Tag: Eschatology

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

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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.


COVID: What Does Victory Look Like?

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I experienced a certain amount of reluctance when I decided to do another post on COVID-19. For starters not only is everyone kind of sick of hearing about it, but there is also a credible argument to be made that the biggest problem right now is just how many different opinions there are when it comes to the crisis. That what we might need are fewer opinions, not more. If this is the case then adding my opinion to the hundreds that are already out there just makes the problem worse, not better. Of course, as you can see I overcame that reluctance, and decided to go ahead with it. I hope that doesn’t end up being a mistake.I suppose you’ll have to read it and decide for yourself. 

Part of the impetus for this post came from reading Ross Douthat’s latest, and an excerpt from that article might help set the stage.

“Americans play to win all the time,” George Patton told the Third Army in the spring of 1944. “That’s why Americans have never lost and will never lose a war. The very thought of losing is hateful to Americans.”

That was in another time, another country. When Patton spoke the United States was still ascending, a superpower in the making. But once our ascent was complete, our war making became managerial, lumbering, oriented toward stalemate. From Vietnam to Iraq to Afghanistan to all our lesser conflicts, the current American way of warfare rarely has a plan to win.

Maybe the America of mass mobilization belongs as much to the past as Patton, MacArthur, Ike. But nothing that’s happened so far in this crisis proves, definitively, that we the people lack the will to win — especially when the alternative is just enduring, and dying, for months and months to come.

So as we look for a post-lockdown strategy, maybe what we’re actually looking for are leaders — be they governors or legislators, Trump and his appointees or the Democratic nominee for president — willing to embrace the old-fashioned idea that in this struggle, as in the wars our country used to wage, there is no substitute for victory.

That was the first two and last two paragraphs from his article, and I hope you (and he) will forgive the length of the excerpt, but his point was an important one. There is no substitute for victory and we should be doing whatever it takes to get there. The problem, at least for me, and I assume a lot of people, is that it’s not clear how to get there with the America we have, and it’s even a little unclear how to get there period. 

In answer to this last statement a lot of people will retort, “Well what about South Korea, Taiwan and China?” Haven’t they been victorious? So let’s start there. First, we need to be clear that we can’t trust all of the information coming out of China, which I’ve mentioned in previous posts. But that issue aside, these countries are fantastic examples of what to do and I think the US should be emulating their example as much as possible. And that when Douthat talks about a lack of leadership it’s the failure of our leaders to aggressively follow these countries’ examples, particularly in the case of masks which I blogged about previously. But also in areas like testing and tracing. So the solution is just “copy Taiwan”? End of story? Unfortunately there are two reasons why it’s not that simple. First, there’s the idea I already alluded to, America is a very different place than Taiwan or South Korea. But beyond that, and important to mention, the final tally of deaths is not in yet, and until it is, the possibility remains that we should be emulating Sweden not South Korea.

Before people start accusing me of wanting old people to die, let me offer some clarifications. First, if I was given absolute control over the US pandemic response I would definitely be trying to emulate Taiwan (for those who didn’t follow the link, they’ve had 440 cases with 7 fatalities so 1/10,000th as many deaths with 1/15th the population of the US). Second, it’s important to remember that it’s not today’s death toll that matters, it’s the final death toll. And it’s not even the final death toll from COVID-19, it’s the final death toll from all the things we do. If suicides go up, our numbers should do their best to reflect that, and ditto if traffic fatalities go down. And it’s not even the final death toll from all causes, what really matters is the final toll period, what did that path cost us when all is said and done. This is the hardest thing of all to quantify, particularly since as much as people hate to put a dollar value on human life, in some fashion, at least, economics has to be part of that calculation.

For the moment imagine that the window for containing the virus is past, that it’s too widespread and too deeply entrenched and there are too many asymptomatic carriers. That a vaccine ends up taking years or being outright impossible. That despite our best efforts (and recall we’re a long way even from that) the virus can only eventually be stopped through worldwide “herd immunity”. That as great as Taiwan’s measures are, they eventually fail and when the final tally is made, their death rate ends up being essentially the same as Sweden’s. If that’s how it plays out, one would expect Sweden to reach this immunity much sooner than Taiwan. What will that mean for them? If the death rate ends up being essentially the same for both countries won’t people end up envying Sweden rather than Taiwan? Because they didn’t have to deal with years of heightened precautions which ended up being pointless?

I suspect that this last point is not one people think about a lot. When you consider what it takes to maintain a system like the ones these countries have in place, it’s neither cheap nor unobtrusive. There’s definitely got to be some downside, some drag, consequences to the perpetual uncertainty, where years go by with lockdowns imposed and then lifted, continual monitoring and screening, closed borders, no really large gatherings, etc. And to reiterate if these methods work, then that’s great, and that’s the path I would prefer to take, but what if ultimately they don’t? What if Taiwan and South Korea end up with the same basic death rate as Sweden, but had to suffer through years of ultimately futile precautions as well?

The point being that, while I would definitely prefer to implement the South Korean or Taiwan approach, there is still an enormous amount of uncertainty, and a lot we don’t know. Consequently I’m grateful that both Taiwan and Sweden are out there and that they’re trying different approaches, because ideally we’d learn from both in constructing our own response. Which takes us from the “how do we get to victory” problem (answer: it’s complicated, and a lot of questions remain) to the question of how do we get there with the America we have? How do we turn the current quagmire into victory? 

One of the things that characterized all of our past victories, to one degree or another, is sacrifice. But what does sacrifice look like in the current crisis? Are the Swedes sacrificing? Are the Koreans? I’m not sure. What about the US? I can certainly think of one example of sacrifice, which got a lot of press, both because people love stories of sacrifice, and also because so far I don’t think there’s been a lot of them. (i.e. demand far outstrips supply) It’s the story of the workers who lived in the factory for 28 days making polypropylene to get turned into PPE.

I will admit to personally loving that story, and I’d love to expand the example into some broad lesson, but I’m not sure if it scales up. Are there other critical factories that could do the same thing or something similar? Perhaps, and I’ll get to that later, but I think this issue of sacrifice is at the root of the leadership problem Douthat mentioned in the article I quoted from originally. That good leaders inspire sacrifice, and sacrifice is how you win. 

This is certainly not all a leader does, but in a crisis like this I’d be willing to bet that it’s a big part of it, and to the extent that it is we’re still left with two problems. Finding a leader who can inspire the entire nation to sacrifice and figuring out what sort of sacrifice this leader should be advocating. 

As to the first, Trump is clearly not that leader. I will admit, in the past, to being something of a Trump apologist, which is to say, I think he’s an awful person, and an awful president, but I didn’t think he was Satan incarnate, and, also, like many people, I thought labeling him as such made it more difficult to call out actual Satans. I still basically feel that way, but it’s apparent that his failings, which are many, have been magnified by this crisis and that if, as Douthat claims, victory requires some amount of leadership, say a Patton or a MacAuther, a Roosevelt or a Kennedy (which is not to say that those people didn’t have their own failings) that we have been saddled with basically the opposite. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that Biden is such a leader either. But as I said it’s still not clear what the ideal leader should be doing. Even if we assume that we had the required leadership, what sacrifices would this leader ask of us? 

The largest crises of the past were all wars and the sacrifice people were asked to make was death, or at least the risk of death. And people volunteered in their thousands and tens of thousands, to personally risk death. Today no one is being asked to do that (there are some proposals asking for healthy people to volunteer to be infected, but they’ve gone nowhere) and it’s impossible to imagine any leader suggesting it even obliquely. And to be clear I’m not arguing that they should, I’m just pointing out how off limits it is. Is it so off limits because when it comes down to it there’s really not that much similarity between a war and a pandemic? Or is it off limits because this is 2020, not 1918?

Those are interesting questions, in particular what did happen in 1918? Was leadership an important part of things? Was there a Churchill equivalent who rallied an entire nation? As far as I can tell the answer no. And what’s even more interesting is that despite all of the current sturm and drang, the 1918 pandemic, which was vastly worse on every measure, ended up mostly being forgotten. Up until possibly the last few months, if you had asked people to name the greatest disaster of the 20th century almost no one would have said the Spanish Flu, and most wouldn’t have said it even if you’d asked them to list the top ten disasters. 

(If you want hard numbers as of 2017 there were 80,000 books on World War I, and 400 on the Spanish flu, and most of those had been written since 2000. Alternatively just do a Google search for: spanish flu forgotten.) 

What are we to make of that fact? Why didn’t the Spanish Flu loom larger in the collective imagination? Is it because it came and went so fast? (The majority of deaths took place in a 13 week period at the end of 1918.) Is it because it was largely a solitary crisis? Should the level at which something is remembered be used as a proxy for how bad it was? Apparently not, because the Spanish Flu was really bad. Should it be used as a proxy for how impactful it was? One would think that this is almost the definition of memory. Does that mean the Spanish Flu didn’t have that much of an impact? Maybe?

Frankly I’m not sure what to make of this, nor do I intend to use it in service of some sweeping recommendation or conclusion. But it’s something I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere, and it feels important. 

In the course of writing this post I was more thinking through things than holding forth on some pre-formed opinion. And in the course of that, I think what I’m inclined to do is offer a caveat to Douthat’s call for leadership. I don’t think we need leadership in the traditional, “rally the country”, “call for sacrifice” sense. What I think we need is smart and effective leadership (man did we end up with the wrong president in this crisis). Which is easy to say and hard to do, so allow me to explain. 

Vox.com recently published a list of recommendations on how to beat COVID. It included the things you might expect, universal mask wearing, more testing, contact tracing, etc. But it also included things like removing restrictions on outdoor spaces and spending a lot of money. And these latter two in particular begin to touch on what I mean by being smart. But before we fully switch to that topic, it also illustrates one last thing about sacrifice.

You can imagine that it’s a sacrifice to wear masks, or to stay at home. We might also have to make sacrifices to ramp up testing and tracing. But none of these things really fit in with how sacrifice has worked historically. For one thing they’re not particularly demanding, nor are they particularly… flashy. But more than that, most of the time when we imagine sacrifice we imagine shared sacrifice. A band of brothers, or living in the factory for 28 days to produce material, or even a group of founders working crazy hours on their startup. All of the things we’re being asked to do, in addition to being fairly low effort, are also pretty solitary as well. You would think that if the measures being recommended required less effort that this would be a good thing, but I get the feeling that it’s not. That we’re actually having a harder time unifying because less is being asked of us and what’s being asked of us doesn’t require us to come together.

So if having a charismatic leader inspiring us all towards victory through the medium of shared sacrifice is out, then we have to be smart. We can imagine achieving victory through enormous effort, lockdowns that lasted months, 99% mask and handwashing compliance, quarantining people centrally, and everything else we could think of. In other words a plan where we’re not sure which measures are the most effective, but we do them all just to be sure. The problem is that this has a high social and emotional cost. A charismatic leader, and a lot of unity might allow us to pull it off anyway, but we don’t have those. This being the case it suddenly becomes a lot more important to pick our battles, figure out what really works and emphasize those things. It becomes far more important to be smart.

Above I mentioned Vox’s recommendation that we allow people outside, and this is exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about. Despite very little evidence of transmission out of doors (a study of over a 1000 transmissions in China found only one case where it happened outside) numerous jurisdictions have closed outdoor spaces, and we’ve probably all seen alarmed stories about packed beaches, which to begin with, aren’t that dangerous, and also aren’t that packed, they just look that way because of what amounts to photographic trickery (i.e. a telephoto lens). 

If we had unlimited reserves of patience, then it might not matter if we did some things that are dumb, but we don’t. Accordingly we should be picking our battles, and from what I can tell the battle over outdoor spaces is not one I would pick. It’s not smart, and unfortunately since the beginning of the crisis it would seem that most of what the government has been doing is not particularly smart. 

