks for letting me be part of it. If you would go so far as to say that I’m an important part of it consider donating. Even $1/month is surprisingly inspirational.