I’m not going to spend any time revisiting the testing failures, or the ridiculous regulatory hoops people have to jump through, or really the massive failure at all levels. But the story of the only domestic mask manufacturer is interesting. Because it combines a little bit of everything. This is a company who ramped up production and staff and made huge sacrifices in 2009 during the swine flu pandemic. But the minute it was over the company just about went out of business because all the people that had previously been desperate for masks at any price, all dropped the company in an instant once it was over. This meant the company had machines they still owed money on, and way more staff than was needed. After massive layoffs and other restructuring the company survived, but only just barely. 

Thus, it shouldn’t be surprising that this time around the company is not willing to do that. They want long term contracts. As an example of how this has played out. When the pandemic was first ramping up the company approached the government with an offer to use their mothballed machines (evidently left over from 2009) to make seven million N95 masks a month. And the government basically blew them off. And in fact as near as I can tell those machines are still sitting idle. 

If this was an isolated story, or if there were lots of problems at the beginning, but eventually we got our act together, it would be one thing, but each day brings a new story of how we’re not being smart. Like the story on Friday about the FDA shutting down a well-regarded COVID testing project in the Seattle area. This seems beyond merely not being smart and well into the territory of actively being stupid.

If this isn’t the kind of crisis we can get through with shared sacrifice; and if we don’t have the leadership to pull it off even if it was; and if we don’t have much in the way of leadership period; and if we’re not being smart, where does that leave us? For myself it leaves me reluctantly considering the Swedish approach. If nothing else at least it’s straight forward. And remember, no one is forced to do anything, people are free to take as many precautions as they want. And yes, I understand this does not entirely protect people from the actions of others, but recall that it’s not as if Sweden has zero restrictions, in fact I would hazard to say that if you compared what Sweden is doing now with what municipalities did in 1918 that they would look very similar. Recall that when people talk about the cities who had it the worst in 1918, they’re talking about cities which had parades in the middle of the pandemic, which I’m pretty sure even Sweden is avoiding.

Combine this with the point I made earlier about how little impact the Spanish Flu had on people’s memory of the 20th century, and I’m inclined to be cautiously optimistic. What do I mean by that? Am I suddenly advocating for the Swedish approach? No, but I fear that after a lot of groping around doing stupid and counter productive things that we’ll end up there eventually anyway. It may never be the de jure policy, but I think it will increasingly become the de facto policy. (Also, people do what they want more than governments are willing to admit. People start taking precautions before lockdowns begin and stop taking them before the lockdowns end.) In other words, in contrast to my normal position, I’m offering up reasons to be cautiously optimistic. Of course I have to be alarmed about something, so if I’m not alarmed by how poorly we’re handling things, even now, what am I alarmed about?

Well, I’m out of space, so I’ll have to write more on this topic later (and it won’t be my next post, that’s already spoken for) but I’m becoming increasingly alarmed that in the process of fighting the pandemic we’re going to make an even bigger mistake. What might that mistake be? Well keep your eye on this space, but I’ll give you a hint: As you might imagine I’m not a fan of the colossal amounts of spending we’ve engaged in to fight the pandemic. A world with pandemics is well covered territory, a world where money has ceased to have any meaning. less so.


As sick as you probably are of hearing about COVID-19, you’re probably even more sick of hearing me try to come up with a clever request for donations. Too bad, just like the pandemic, it’s still a long way from running it’s course, lots of stupid choices are being made, and at some point I’m imagining you’ll just want to get it over with. 


Books I Finished in April

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:

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Super Thinking: The Big Book of Mental Models By: Gabriel Weinberg and Lauren McCann

Human Compatible: Artificial Intelligence and the Problem of Control By: Stuart J. Russell

Joseph Smith’s First Vision: Confirming Evidences and Contemporary Accounts By: Milton Vaughn Backman

The Cultural Evolution Inside of Mormonism By: Greg Trimble 

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President By: Candice Millard

A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream By: Yuval Levin

The Worth of War By: Benjamin Ginsberg

The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West By: David McCullough

Sex and Culture By: J. D. Unwin

Euripides I: Alcestis, Medea, The Children of Heracles, Hippolytus By: Euripides


It’s been another month where most of my thoughts have revolved around COVID-19. In particular, like most people, I’ve been thinking about the end game. It would seem to me that there are four ways out:

(Edit: In between writing this and publishing this I came across a spreadsheet that did a much better job of outlining the various options. You should probably just check it out and skip the rest of the intro.)

The one that everyone’s hoping for is the development of an effective vaccine. I’ve heard that Oxford is hoping to have something by September, which is faster than I would have expected, but I’m still not sure that gives us the “vaccine solution” much before the beginning of the year, and that assumes that there are no logistical difficulties in trying to get the vaccine to the billions who would need it. And regardless of all of that, even under this most optimistic of all scenarios, no one thinks we can maintain the current measures until then. 

The second possibility is that we get so much better at treating it that it becomes no worse than similar illnesses. I’m not sure how close we are to this, mostly what I hear is news about how treatments we thought would work aren’t. That 88% of people still die even on ventilators, and that even young people are suffering strokes. Despite this, I would assume that we can’t help but get better, and it is true that the longer it takes someone to get COVID the more likely they are to get treatment informed by all the knowledge accumulated up to that point. But I don’t think this does or should play a major role in deciding when to open things up in the same way hospital capacity does.

The third possibility is we control things so well that we completely stop the spread of the disease. China claims to have done this, but that claim comes with a lot of caveats, and even if it’s true, it seems clear that we won’t be able to duplicate their methodology in the US.

The final possibility is herd immunity, which seems the most likely outcome, particularly given the limitations mentioned above. To get there a significant percentage of everyone will have to get COVID-19, and the only knob we can turn is how fast or slow that happens. Initially it appeared that, since we were going to need to get there eventually, the primary reason for going slower was to make sure the hospitals didn’t get overwhelmed, not to keep people from getting sick. Especially since slowing down happens to be really hard on the economy. Having done that It appears that in most places the hospitals aren’t overwhelmed which is awesome, but would also suggest that maybe the dial needs moved to a higher speed of transmission. Which is kind of what states are doing by reopening (Utah re-opened on Friday.) So my point is less that we’re doing anything wrong and more that people seem to have lost sight of the fact that herd immunity is still the most probable ending, and that such immunity is going to require that a lot more people get infected…


I- Eschatological Reviews

Human Compatible: Artificial Intelligence and the Problem of Control

By: Stuart J. Russell

352 Pages

General Thoughts

This book came to my attention after I read a review of it on Slate Star Codex, and if you’re just looking for a general review I would direct you there. When it comes to the actual contents of the book, I don’t have much to add, and given that I have another 8 books to cover I don’t think it’s worth repeating anything Alexander already said. No, what I’m interested in are the books eschatological implications, so let’s move straight to there.

What This Book Says About Eschatology

As has been discussed extensively here and elsewhere many smart people have significant worries about the AI control problem. That is, how do you ensure that if and when we get around to creating an artificial intelligence that it doesn’t end up doing things we would rather it didn’t. Things that might conceivably include eliminating humanity entirely. 

Previous attempts to address this problem have notable weaknesses. The first challenge is getting the AI to obey our instructions in the first place, but even once you have mastered that issue, the AI might take your instructions too literally. The famous example being the so-called paperclip maximizer which takes a simple instruction to make paperclips and turns it into a drive to turn everything into paperclips, including us. This led to people imagining that the instructions needed to include a clause for making us happy, which led to other people imagining an AI which stuck an electrode directly into the pleasure center of our brain, which they labeled wireheading

As one of the key features of the book, Russell offers up a new system which is designed to solve these previous problems. It revolves around the idea of telling the AI it needs to keep us happy, but giving it very little information on what that means. This forces the AI to come up with guesses on how to make that happen with each guess getting a certain probability of being correct. Then it uses our behavior as a way to update that probability and narrow things down to the best guess. And, If our behavior is information, it’s not going to stop us from doing anything, because it wants the information encoded in our actions. Meaning it won’t stop us from shutting it off, because that’s potentially the most valuable information of all.

To use the example of an order to make paper clips, the AI might make two guesses it might assign odds of 30% that we want a big bar of metal to be made into paperclips and odds of 70% that we want the dog to be made into paperclips. This is obviously incorrect, and exactly the kind of thing we’re worried about, but under Russell’s proposal when we race across the room and snatch the dog out of it’s robot pincers it will use that information to change the distribution to 99% bar of metal, 1% Fido. 

This methodology is Indisputably superior to what came before, but I still think it has some problems. In particular I think there’s a danger that the AIs evaluations will end up converging around the same supernormal stimuli that we ourselves, and the market in general have converged on. One of the best arguments for capitalism is that it acts as a distributed intelligence for fulfilling people’s revealed desires, and I’m a fan of capitalism, particularly given the alternatives, but I’m not sure the best choice is to turn the dial on it to 11. 

All of which is to say, if you’re worried about the eschatology of AI Risk, the main effect of Russell’s proposal may be avoiding an artificial doom in favor of hastening the natural doom we were already headed for. 


A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream

By: Yuval Levin

256 Pages

General Thoughts

As I mentioned in my last post, if you’re one of those people who feels like something is wrong with the modern world, then the next step is identifying what that something is. This book is Levin’s stab at that and from his perspective the problem is that all of our institutions have been gutted in the service of narcissist self promotion. 

To elaborate, in the past attending a venerable institution, say Harvard, was supposed to be about absorbing the lessons, traditions and values of that institution. And with that a certain responsibility to protect and maintain the dignity of the institution. This responsibility continued even after you departed. You were always a Harvard man, and that carried certain expectations. But these days attending Harvard is less about absorbing its history and ideals, and more about making sure Harvard reflects your ideals, and conforms to current social norms, with very little attention paid to institutional values. From this foundation Levin goes on to make arguments about collective action being healthier and more effective than individual action, and how institutions are repositories of virtue, and stuff like that.

I thought it was a pretty good book, and if my review is insufficient there are plenty more out there, but in the end it was another example of discussing symptoms rather than identifying the underlying disease. Which I hope to take a stab at.

What This Book Says About Eschatology

Back in 2013 Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex put forward a theory for the divide between left and right. He theorized that from an evolutionary perspective humans have two modes. Most of the time they’re in survival mode, but occasionally they get lucky and conditions are such that they can move into a thrive mode. To quote from the post:

It seems broadly plausible that there could be one of these switches for something like “social stability”. If the brain finds itself in a stable environment where everything is abundant, it sort of lowers the mental threat level and concludes that everything will always be okay and its job is to enjoy itself and win signaling games. If it finds itself in an environment of scarcity, it will raise the mental threat level and set its job to “survive at any cost”. 

There’s much more to it than that, and if you want to dig deeper read his post, but as this is just a stepping stone, let’s grant that this might be happening and move on. My question, which I explored in a post I wrote back 2016, was if we assume that this is true, and further that the number of people in “thrive mode” is increasing, what consequences follow? There were a lot of them, but one I didn’t explore was institutional decline, but I think it slots in nicely.

If you’re in survival mode then institutions end up being very important. If you protect them they protect you. So much so that historically getting kicked out of an institution was one of the worst punishments that could be inflicted. This most commonly happened with the institution of a city and was called banishment, but being excommunicated from the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages worked very similarly. But now that more and more people are moving to thrive mode the protections an institution can offer mean next to nothing. Instead it’s all about how the institutions can be used as a platform for increasing the visibility of an individual. 

As long as this is the case, it seems unlikely that we’re going to ever rebuild institutions in the manner Levin hopes for, because the very nature of the people who make up those institutions has changed. The world is slowly and unalterably becoming a very different place, and I don’t think there’s a simple path back.


Sex and Culture

By: J. D. Unwin

721 Pages

I covered this in my last post.


II- Capsule Reviews

Super Thinking: The Big Book of Mental Models

By: Gabriel Weinberg and Lauren McCann

354 Pages

In certain respects this is just one more self-help book, to sit on the shelf alongside all of the others which have been published over the years. But, having read quite a few of those books, I would say that this one is not only different, but better. To begin with, nearly all self-help books claim to introduce some new way of thinking or some clever system that will radically improve your productivity or at least change your life for the better. Most of these books do not in fact do this, frequently because the idea(s) they introduce aren’t truly new. (For an example see my review of You Are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life which was just a repackaging of The Secret.) 

I understand that there are very few truly new things out there, and some of the better books take one principle and really dig into it, for example the value of habits (eg The Power of Habits by Charles Duhigg) or the importance of focusing just on what’s essential (eg Essentialism by Greg McKeown), but this book doesn’t do that either, the approach this book takes is to assemble every single helpful mental model there is and pack it into a single book. 

It would be easy for such a book to feel rushed, or choppy, but somehow it was neither. Does this mean that the book never makes a mistake? No, when you’re including everything some of it is going to turn out to not work as well as initially advertised or end up a victim of the replication crisis (for example the growth mindset). That said I didn’t come across anything harmful, and while I was familiar with most of the models they included, I gained that familiarity after reading dozens of books. It probably would have been preferable to just read this one.

In the final analysis all self-help books can be divided into two categories, those where the knowledge gained was of more value than the time required to read them, and those that were a waste of time. And while this book isn’t the best ever, I would definitely put it in the first category. 


Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President

By: Candice Millard

432 Pages

This is the same author who wrote River of Doubt which I reviewed back in February. This time she tackled the assassination of James A. Garfield. It’s a fascinating story. To begin with Garfield is a lot more awesome than I imagined. I always had the feeling that he was a mediocre president, and perhaps he was, though if so, that was probably just because he wasn’t in office long enough to accomplish anything. But his life before the presidency was pretty incredible. He was born in a log cabin, fatherless before he turned two, horribly poor, but he managed to get a good education by working like a maniac. Eventually he was elected to the House of Representatives (after serving as a general in the Civil War) and then over his strenuous objections, he was nominated to be the Republican Presidential candidate in 1880 on the 36th ballot, after it was clear that no other candidate could secure a majority. 

This sounds pretty exciting all on its own, but then on top of all you have the awful story of how Garfield wasn’t killed by the bullet, but by the horrible treatment he received from doctors who didn’t believe in sterilization. And then, if that weren’t exciting enough, there’s the additional story of how Alexander Graham Bell worked 16 hour days for months creating a metal detector in an attempt to find the bullet. The two stories collide when Bell succeeds in creating the detector, but fails to find the bullet because the doctors would only allow him to use it on one half of Garfield’s body and that wasn’t the half the bullet was in. I’ve read better history books, but this was up there, and it has the advantage of being about an event that I knew almost nothing about beforehand.


The Worth of War

By: Benjamin Ginsberg

256 Pages

Similar to War! What Is It Good For?: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots by Ian Morris which I reviewed back in November this is another book that makes the case that war has been fundamental to the development of civilizations and nations, and that it’s absence might bring unforeseen harms. Overall I was less impressed with this book. It didn’t seem quite as tight, for example the chapter on “beating swords into malign plowshares” was a particular slog. 

That said I’m a fan of contrarians, and this is certainly a very contrarian book. And it’s possible that just by explaining how war is an instrument of rationality, that the book is worth the cover price. As an example of what that means, recall the optimism which preceded the second Iraq War. It’s safe to say that many people including those at the highest level of government, genuinely believed that we would quickly overthrow Saddam, easily establish a functioning and peaceful democracy, and do both with minimal cost in terms of time and money. As we know, the first part kind of happened. On everything else the expectations were tragically mistaken. 

The question then becomes how much damage would maintaining those mistake expectations have caused? Is it better that we learned our lesson through the crucible of war, or would it be better if we had never learned that lesson? Or is it possible we could have learned it in some other way? It is indisputable that war is an instrument of rationality, it’s just not clear that this is sufficient to make it necessary.


The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West

By: David McCullough

352 Pages

I like McCullough, though I frequently get him confused with Ron Chernow, leading me to believe that I had read more of his books than I actually had, but this is actually just the second of his I’ve read, the first being John Adams of course. 

I’m not sure how best to review this book. Though I suppose I can at least keep you from making the same mistake I made. For some reason I expected the book to cover the entire westward expansion, and in reality most of the action is confined to a single town in Ohio, Marietta. But it is impressive how much mileage McCullough is able to get out of this limited geographic focus. He manages to wrap in the Revolutionary War, Washington and his veterans, slavery, the frankly amazing Northwest Ordinance, and the conspiracy by Aaron Burr to form a new nation in the middle of the continent. 

I expect you already know what kind of book this is, and if you like that sort of book you’ll like this.


Euripides I: Alcestis, Medea, The Children of Heracles, Hippolytus

By: Euripides

268 Pages

As I continue to read these ancient Greek tragedies, I become more aware of how frequently the playwright manages to point out, that, in addition to everything else that’s going on, isn’t Athens awesome! And when I remember that, comparatively at least, Athens really was awesome, I wonder how much of it was due to art and attitudes like this. 

Beyond that I don’t have much to add to the enormous amount of commentary and scholarship which has been devoted to these plays, except to say that from my perspective, if you only had time to read one play, and you wanted that play to be representative of the entire genre, Medea would be my current recommendation.

(She’s best known for murdering her children, but there’s a lot going on in addition to that.)


III- Religious Reviews 

Since I have some readers that are uninterested or less interested in my religious stuff I decided to create a separate section for my reviews of religious books. Though really, as long as you’re here you might as well read them.

Joseph Smith’s First Vision: Confirming Evidences and Contemporary Accounts

By: Milton Vaughn Backman

228 Pages

At the October General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), President Nelson announced that the next conference, in April, would be dedicated to a celebration of the 200th Anniversary of the First Vision, Joseph Smith’s Theophany. My next door neighbor lent this book to me and suggested I read it in anticipation of the event. I ended up finishing it just before Conference, and I’m glad I did. For people steeped in LDS apologetics, There probably won’t be many surprises, but it is interesting how long people have been having the same debates over the same subjects. 

Also, despite the fact that standards of proof and citation have tightened up in the intervening decades, I think the book, written 40 years ago, and its research have aged well. 


The Cultural Evolution Inside of Mormonism

By: Greg Trimble 

252 Pages

Once again I’m not sure who recommended this book to me. I should start writing it down. If I enjoyed a book (which I generally do) it doesn’t matter. In the future I can just continue to do what comes naturally, but if I didn’t like a book then I need to exercise caution before accepting another recommendation from the same source. Which is a roundabout way of saying that this was kind of a mediocre book. Perhaps it’s biggest problem was that it wasn’t a book, it was a collection of essays, but not billed as such. The chapters/essays had just enough of a connection that it made me wonder if there was a deeper connection that I was just missing, which tied the essays together into a book. But I don’t think there was.

Also even if you considered the chapters as essays rather than parts of a cohesive whole, some were pretty good, but a lot weren’t. As an example many of the essays had an apologetic theme, but were so superficial that they actually had the opposite effect on me, and I’m a committed member! (It’s possible that’s the point, that his presentation works best on people who aren’t already in the deep end, but I kind of doubt it.)

The title essay (though not labeled as such, just the first chapter) was directed at members within the Church, arguing that as a whole we need to be less dogmatic and more accepting. Trimble is not the first to suggest this, in fact I would argue that it’s almost a cliche. And it’s precisely for that reason that I think it needs to be examined more closely. I’m sure that improvements could be made in this area, but I worry that it obscures the true root problem. Allow me to provide an example of what I mean.

I was out to lunch with an old co-worker the other day (take-out which we ate while walking), and he told me about an incident that had happened in his congregation. He’s in the young men’s and they had a boy who wanted to stop attending church. In an effort to reach out to him they decided to let his father teach a lesson, hoping either the setting or the instructor would make a difference. But as soon as the lesson started the boy got up to leave. And the father and everyone else did exactly what Trimble and others like him would recommend, they asked him nicely (meekly) to stay. He blew them off and left.

Now I don’t know about anyone else who might be reading this blog, but I cannot imagine in a million years doing something like that to my father. Nor can I imagine what he or the other adults would have done. So what’s the difference? Is this a problem with the boy? Is he so hardened that he would have walked out even if it had been 30 years ago? I really doubt that. Was it the fault of the Dad? Based on the story I don’t think there’s any way he could have been nicer or more understanding, which people claim is the answer. Could he have been meaner? Sure, but is there any doubt that he would have been viewed as the bad guy?

So what’s the difference between when I was a boy and now? Who screwed up? Was it the Boy? The father? I would contend that it was society. That in our drive to be accepting that we have abandoned the principle that, if you’re part of a community, there are certain expectations. (This is closely related to what Levin was saying.) That essentially the center of gravity has shifted from the majority of people thinking that such behavior is totally unacceptable to the majority of people thinking that we have to treat our kids with infinite tolerance regardless of what they do. This is a cultural evolution, just as the title of Trimble’s book would suggest, but I would contend that this evolution is just as likely to be the problem as it is to be the solution. 

This review is already long, and no one’s saying that this is not a tough subject, but the key question is, in the end, if your goal is to keep this boy in the church, what method works better. The method I and my contemporaries experienced 30 years ago, or the method we’re using now of being super tolerant? Trimble strenuously argues for the latter, and I don’t think the evidence is as clear cut as he thinks. Kids are dumb, and having a community agreement that they are going to do certain things until a certain age, i.e. how it worked in all ages and societies up until about 10 years ago, might not be as awful as people claim. At a bare minimum is it possible the pendulum has swung too far?


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Review: Sex and Culture, or Greatness Through Sexual Frustration

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:

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When people consider what’s wrong with the world there are three schools of thought. The first, which I’ve mentioned frequently, and the one championed by Steven Pinker in his books, The Better Angels of Our Nature and Enlightenment Now, is that there’s nothing wrong with the world, that things are as great as they’ve ever been and almost certainly just going to keep getting better. The other two schools of thought are not quite so optimistic, some people feel that there certainly might be problems with the world but mostly it’s things we’re aware of and if we could just get our act together, nothing we can’t solve. Other people don’t think that there might be something wrong with the world, they think that there is definitely something wrong. And furthermore that we might not even be aware of how bad those problems are, and those we do have a handle on are proving to be largely intractable. 

From what I can observe the vast majority of people fall into one of the latter two camps. And I sincerely hope that all of them turn out to be wrong and Pinker turns out to be right, but as you may have gathered I don’t think he is, and I don’t think they are.

If you’re like me and in the something is definitely wrong camp, the next obvious step is to figure out what that something is. This is the whole point of the discipline of eschatology, at least as I practice it, and there are of course numerous candidates, everything from runaway environmental damage, to the looming threat of an eventual nuclear war, to a breakdown of culture and morality. And it seems only prudent to examine each and every candidate in as much detail as possible, in order that the true illness at the heart of modernity (assuming there’s only one, there could easily be more than one) might be diagnosed and treated as soon as possible. Before the condition is terminal. I understand that this is a profound oversimplification of what this process looks like, if it’s even possible, but regardless of the difficulties involved in correcting the ills of the world, the process can’t even begin without identifying the problem in the first place.

The book Sex and Culture by J. D. Unwin, written in 1934 while Unwin was a professor at Cambridge, is one theory of what the problem might be, and one that, so far as I can tell, has not gotten a lot of attention. This is almost certainly because Unwin’s claim is entirely at odds with modern thinking, what is that claim you ask? 

That a culture is successful to the extent that it restricts pre-nuptial sex. 

I assume that most people can immediately grasp why such a claim has been almost entirely ignored. If not, imagine any current professor getting up and attempting to present this as a topic up for debate at any university or college. And yet, as I pointed out, if we care about the health of society, and we’re not convinced that everything is going smoothly, we really should examine all possible threats, even the ones most people find horribly old-fashioned and retrograde. (In fact, I would argue, especially those threats.)

I said the claim was almost entirely ignored, fortunately Kirk Durston wrote a post about it, which brought Sex and Culture to my attention and convinced me to read it. Though, on doing so, I discovered another reason why the book was largely forgotten. It is not an easy read, and I don’t think I would recommend that you try. The majority of the book is an exacting and detailed examination of the traditions and behavior of 80 different “uncivilized” cultures. So detailed that even I skimmed some of the chapters.

Given all of this, I imagine you’re unlikely to read it, so it’s up to me to tell you what it’s about. Though I would also strongly recommend Durston’s post in addition to mine. 

For my part, I’m going to start by asking, “Why do nearly all cultures have traditions and taboos around sex?” From a straight evolutionary perspective you might imagine that other than some incest prohibitions to prevent genetic issues, that more sex would equal more babies and that greater reproduction confers an obvious benefit to survival. And yet over and over again, regardless of the society we find taboos around sex. With, historically, the strictest taboos being found in the largest civilizations.  Why is that? Unwin wondered the same thing, and Sex and Culture is his answer. It’s obvious from the book that the first step he took was to make an exhaustive study of all the anthropological reports he could get his hands on. I’m sure that quite a bit of newer information has come out since then, but based on what was included in the book it’s hard for me to imagine that he overlooked much of anything that was known at the time.

(As a side note, I didn’t realize until I linked to Unwin’s entry on Wikipedia for this post, but the book was published only two years before his death at the age of 41. One wonders what he might have done with the idea if he’d had several more decades.)

In any event after engaging in a massive survey of the anthropolocial data his conclusion was that more energetic and advanced societies are characterized by greater restrictions on pre-nuptial sex. From that conclusion you might imagine that the book is written primarily from a religious perspective, or as a commentary on modern sexual mores, but that’s not the case at all. In fact one of the reasons for the book’s length is that he goes to great effort explaining what measures he has taken to make his cultural survey as scientific as possible. He throws out a lot of cultures because he doesn’t think there’s enough information.  He also spends quite a bit of time examining the various ways in which the information could have been corrupted by issues of translation and data collection. Furthermore he simplifies his criteria to things that are easy to observe, meaning both that such behavior is more likely to have been accurately reported, and that comparisons between cultures should be relatively accurate.

As I said, out of all of this he is mostly interested in information on a culture’s sexual taboos, but if he merely categorizes cultures according to this single measure all he has shown is that different cultures have different taboos, what he needs is a second measurement to set against a culture’s sexual behavior as an independent guide for how advanced a culture is. The methodology he arrives at is actually pretty clever. He observes that every culture has to deal with two questions:

  1. What powers manifest themselves in the universe?
  2. What steps are taken to maintain the right relationship with these powers?

From these questions he derives four “cultural conditions”, the first three are:

  1. Deistic: Cultures which build temples.
  2. Manistic: Cultures which do not build temples but which do engage in some form of post funeral attention to their dead. (i.e. ancestor worship).
  3. Zoistic: Cultures which do neither of the above.

It might be obvious how those questions about universal powers are answered at each cultural level, but in short, Zoistic cultures don’t really attempt to answer them. Manistic cultures answer it by assuming that the “powers” which were present recently, that is to say other people, are probably still around. And Diestic cultures are those who come to understand that there’s too much going on for it to just be explained by the dead, leading them to conclude that there are even more powerful forces, i.e. deities which need temples and worship. (All of this seems to point to a natural progression where monotheism would be at the very top, but Unwin doesn’t seem to go that far.)

You might notice that I said there were four cultural conditions. The fourth is Rationalistic, which is when a culture finally starts answering the two questions with the scientific method. Once he comes up with these four levels the next step is to see if they bear any relationship to that same culture’s restrictions on pre-nuptial sex, and out of the 86 cultures he studied he discovers that:

  1. All the zoistic societies permitted pre-marital sexual freedom; conversely, all societies which permitted that freedom were in the zoistic condition.
  2. All the manistic societies had adopted such regulations as compelled an irregular or occasional continence; conversely, all the societies which had adopted such regulations were in the manistic condition.
  3. All the deistic societies insisted on pre-nuptial chastity; conversely, all the societies which insisted on pre-nuptial chastity were in the deistic condition. 

Giving evidence to support this correlation takes up the vast majority of the book, but of course you’re probably not that interested in zoistic and manistic societies, and even your interest in deistic societies is probably not all that significant either, what you’re really wondering is what Unwin has to say about the sexual restrictions of societies in a rationalistic condition. Unfortunately, compared to all the other cultural conditions he spends the least amount of time discussing the rationalistic. Perhaps because he assumes that his readers would be the most familiar with it. However the book is long enough that there’s still quite a bit of discussion it’s just more scattered, and in particular Unwin never presents a bright dividing line between sexual restrictions in a diestic society and a rationalist one in the same way he does with the other conditions. Rather he explains the transition as follows (I’m paraphrasing):

The enormous energy available to a deistic society practicing strict monogamy manifests first as a dissatisfaction with the limitations imposed by their geographic environment. This leads to an initial, expansionary phase. The sort of behavior we saw from the Babylonians, the Persians, the Huns, the Mongols, etc. And, for many societies, this is where things end, as sexual taboos are loosened and things like polygamy begin to florish. If, on the other hand, they’re able to maintain the initial sexual restrictions and taboos they pass from this expansionary phase into a phase where, “The great mental energy of such a society is directed to every detail of its environment, to every item of human activity, and to every problem of human life.” This is when they pass into the rationalist condition. 

It probably goes without saying that the rationalistic condition is where you want to be, or failing that, in the deistic condition, but either way, in order for that to happen, according to Unwin, you need to have serious restrictions on pre-marital sex. And yes, to be clear, Unwin’s whole model is based on the idea that some cultures are superior to others at least according to certain measurements. And if you’re not willing to grant that I’m surprised you made it this far. 

I imagine there are some out there who would assume that, having finally reached a “rationalistic condition”, a society could ease up on the restrictions. Unwin argues that this is not the case, that within a few generations of backing off a culture begins to slip back into the “lower” conditions. How many generations? Unwin claims, “It takes at least three generations for an extension or a limitation of sexual opportunity to have it’s full cultural effect” Unwin defines a generation as being around 33 years, so three generations is essentially a century.

Before we can begin commenting on this theory there’s one other aspect which needs to be considered. Beyond documenting the relationship between sexual taboos and a culture’s condition, he also goes on to propose a mechanism for that connection. At the time the book was written Freud’s psychoanalytic system was probably the most influential system for explaining human behavior, and Unwin based his own theory on that foundation. He hypothesized that a civilization has a certain amount of energy, but all if it ultimately sexual energy (this is a Freudian theory remember). In a culture with no limits on sex, all of that energy get’s used up. But once a culture starts putting limits on things, some energy ends up unused. This energy needs to be channeled somewhere, and it inevitably ends up getting channeled back into society, creating an energetic culture. One that can expand, or build temples, or eventually, develop science.

With Unwin’s theory stated more or less in its entirety, we can now put forth how it explains what’s wrong with the world:

When sexual restrictrictions of all kinds were eliminated or lessened during the sexual revolution the energy available to our civilization was similarly lessened. This began the 100 year process of leaving the rationalistic condition and heading towards the essentially zero energy zoistic condition. 

With this explanation in hand the next step is to ask what we should do with it? I assume many people would be inclined to dismiss it out of hand. Merely including words like Freudian, and manistic, may incline them to think the whole thing is ludicrous. I suppose that’s their prerogative, but even if you reject Unwin’s data for some reason, doesn’t it strike you as odd that so many large, expansive civilizations had such draconian taboos around sex outside of marriage? I mean we’re talking Romans, Europeans, Arabs, and Chinese. In fact, can you give me a historical example of a large culture that didn’t have such restrictions? Perhaps they’re  not quite as tightly correlated as Unwin would suggest, but could it really be that they are entirely uncorrelated? With any measure of civilizational and cultural success? 

If you were going to be scientific about it, the next step would be to examine Unwin’s data. One would imagine that information on the various customs and taboos of primitive cultures has only increased since 1934 (though perhaps not as much as you might think, proximity in time counts for a lot.) Not only should it be possible to attempt a replication, but Unwin’s claims are so strong that they should be easily falsifiable. Has anyone done this? (Some cursory Google searches didn’t reveal any promising leads.)

Alternatively, and this is what I’m inclined to do, you could broadly accept his conclusion (the data seems accurate to me) but question the mechanism. One could imagine lots of reasons why sexual continence correlates with civilizational success (on certain metrics). Certainly the discipline required to abstain from sex outside of marriage might also translate into the kind of discipline that makes a country energetic. There’s also a huge body of evidence on the importance of intact families, and in particular the presence of a father. It’s certainly possible that civilizations which prohibited pre-nuptial sex ended up with stronger families which translated into stronger, more energetic cultures. If everything else Unwin says is mostly true then discovering the exact mechanism doesn’t matter very much.

To be fair, even if someone is prepared to grant the connection, we still have to grapple with the question of how things play out in the modern world. It’s entirely possible that this is something which was very important a hundred or a thousand years ago, but because of recent advances (the social safety net? Birth control?) it doesn’t matter at all now. I certainly understand the appeal of that argument, but when evidence for such prohibitions are so ubiquitous, appearing in the earliest writings we possess (and no, not just the Bible, they also appear in the Code of Hammurabi) it certainly feels like the burden of proof should rest with the people arguing that after several thousand years, things have somehow changed in the last 50. 

Speaking of the modern world, and falsification, it could be argued that we’re halfway towards falsifying Unwin’s theories ourselves since it’s been around 50 years since the sexual revolution. That being the case it’s reasonable to ask where the evidence is pointing. When we look around does it appear the Unwin was wrong or right? If you read my reviews for March, The Decadent Society by Ross Douthat was a book of nothing but evidence that Unwin was correct. Douthat makes the compelling case that the US has entered a period of stagnation, and not only does that sound precisely like the lack of energy Unwin predicted, but the timeline of the stagnation is eerily accurate as well. And, as long as we’re on the subject of last month’s book reviews, I’m also reminded of the quote I included from Will Durant: 

[Intellect] becomes an instrument for justifying impulse. If you become smart you can prove that what you really want to do, what you’re itching to do is what should really be done… The difficulty is that the intellect is an individualist. It learns how to protect the individual long before it ever thinks of protecting the group. That comes later, that comes with a maturing of the mind. A civilization controlled by intellectuals would commit suicide very soon.

While this isn’t quite as on point as Douthat’s book, Durant nevertheless seems to be talking about much the same thing. Which takes us back to the original question, now that we have considered the candidacy of Unwin’s theory for the position of “What’s wrong with the world?” What should we do with it?

Given everything I read and everything I see, I would argue we should take it seriously. Yes, that would mean undoing the sexual revolution, which is both straightforward and also so difficult I don’t imagine that we have even one chance in a thousand of pulling it off. 


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Pandemic Uncovers the Limitations of Superforecasting

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.

As near as I can reconstruct, sometime in the mid-80s Phillip Tetlock decided to conduct a study on the accuracy of people who made their living “commenting or offering advice on political and economic trends”. The study lasted for around twenty years and involved 284 people. If you’re reading this blog you probably already know what the outcome of that study was, but just in case you don’t or need a reminder here’s a summary.

  • Over the course of those twenty years Tetlock collected 82,361 forecasts, and after comparing those forecasts to what actually happened he found:
  • The better known the expert the less reliable they were likely to be.
  • Their accuracy was inversely related to their self-confidence, and after a certain point their knowledge as well. (More actual knowledge about, say, Iran led them to make worse predictions about Iran than people who had less knowledge.)
  • Experts did no better at predicting than the average newspaper reader.
  • When asked to guess between three possible outcomes for a situation, status quo, getting better on some dimension, or getting worse, the actual expert predictions were less accurate than just naively assigning a ⅓ chance to each possibility.
  • Experts were largely rewarded for making bold and sensational predictions, rather than making predictions which later turned out to be true.

For those who had given any thought to the matter, Tetlock’s discovery that experts are frequently, or even usually wrong was not all that surprising. Certainly he wasn’t the first to point it out, though the rigor of his study was impressive, and he definitely helped spread the idea with his book Expert Political Judgement: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? Which was published in 2005. Had he stopped there we might be forever in his debt, but from pointing out that the experts were frequently wrong, he went on to wonder, is there anyone out there who might do better? And thus began the superforecaster/Good Judgement project.

Most people, when considering the quality of a prediction, only care about whether it was right or wrong, but in the initial study, and in the subsequent Good Judgement project, Tetlock also asks people to assign a confidence level to each prediction. Thus someone might say that they’re 90% sure that Iran will not build a nuclear weapon in 2020 or that they’re 99% sure that the Korean Peninsula will not be reunited. When these predictions are graded, the ideal is for 90% of the 90% predictions to turn out to be true, not 95% or 85%, in the former case they were under confident and in the latter case they were overconfident. (For obvious reasons the latter is far more common). Having thus defined a good forecast Tetlock set out to see if he could find such people, people who were better than average at making predictions. He did. And it became the subject of his next book Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction.

The book’s primary purpose is to explain what makes a good forecaster and what makes a good forecast. As it turns out one of the key features of that was that superforecasters are far more likely to predict that things will continue as they have. While those forecasters who appear on TV and who were the subject of Tetlock’s initial study are far more likely to predict some spectacular new development. The reason for this should be obvious, that’s how you get noticed. That’s what gets the ratings. But if you’re more interested in being correct (at least more often than not) then you predict that things will basically be the same next year as they were this year. And I am not disparaging that, we should all want to be more correct than not, but trying to maximize your correctness does have one major weakness. And that is why, despite Tetlock’s decades long effort to improve forecasting, I am going to argue that Tetlock’s ideas and methodology have actually been a source of significant harm, and have made the world less prepared for future calamities rather than more.

II.

To illustrate what I mean, I need an example. This is not the first time I’ve written on this topic, I actually did a post on it back in January of 2017, and I’ll probably be borrowing from it fairly extensively, including re-using my example of a Tetlockian forecaster: Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex

Now before I get into it, I want to make it clear that I like and respect Alexander A LOT, so much so that up until recently, and largely for free (there was a small Patreon) I read and recorded every post from his blog and distributed it as a podcast. The reason Alexander can be used as an example is that he’s so punctilious about trying to adhere to the “best practices” of rationality, which is precisely the position Tetlock’s methods hold at the moment. This post is an argument against that position, but at the moment they’re firmly ensconced.

Accordingly, Alexander does a near perfect job of not only making predictions but assigning a confidence level to each of them. Also, as is so often the case he beat me to the punch on making a post about this topic, and while his post touches on some of the things I’m going to bring up, I don’t think it goes far enough, or offers its conclusion quite as distinctly as I intend to do. 

As you might imagine, his post and mine were motivated by the pandemic, in particular the fact that traditional methods of prediction appeared to have been caught entirely flat footed, including the Superforecasters. Alexander mentions in his post that “On February 20th, Tetlock’s superforecasters predicted only a 3% chance that there would be 200,000+ coronavirus cases a month later (there were).” So by that metric the superforecasters failed, something both Alexander and I agree on, but I think it goes beyond just missing a single prediction. I think the pandemic illustrates a problem with this entire methodology. 

What is that methodology? Well, the goal of the Good Judgement project and similar efforts is to improve forecasting and predictions specifically by increasing the proportion of accurate predictions. This is their incentive structure, it’s how they’re graded, it’s how Alexander grades himself every year. This encourages two secondary behaviors, the first is the one I already mentioned, the easiest way to be correct is to predict that the status quo will continue, this is fine as far as it goes, the status quo largely does continue, but the flip side of that is a bias against extreme events. These events are extreme in large part because they’re improbable, thus if you want to be correct more often than not, such events are not going to get any attention. Meaning their skill set and their incentive structure are ill suited to extreme events (as evidenced by the 3% who correctly predicted the magnitude of the pandemic I mentioned above). 

The second incentive is to increase the number of their predictions. This might seem unobjectionable, why wouldn’t we want more data to evaluate them by? The problem is not all predictions are equally difficult. To give an example from Alexander’s list of predictions (and again it’s not my intention to pick on him, I’m using him as an example more for the things he does right than the things he does wrong) from his most recent list of predictions, out of 118, 80 were about things in his personal life, and only 38 were about issues the larger world might be interested in.

Indisputably it’s easier for someone to predict what their weight will be or whether they will lease the same car when their current lease is up, than it is to predict whether the Dow will end the year above 25,000. And even predicting whether one of his friends will still be in a relationship is probably easier as well, but more than that, the consequences of his personal predictions being incorrect are much less than the consequences of his (or other superforecasters) predictions about the world as a whole being wrong. 

III.

The first problem to emerge from all of this is that Alexander and the Superforecasters rate their accuracy by considering all of their predictions regardless of their importance or difficulty. Thus, if they completely miss the prediction mentioned above about the number of COVID-19 cases on March 20th, but are successful in predicting when British Airways will resume service to Mainland China their success will be judged to be 50%. Even though for nearly everyone the impact of the former event is far greater than the impact of the latter! And it’s worse than that, in reality there are a lot more “British Airways” predictions being made than predictions about the number of cases. Meaning they can be judged as largely successful despite missing nearly all of the really impactful events. 

This leads us to the biggest problem of all, the methodology of superforecasting has no system for determining impact. To put it another way, I’m sure that the Good Judgement project and other people following the Tetlockian methodology have made thousands of forecasts about the world. Let’s be incredibly charitable and assume that out of all these thousands of predictions, 99% were correct. That out of everything they made predictions about 99% of it came to pass. That sounds fantastic, but depending on what’s in the 1% of the things they didn’t predict, the world could still be a vastly different place than what they expected. And that assumes that their predictions encompass every possibility. In reality there are lots of very impactful things which they might never have considered assigning a probability to. That in fact they could actually be 100% correct about the stuff they predicted but still be caught entirely flat footed by the future because something happened they never even considered. 

As far as I can tell there were no advance predictions of the probability of a pandemic by anyone following the Tetlockian methodology, say in 2019 or earlier. Or any list where “pandemic” was #1 on the “list of things superforecasters think we’re unprepared for”, or really any indication at all that people who listened to superforecasters were more prepared for this than the average individual. But the Good Judgement Project did try their hand at both Brexit and Trump and got both wrong. This is what I mean by the impact of the stuff they were wrong about being greater than the stuff they were correct about. When future historians consider the last five years or even the last 10, I’m not sure what events they will rate as being the most important, but surely those three would have to be in the top 10. They correctly predicted a lot of stuff which didn’t amount to anything and missed predicting the few things that really mattered.

That is the weakness of trying to maximize being correct. While being more right than wrong is certainly desirable. In general the few things the superforecasters end up being wrong about are far more consequential than all things they’re right about. Also, I suspect this feeds into the classic cognitive bias, where it’s easy to ascribe everything they correctly predicted to skill while every time they were wrong gets put down to bad luck. Which is precisely what happens when something bad occurs.

Both now and during the financial crisis when experts are asked why they didn’t see it coming or why they weren’t better prepared they are prone to retort that these events are “black swans”. “Who could have known they would happen?” And as such, “There was nothing that could have been done!” This is the ridiculousness of superforecasting, of course pandemics and financial crises are going to happen, any review of history would reveal that few things are more certain. 

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who came up with the term, has come to hate it for exactly this reason, people use it to excuse a lack of preparedness and inaction in general, when the concept is both more subtle and more useful. These people who throw up their hands and say “It was a black swan!” are making an essentially Tetlockian claim: “Mostly we can predict the future, except on a few rare occasions where we can’t, and those are impossible to do anything about.” The point of the Taleb’s black swan theory and to a greater extent his idea of being antifragile is to point out that you can’t predict the future at all, and when you convince yourself that you can it distracts you from hedging/lessening your exposure to/preparing for the really impactful events which are definitely coming.

From a historical perspective financial crashes and pandemics have happened a lot, business and governments really had no excuse for not making some preparation for the possibility that one or the other, or as we’re discovering, both, would happen. And yet they didn’t. I’m not claiming that this is entirely the fault of superforecasting. But superforecasting is part of the larger movement of convincing ourselves that we have tamed randomness, and banished the unexpected. And if there’s one lesson from the pandemic greater than all others it should be that we have not.

Superforecasting and the blindness to randomness are also closely related to the drive for efficiency I mentioned recently.  “There are people out there spouting extreme predictions of things which largely aren’t going to happen! People spend time worrying about these things when they could be spending that time bringing to pass the neoliberal utopia foretold by Steven Pinker!” Okay, I’m guessing that no one said that exact thing, but boiled down this is their essential message. 

I recognize that I’ve been pretty harsh here, and I also recognize that it might be possible to have the best of both worlds. To get the antifragility of Taleb with the rigor of Tetlock, indeed in Alexander’s recent post, that is basically what he suggests. That rather than take superforecasting predictions as some sort of gold standard that we should use them to do “cost benefit analysis and reason under uncertainty.” That, as the title of his post suggests, this was not a failure of prediction, but a failure of being prepared, suggesting that predicting the future can be different from preparing for the future. And I suppose they can be, the problem with this is that people are idiots, and they won’t disentangle these two ideas. For the vast majority of people and corporations and governments predicting the future and preparing for the future are the same thing. And when combined with a reward structure which emphasizes efficiency/fragility, the only thing they’re going to pay attention to is the rosy predictions of continued growth, not preparing for dire catastrophes which are surely coming.

To reiterate, superforecasting, by focusing on the number of correct predictions, without considering the greater impact of the predictions they get wrong, only that such missed predictions be few in number, has disentangled prediction from preparedness. What’s interesting is that while I understand the many issues with the system they’re trying to replace, of bloviating pundits making predictions which mostly didn’t come true, that system did not suffer from this same problem.

IV.

In the leadup to the pandemic there were many people predicting that it could end up being a huge catastrophe (including Taleb, who said it to my face) and that we should take draconian precautions. These were generally the same people who issued the same warnings about all previous new diseases, most of which ended up fizzling out before causing significant harm, for example Ebola. Most people are now saying we should have listened to them. At least with respect to COVID-19, but these are also generally the same people who dismissed previous worries as being pessimistic, or of panicking, or of straight up being crazy. It’s easy to see they were not, and this illustrates a very important point. Because of the nature of black swans and negative events, if you’re prepared for a black swan it only has to happen once for your caution to be worth it, but if you’re not prepared then in order for that to be a wise decision it has to NEVER happen. 

The financial crash of 2007-2008 represents an interesting example of this phenomenon. An enormous number of financial models was based on this premise that the US had never had a nationwide decline in housing prices. And it was a true and accurate position for decades, but the one year it wasn’t true made the dozens of years when it was true almost entirely inconsequential.

To take a more extreme example imagine that I’m one of these crazy people you’re always hearing about. I’m so crazy I don’t even get invited on TV. Because all I can talk about is the imminent nuclear war. As a consequence of these beliefs I’ve moved to a remote place and built a fallout shelter and stocked it with a bunch of food. Every year I confidently predict a nuclear war and every year people point me out as someone who makes outlandish predictions to get attention, because year after year I’m wrong. Until one year, I’m not. Just like with the financial crisis, it doesn’t matter how many times I was the crazy guy with a bunker in Wyoming, and everyone else was the sane defender of the status quo, because from the perspective of consequences they got all the consequences of being wrong despite years and years of being right, and I got all the benefits of being right despite years and years of being wrong.

The “crazy” people who freaked out about all the previous potential pandemics are in much the same camp. Assuming they actually took their own predictions seriously and were prepared, they got all the benefits of being right this one time despite many years of being wrong, and we got all the consequences of being wrong, in spite of years and years, of not only forecasts, but SUPER forecasts telling us there was no need to worry.


I’m predicting, with 90% confidence that you will not find this closing message to be clever. This is an easy prediction to make because once again I’m just using the methodology of predicting that the status quo will continue. Predicting that you’ll donate is the high impact rare event, and I hope that even if I’ve been wrong every other time, that this time I’m right.


Worries for a Post COVID-19 World

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It’s hard to imagine that the world will emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic without undergoing significant changes, and given that it’s hard to focus on anything else at the moment, I thought I’d write about some of those potential changes, as a way of talking about the thing we’re all focused on, but in a manner that’s less obsessed with the minutiae of what’s happening right this minute

To begin with there’s the issue of patience I mentioned in my last post. My first prediction is that special COVID-19 measures will still be in force two years from now, though not necessarily continuously. Meaning I’m not predicting that the current social distancing rules will still be in place two years from now, the prediction is more that two years from now you’ll still be able to read about an area that has reinstituted them after a local outbreak. Or to put it another way, COVID-19 will provoke significantly more worry than the flu even two years from now.

My next prediction is that some industries will never recover to their previous levels. In order of most damaged to least damaged these would be:

  1. Commercial Realty: From where I sit this seems like the perfect storm for commercial realty. You’ve got a generalized downturn that’s affecting all businesses. Then you have the demise of WeWork (the largest office tenant in places like NYC) which was already in trouble and now has stopped paying many of it’s leases. But, on top of all of that you have numerous businesses who have just been forced into letting people work from home and some percentage of those individuals and companies are going to realize it works better and for less money. I’m predicting a greater than 20% decrease in the value of commercial real estate by the time it’s all over.
  2. Movie theaters: I’m predicting 15% of movie theaters will never come back. More movies will have a digital only release, and such releases will get more marketing.
  3. Cruises: The golden age of cruises is over. I’m predicting whatever the cruise industry made in 2019 that it will be a long time before we see that amount again. (I’m figuring around a decade.)
  4. Conventions: I do think they will fully recover, but I predict that for the big conventions it will be 2023 before they regain their 2019 attendance numbers.
  5. Sports: I’m not a huge sports fan, so I’m less confident about a specific prediction, but I am predicting that sports will look different in some significant way. For example lower attendance, drop in value of sports franchises, leagues which never recover, etc. At a minimum I’m predicting that IF the NFL season starts on time it will do it without people in attendance at the stadiums

As you can tell most of these industries are ones that pack a large number of people together for a significant period of time, and regardless of whether I’m correct on every specific prediction, I see no way around the conclusion that large gatherings of people will be the last thing to return to a pre-pandemic normal

One thing that would help speed up this return to normalcy is if there’s a push to eventually test everyone, which is another prediction I made a while back, though I think it was on Twitter. (I’m dipping my toe in that lake, but it’s definitely not my preferred medium, however if you want to follow me I’m @Jeremiah820) When I say test everyone, I’m not saying 100%, or even 95%, but I’m talking about mass testing, where we’re doing orders of magnitude more than we’re doing right now. Along the lines of what’s proposed in this Manhattan Program for Testing article.

Of course one problem with doing that is coming up with the necessary reagents, and while this prediction is somewhat at odds with the last prediction, it seems to be ever more clear that when it comes down to it, the pandemic is a logistical problem. And that long term harm is going to mostly come from the delay in getting or being able to produce what we need. For example the fact that our mask supply was outsourced to Southeast Asian, and most of our drug manufacturing has been outsourced to there and India, and most of our antibiotics are made in China and Lombardy Italy (yeah the area that was hit the hardest). The biggest problem with testing everyone appears to be getting the necessary reagents, I’m not sure where the bottleneck is there, but that’s obviously one of the biggest ones of all. In theory you should be seeing an exponential increase in the amount of testing similar to the exponential growth of the number of diagnosis (since ever diagnosis needs a test) but instead the testing statistics are pretty lumpy, and in my own state, after an initial surge the number of tests being done has slipped back to the level they were two weeks ago.

Thus far we mostly talked about the immediate impact of the pandemic with its associated lockdown, but I’m also very interested in what the world looks like after things have calmed down. (I hesitate to use the phrase “returned to normal” because it’s going to be a long time before that happens.) I already mentioned in my last post that I think this is going to have a significant impact on US-China relations, and in case it wasn’t clear I’m predicting that they’ll get worse. As to how exactly they will get worse, I predict that on the US side the narrative that it’s all China’s fault will become more and more entrenched, with greater calls to move manufacturing out of China, and more support for Trump’s tariffs. On the Chinese side, I expect they’re going to try and take advantage of the weakness (perceived or real, it’s hard to say) of the US and Europe to sew up their control of the South China Sea, and maybe make more significant moves towards re-incorporating Taiwan. 

Turning to more domestic concerns, I expect that we’ll spend at least a little more money on preparedness, though it will still be entirely overwhelmed (by several orders of magnitude) by the money we’re spending trying to cure the problem after it’s happened rather than preventing it before it does. Also I fear that we’ll fall into the traditional trap where we’re well prepared for the last crisis, but then actually end up spending less money on other potential crises. As a concrete prediction I think the budget for the CDC will go up, but that budgets for things like nuclear non-proliferation and infrastructure hardening against EMPs, etc. will remain flat or actually go down. 

Also on the domestic front, this is more of a hope than a prediction, but I would expect that there will be a push towards having more redundancy. That we will see greater domestic production of certain critical emergency supplies, perhaps tax credits for maintaining surge capacity (as I mentioned in a previous post), and possibly even an antitrust philosophy which is less about predatory monopolies, and more about making industries robust. That we will work to make things a little less efficient in exchange for making them less fragile

From here we move on to more fringe issues, though in spite of their fringe character these next couple of predictions are actually the ones I feel the most confident about. To start with I have some predictions to make concerning the types of conspiracy theories this crisis will spawn. Now obviously, because of the time in which we live, there are already a whole host of conspiracy theories about COVID-19. But my prediction is that when things finally calm down that there will be one theory in particular which will end up claiming the bulk of the attention. The theory that COVID-19 was a conspiracy to allow the government to significantly increase its power and in particular its ability to conduct surveillance. As far as specifics the number of people who currently identify as “truthers” (9/11 conspiracy theorists) currently stands at 20% I predict that the number of COVID conspiracy theorists will be at least 30%

But civil libertarians are not the only ones who see more danger in the response to the pandemic than in the pandemic itself. I’m also noticing that a surprising number of Christians view it as a huge threat to religion as well. With many of them feeling that the declaration of churches as “non-essential” is very troubling just on it’s face, and that furthermore it’s a violation of the First Amendment. This mostly doesn’t include Mormons, and we were in fact one of the first denominations to shut everything down. But despite this I do have a certain amount of sympathy for the position, particularly if the worst accusations turn out to be true. Despite my sympathies I am in total agreement that megachurches should not continue conducting meetings, that in fact meetings in general over a few people are a bad idea. But consider this claim:

Christian churches worldwide have suffered the greatest, most catastrophic blow in their entire history, and – such is the feebleness of modern faith – have barely noticed (and barely even protested). 

There are many enforced closures and lock-downs of many institutions and buildings in England now; but there are none, I think, so severe and so absolute as the lock-down of Church of England churches.

Take a look for yourself – browse around. 

The instructions make clear that nobody should enter a church building, not even the vicar (even the church yard is supposed to be locked) – except in the case of some kind of material emergency like a gas leak. And, of course: all Christian activities must cease.

This is specifically directed at the church’s Christian activities. As a telling example, a funeral can be conducted in secular buildings, but the use of church buildings for a religious funeral is explicitly forbidden.

Except, wait for it… Church buildings can be used for non-Christian activities – such as blood donation, food banks or as night shelters… 

English churches are therefore – by official decree – now deconsecrated shells.

Church buildings are specifically closed for all religious activities – because these are allegedly too dangerous to allow; but at the same time churches are declared to be safe-enough, and allowed to remain open, for various ‘essential’ secular activities.

What could be clearer than that? 

I’ve looked at the link, and the claims seem largely true, though sensationalized, and in some cases it looks like the things banned by the Church of England were banned by the state a few days later. But you can see where it might seem like churches are being especially singled out for additional restrictions. And, while I’m sympathetic. I do not think this means that there’s some sort of wide-ranging conspiracy. But this doesn’t mean that other people won’t, and conspiracy theories have been created from evidence more slender than this. (Also stuff like this PVP Comic doesn’t help.) Which leads to another prediction, the pandemic will worsen relations between Christians (especially evangelicals) and mainstream governmental agencies (the bureaucracy and more middle of the road candidates). 

A metric for whether this comes to pass is somewhat difficult to specify, but insofar as Trump is seen as out of the mainstream, and as bucking consensus as far as the pandemic, one measure might be if his share of the evangelical vote goes up. Though I agree there could be lots of reasons for that. Which is to say I feel pretty confident in this prediction, but I wouldn’t blame you if you questioned whether I had given you enough for it to truly be graded.

Finally, in a frightening combination of fringe concerns, eschatology, things with low probability, and apocalyptic pandemics, we arrive at my last prediction. But first an observation, have you noticed how many stories there have been about the reduction in pollution and greenhouse gases as a result of the pandemic? If you have, does it give you any ideas? Was one of those ideas, “Man, if I was a radical environmentalist, I think I’d seriously consider engineering a pandemic just like this one as a way of saving the planet!”? No? Maybe it’s just me that had this idea, but let’s assume that in a world of seven billion people more than one person would have had this idea.

Certainly, even before the pandemic, there was a chance that someone would intentionally engineer a pandemic, and I don’t think I’m stretching things too much to imagine that a radical environmentalist might be the one inclined to do it, though you could also imagine someone from the voluntary human extinction movement deciding to start an involuntary human extinction movement via this method. My speculation would be that seeing COVID-19 with its associated effects on pollution and greenhouse gases has made this scenario more likely

How likely? Still unlikely, but more likely than we’re probably comfortable with. A recent book by Toby Ord, titled The Precipice (which I have yet to read but plan to soon) is entirely devoted to existential risks. And Ord gives an engineered pandemic a 1 in 30 chance of wiping out all of humanity in the next 100 years. From this conclusion two questions follow, the first, closely related to my prediction: These odds were assigned before the pandemic, have they gone up since then? And the second question: if there’s a 1 in 30 chance of an engineered pandemic killing EVERYONE, what are the chances of a pandemic which is 10x worse than COVID-19, but doesn’t kill everyone. Less than 1 in 30 just by the nature of compound probability. But is it 1 in 10? 1 in 5?

My prediction doesn’t concern those odds. My prediction is about whether someone will make an attempt. This attempt might end up being stopped by the authorities, or it might be equivalent to the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo Subway, or it might be worse than COVID-19. My final prediction is that in the next 20 years there is a 20% chance that someone will attempt to engineer a disease with the intention of dramatically reducing the number of humans. Let’s hope that I’m mistaken.


For those who care about such things I would assign a confidence level of 75% for all of the other predictions except the two about conspiracy theories, my confidence level there is 90%. My confidence level that someone will become a donor based on this message is 10%, so less than the chances of an artificial plague, and once again, I hope I’m wrong. 


Books I Finished in March

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The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success By: Ross Douthat

Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead By: Jim Mattis

The Lessons of History By: Will and Ariel Durant

The Case Against Reality: Why Evolution Hid the Truth from Our Eyes By: Donald D. Hoffman

Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World By: Laura Spinney

Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives By: David Eagleman

Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy By: Francis Fukuyama

Sophocles II: Ajax, The Women of Trachis, Electra, Philoctetes, The Trackers By: Sophocles


It would be difficult to write about anything other than the coronavirus in a space dedicated to the events of the last month. Though this month we also had an earthquake, which I can assure you, as an eschatologist, is a bad omen. Though not one I would put much weight on. Mostly it was alarming right as it was happening, knowing nothing but that it was an earthquake (my first) and having no idea if it was a small one and I was on top of it, or a giant one far away. (Would I feel a 9 on the Richter Scale in Salt Lake if it happened in Portland?) In any event it’s been an interesting month, and things are likely to continue to be interesting for quite some time.

Returning to the coronavirus, what little I have in the way of unique advice I dispensed in my last post, and now all that remains are just a lot of questions:

  • What is the actual number of cases? How many undiagnosed cases are there?
  • What is the actual fatality rate? And why are rates so different between countries
  • The argument around the fatality rate mostly revolves around the argument over the number of undiagnosed cases, but what if there are undiagnosed deaths? Are there also people who died from it, but aren’t being counted in the official statistics?
  • Most of these questions derive from extreme conditions experienced by Italy. Why have they been hit so hard?
  • China claims they’re on top of things, and that for the last couple of weeks they’ve had almost no new cases can we trust their numbers?
  • Will this whole business dramatically worsen US/China relations? (Which weren’t great before this happened.)
  • Is it possible different populations will have significantly different fatality rates?*
  • What are the chances it mutates into something worse?*
  • Will there be multiple waves?*
  • If there are multiple waves will they happen over the course of a year or two or will social distancing spread them out? In other words how long are we going to be fighting this?
  • When will things return to “normal”?
  • Will things ever return to “normal”?

Finally and most pressingly…

  • Is my current reserve of 50 rolls of toilet paper going to be enough?

*These questions are based on one of the books I read this month, Pale Rider, by Laura Spinney, an examination of the Spanish Flu epidemic, and I’ll cover them in more depth when I get to my review.


I- Eschatological Review

The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success

By: Ross Douthat

272 pages

General Thoughts

I vacillated for quite a while between reviewing this with all the other books and giving it it’s own post. But in the end I decided I didn’t want book review posts overwhelming everything else, and thus I decided to stick it here. 

To start, any discussion of this book has to begin with Douthat’s definition of decadence:

In our culture, the word decadence is used promiscuously but rarely precisely—which, of course, is part of its cachet and charm. The dictionary associates it with “having low morals and a great love of pleasure, money, fame, etc.” which seems far too nonspecific—Ebenezer Scrooge was immoral and money loving, but nobody would call him decadent—and with cultures “marked by decay or decline,” which gets us a little closer, but also leaves a great deal undefined.

At the risk of being presumptuous, let me try to refine [the] definition a bit further. Decadence, deployed usefully, refers to economic stagnation, institutional decay, and cultural and intellectual exhaustion at a high level of material prosperity and technological development. It describes a situation in which repetition is more the norm than innovation in which sclerosis afflicts public institutions and private enterprises alike; in which new developments in science, new exploratory projects, underdeliver compared with what people recently expected. And, crucially, the stagnation and decay are often a direct consequence of previous development. The decadent society is, by definition, a victim of its own significant success.

As it turns out, though Douthat is more focused on a discussion of our immediate problems and I tend to focus my discussion farther out, His definition of decadence is precisely the theme of this blog. Which, for those of you who might have forgotten it, is:

The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.

It is precisely this sense, that civilization reached its pinnacle recently but that now we’ve drifted into stagnation that characterizes both my theme and Douthat’s discussion of decadence. In many respects, this is the book I wish I had written. 

Along with stagnation Douthat identifies three other elements of society, which, combined with stagnation comprise the Four Horsemen of Decadence. Together they are stagnation, sterility, sclerosis and repetition.

Stagnation might best be characterized by this quote from economist Robert Gordan, included in the book:

A thought experiment… You are required to make a choice between option A and option B. With option A, you are allowed to keep 2002 electronic technology, including your Windows 98 laptop accessing Amazon, and you can keep running water and indoor toilets; but you can’t use anything invented since 2002. Option B is that you get everything invented in the past decade right up to Facebook, Twitter, and the iPad, but you have to give up running water and indoor toilets. You have to haul the water into your dwelling and carry out the waste. Even at 3 am on a rainy night, your only toilet option is a wet and perhaps muddy walk to the outhouse. Which option do you choose?

The experiment is very illuminating because no one chooses option B. And you begin to realize how great stagnation has been when you start to imagine how far back would the technological cut off have to be before you would choose option B? What if we went back all the way to 1992? Or 1982? At what point would the amount of technology overwhelm just the single innovation of running water? 

You can also run the experiment in the opposite direction. That quote was from 2012, but here we are 8 years later, and I don’t imagine anyone’s choice switched from A to B in that time. How far into the future would we have to be, and what inventions would have to come along before the majority of people preferred option B?

Sterility is merely the actual, literal sterility of the modern world. We’re not having kids; families are shrinking; and populations are dwindling. Here Douthat’s argument is less about whether it’s happening than whether it’s a bad thing. (Spoiler: It is.) 

Sclerosis basically means resistance to change and Douthat primarily uses the term to cover modern, political dysfunction. And once again it’s not so much whether it’s happening, but why it’s happening. Why, as Douthat says:

[T]he same Washington that once won global wars and built the atom bomb and sent human beings moonward now can’t pass a normal budget; why a political system that used to produce reasonably durable governing coalitions now has wave elections constantly washing parties in and out of power. 

Repetition is the final quality and maybe the one most likely to be noticed by the average citizen, especially as they look around the media landscape. We have largely stopped creating new, innovative art. 

The easiest way, in Douthat’s opinion, to see this in action is to compare our era to one 20 years earlier. In the past such an exercise would have yielded dramatic architectural changes — compare the Empire State Building (30s) to Grand Central Station (10s) — or dramatic changes in the style of movies — compare A Clockwork Orange (70s) to On the Waterfront (50s) to It Happened One Night (30s) — or the changing styles of music — Nirvana (1992), Neil Young (1972), Patti Page (1952), Duke Ellington (1932). But what are the differences between music in 2012 (or even now) and music in 1992? Not many. It’s all a repetition and a form of stagnation, culturally our own day is virtually indistinguishable from the 90s and 2000s, and so on.

In laying this out I intend more to relay Douthat’s arguments than re-make them. If you feel inclined to disagree with any of the above, I would urge you to just read the book. I think he paints a very compelling picture of a nation and even a civilization which has essentially stalled out. But, before I move onto the next section, this idea of decadence brings an interesting ramification to the old debate between progressives and conservatives, one that Douthat himself seems unaware of.

Much of the debate between conservatives and progressive boils down to conservatives urging a respect of tradition and historical precedents, followed by the progressives saying, “Oh, you mean respect for things like slavery?” And that’s the end of that. But if progress has stalled, if civilization reached its peak several decades ago and has been stagnant ever since. Then it’s possible a conservative argument could be made that seeks not a return to the antebellum south, or a period before the institution of women’s suffrage, but just a return to a point before civilization stagnated. And indeed I think for many conservative pundits, Douthat included, this is precisely what they’re advocating.

To imagine the argument more generally. The same reasoning which says that conservatives are and have always been wrong. (Not my reasoning, but it is the reasoning of many.) Is valid only for so long as civilization is on an upward trajectory, but if things have changed recently such that civilization is stagnating or declining, then suddenly the same reasoning being used to conclude that they were wrong for so very long suddenly now makes them right. 

What This Book Says About Eschatology

Most eschatologies are imagined to be both sudden and apocalyptic, qualities which are lacking from the eschatology of decadence and stagnation. Though it’s not clear that this lack should make us take it less seriously. An argument might be made that, in fact, it should be precisely the reverse. Spectacular end of the world scenarios must attract at least some attention from their “cinematic” quality , irrespective of their likelihood. The best example of this must certainly be all the attention paid to the genre of the zombie apocalypse, but which, despite the attention, must be among the least likely of all catastrophes to actually happen. Or to state it all more simply, when it comes to end of the world scenarios, the attention it receives and the probability of it happening are not correlated.

While not the only form a stagnant apocalypse could take, one that’s very likely is the idea of a catabolic collapse, an idea I stole from John Michael Greer, and which I’ve discussed before, though it’s been awhile. There are two types of metabolism, anabolic and catabolic. As a vast oversimplification, in an anabolic state you’re building reserves and muscles, while in a catabolic state the reverse is happening, you’re spending your reserves and breaking down muscle mass to use as energy. Applied to civilization, when it’s in an anabolic state we’re adding programs, building infrastructure and going to the moon. In a catabolic state we’re cutting spending on less critical programs and using the money to prop up essential programs. New infrastructure gets built less frequently and when it does it’s at the expense of maintaining older infrastructure, and eventually everything’s falling apart. Finally, instead of going to the moon, we’re bailing out banks, and passing “stimulus” packages. 

If you expand the definition beyond things which have a dollar value, into drawing down accumulated reputational reserves, isn’t that precisely what’s happening with the massive amount of spending we just decided on? Isn’t this a drawing down of the sterling reputation of US government debt? Yes, we have a large reserve of that, and I doubt this latest crisis has drawn it down to zero, but it also seems like something that’s very hard to replenish, and where the actions required for that replenishment are ones we’re unlikely to take. 

For me, this all leads to the question of where in the process are we? Has the decadence only been going on for a little while and it’s easily reversed or is the decadence quite advanced and already terminal? Assuming we agree that things have stagnated, how would we then go on to determine how far it has progressed? It’s hard to imagine it starting before the moon landing, given how often the book, and others, bring that up as a high point, but it’s also hard to imagine it starting much after Vietnam, and of course those both happened at the same time, so perhaps 1970? Which would mean we’re 50 years into it, but I still don’t know if that’s so long as to indicate that the condition is terminal or short enough to suggest that we still have plenty of time. 

Rome’s Crisis of the Third Century is said to have lasted almost exactly 50 years. Until Diocletian came along, reunited the empire and fought off the barbarians and other nations which had, until that time, been threatening to swallow up the empire. It’s nice to imagine that we just need our own Diocletian to come along, and do the same. But the barbarians might be just as important to that story, and one of the fears is that in addition to lacking anyone resembling a Diocletian that we’re fresh out of barbarians as well. Which may be more important to breaking stagnation than we realize.

Douthat references a famous poem from 1904 called “Waiting for the Barbarians” by the Greek poet C. P. Cavafy. Which imagines an ancient city awaiting the arrival of the Barbarians, and it seems clear that their arrival will provide a focus for the city, something to do, and to unite around, and then something strange happens:

Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?

(How serious people’s faces have become.)

Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly, 

everyone going home, so lost in thought? 

Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.

And some who have just returned from the border say

there are no barbarians any longer.

And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?

They were, those people, a kind of solution.


II- Capsule Reviews

Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead

By: Jim Mattis

320 Pages

I’m trying to remember the last time a non-fiction book genuinely made me angry. I say non-fiction because I get angry all the time when I’m reading fiction. I understand that you might expect it to be the other way around. But in my defense, if I’m reading a novel and something really dumb happens it’s easy to imagine a world in which it didn’t happen that way by just changing the actions of a single person, the author, who would just have had to write it differently. Change a few words, and the character doesn’t do that one ridiculous thing. But when it comes to a recounting of things which actually happened, generally lots of people would have to do lots of things differently for the outcome to be materially affected. As a consequence I’m generally far more sanquine about non-fiction. But that was not the case with this book. Reading it made me very angry. In fact I probably shouldn’t admit but I think this book made me angrier than Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Probably because while I felt some distance from that book in time and space, the events Mattis describes in Call Sign Chaos feel very close. 

What was so upsetting you ask? Lot’s of things, but if I had to pick one, it would have been Mattis’ first hand account of how badly Iraq was bungled. I don’t want to get too deep into the details, but shortly after the occupation there were four security contractors who didn’t check in with the military first and as a result, ended up getting killed in Fallujah. They were hung and their bodies burned. Mattis was obviously upset, but he knew that this early into the occupation that he had to proceed cautiously. And that’s what his recommendation was. But the images had been broadcast all over CNN (more anger) and  Bush and Bremer overruled him and said they had to teach the Iraqis a lesson, and instructed him to invade and pacify Fallujah

Mattis disagreed with this decision, but he also asserts, over and over again, the importance of civilian military control, and the supremacy of the Commander in Chief. Accordingly he was absolutely fine following that order, despite thinking it was a bad idea. But if he was going to do that Mattis had a new plea. He told them, fine, but please, whatever you do, once we get started we really need to finish things. So he invaded Fallujah and then, just as victory was in sight, the government couldn’t handle any more negative press about civilian casualties (mostly coming from Al Jazeera) and they called things off. Skillfully managing to create the worst possible situation out of all the various options. Reaping neither the rewards of caution by holding off, nor the benefits of decisively invading.

This sort of bungling didn’t happen just this one time, it happens over and over again, both in Iraq and Afghanistan, and even once with Iran. Where somehow American military policy was to make the worst strategic level choice every time a choice was presented. You would expect that occasionally they might, even if it’s just by chance, make the right choice, but I got the impression that no, so deft and focused was their pursuit of short term gains that they adroitly avoided any decision with even the slightest hint of being a wise long term policy. 

This seems to have continued through all the presidents Mattis served under, including Trump. And while Mattis has been gone for awhile, it appeared to happen again while I was reading the book in the recent peace deal with the Taliban, and who knows, the approach of that deal may have been why Mattis left, though he gives very little detail in the book about his time in Trump’s cabinet. 

Mattis is an amazing individual, and you really should read the book, just because he’s so awesome, but I expect, like me, it will end up making you very mad. The only hope I was left with after reading the book is that perhaps Mattis might be convinced to run for President in 2020. Certainly he’s old, but he’s still younger than Trump and Biden.


The Lessons of History

By: Will and Ariel Durant

128 Pages

The Durants are famous historians, but it’s entirely possible you haven’t heard of them if you were born after 1970. This book is a distillation of the lessons of history from their numerous books on the subject. And while in places it hasn’t aged well, it’s short enough and so packed with insight (some of which you may disagree with) that I would definitely recommend it.

To be clear, I didn’t actually read it, I listened to it, and the audio version had short snippets of interviews with Will and Ariel in between chapters. These snippets added a lot of additional insight, and because of that I’d recommend listening to the book as well. To give you a taste of these snippets I transcribed one of them. Perhaps you can tell why I liked it:

[Intellect] becomes an instrument for justifying impulse. If you become smart you can prove that what you really want to do, what you’re itching to do is what should really be done… The difficulty is that the intellect is an individualist. It learns how to protect the individual long before it ever thinks of protecting the group. That comes later, that comes with a maturing of the mind. A civilization controlled by intellectuals would commit suicide very soon.

It’s when they make broad pronouncements about the sweep of history that the Durrant’s are at their best. (Possibly because these broad pronouncements are harder to falsify?) When they turn from the general to the specific that’s when things get a little weird. After holding forth on all the things we can learn from history, they point out that many people’s next question is, “Well, what would you recommend.” They oblige by providing a list of 10 suggestions which is a weird mix of timeless wisdom with unusual policies, and other things that mostly haven’t aged well:

  1. Parenting as a privilege and not a right. People should have to pass physical and mental tests before being allowed to breed.
  2. Government annuity to parents for their first and second child if they’re married. Birth control should be provided nearly for free to married couples
  3. Unity of family and authority of the parents should be strengthened by giving parents control over what their children earn.
  4. Education should be provided to fit every high school graduate for employment. Along with an education in the humanities. A wide variety of protections for universities including protection from violent protests. A version of the BBC for the US which is controlled by the universities.
  5. Every religious institution should preach morality instead of theology and welcome everyone who accepts the Golden Rule and the Ten Commandments.
  6. Morality, that is the cooperation of the individual with the group, should be taught every year from kindergarten through PhD. Including education on the effects of promiscuity, drugs, etc. For those who go astray significant prison reform in the direction of rehabilitation.
  7. Labor should be encouraged to organize as much as possible. Consumer protection made into a governmental agency.
  8. Be skeptical of revolution. It’s a monster that devours its fathers and children. Person’s over 30 should not listen to people under 30.
  9. A supervised election should be held to choose a government for South Vietnam which will be empowered to negotiate with the North. Recognize mainland China and admit it to the UN.
  10. A peaceful acceptance of death when it comes, no artificial prolongation of death.

Related to that last suggestion. Apparently Ariel and Will were so devoted to each other that when Will was admitted to the hospital, presumably to die (he was 96) Ariel stopped eating and actually died before him. Their daughter and grandkids tried to keep the news from Will, but he heard about it on the evening news and died shortly thereafter.


The Case Against Reality: Why Evolution Hid the Truth from Our Eyes

By: Donald D. Hoffman

272 Pages

This book was recommended to me by a reader. I’m not sure I will be forwarding that recommendation to the rest of my readers, mostly because the things I thought were useful I had heard elsewhere, and those things that I hadn’t heard generally felt far too speculative. To the point of being largely unbelievable.

An example that combines both of these attributes is his “Interface Theory of Perception”. Think of a computer interface where there’s an icon, for a file, but that icon has very little to do with the string of 1’s and 0’s which actually comprise the file at the lowest level. And more generally the idea that perceiving what’s real, and perceiving what assists you to survive are not necessarily the same thing, and any time they come into conflict, survival will win. That the brain has built an interface for survival, not an interface for reality. I had already heard this and it is indeed an important idea, but Hoffman:

[T]akes the well worn concept of our perceptual systems assembling only crude approximations of reality, and cranks it up to eleven. If you had assumed, like me, that, despite its approximate nature, our concepts of the world and the objects that inhabit it are at least somewhat veridical, think again! We are quickly disabused of the common sense notion that apprehending the truth of one’s environment is roughly compatible with maximizing genetic fitness. Instead, we are presented with the case that truth and fitness are mutually exclusive goals in our evolutionary trajectory.

That’s from a review I found on GoodReads that was too on the nose not to quote.

If anything, it gets worse when the book starts to dive into the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics, and the controversial further extrapolation of that interpretation that things are constructed only when we perceive them. That, for example, when you’re not looking at it, the Moon isn’t there.

It’s not all bad, there is a lot of good stuff, it’s mostly that he’s just too ambitious. For example he definitely gets credit for bringing in supernormal stimuli, a long-time interest of this blog, and also a great example of survival warping perception. But this ends up being another example of overreach. I understand that supernormal stimuli makes certain things seem more attractive than they might be otherwise, and that I eat twinkies when I really should be eating low fat chicken breasts, but twinkies are still food. It’s not like I’m going to starve if I eat twinkies. In fact if anything it’s not our perception of reality that’s screwed up in this instance, it’s our perception of what will help us survive that’s screwed up. 

In the end the biggest problem is that the stuff that’s true and useful in this book is already well known, and the stuff that’s speculative has no practical application even if it could somehow be verified which mostly it can’t.


Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World

By: Laura Spinney

352 Pages

It’s impossible when reviewing this book to avoid talking about the current crisis. And while the history of the Spanish Flu has been picked over pretty thoroughly for advice on how to handle things now, there are still a few items I haven’t seen brought up, or if they have been brought up they haven’t been emphasized. The first and biggest would be patience. The era of the Spanish flu lasted for three full years over three different waves. And when people talk about flattening the curve the whole point of that is to spread out this period. I’m not making any predictions, a lot depends on whether COVID-19 mutates into something significantly different or more deadly and fortunately, there’s evidence that it’s not mutating very fast. But even so, this is not going to be something that’s over by June or probably even over this year. But let’s all hope I’m wrong.

Speaking of mutating, I think more people are aware of it now, but I had always kind of assumed that the first wave of the Spanish Flu was the worst, but it was actually the middle wave, and then there was a further third wave that was not as bad as the second but worse than the first. As I said there’s evidence COVID-19 isn’t mutating very fast, so that’s obviously a good thing, but I also think we need to be prepared for multiple waves of it.

Something else that the book brought up is that the Spanish Flu had a significantly different fatality rate depending on the population. Native Americans were particularly hard hit, and the flu wiped out whole villages of Inuit. I’ve yet to see any evidence that the same thing is happening with C19, and I doubt it’s the explanation for things like the fatality disparity between Italy and Germany, and it’s probably too early to be able to tell, but we definitely could see some of that, and it might be really bad for whatever population ends up being the most susceptible. 

On the whole I’m not sure if I’d recommend the book right now. I think most of the useful insights it contains are already in the wild, and the rest of it will probably just depress you.


Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives

By: David Eagleman

128 Pages

This was a collection of short stories about the afterlife. Short vignettes, each with a different twist. It was enjoyable enough in the manner of most collections of speculative short stories, though there was nothing that knocked my socks off. There as an afterlife were Mary Shelley basically ran things because she was the only person who understood the fraught emotional relationship a creator has with their creation, and god spent all of his time brooding over her novel Frankenstein. Another story depicted an afterlife where you live out the eternities as characters in the dreams of those who haven’t died. And, yet another, where you died in the normal way, but eventually the universe reversed itself and you lived your life again,only in reverse and everything was much better. An idea he clearly stole from the Red Dwarf novels. (Though they may in turn have stolen it from somewhere else.)

You get the idea. And while they were all clever none of them seemed better or more logically constructed than the typical religious doctrine of the afterlife. In a sense this would be surprising, if some fiction writer managed to best the collective imagination of billions of people over thousands of years. But in another sense isn’t that the whole argument of people like transhumanists, that they can in fact come up with something better? I understand I’m probably putting too much weight on this book if I use it as evidence in that debate, but neither should it fill anyone with optimism either.


Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy

By: Francis Fukuyama

672 Pages

First off I owe Francis Fukuyama an apology. On more than one occasion I brought up his idea of the “end of history” as something which had been proven so obviously wrong that neither I nor anyone else needed to take it seriously.

What’s worse is that this is a well known failure mode, you should always try to understand an argument before dismissing it. (Though I understand there’s only so much time in a day.) Additionally this might also be an example of a failure of oversimplification, where a phrase is simplified so much in people’s perception that it’s connotation is not very close and may in fact be the exact opposite of the true meaning the author was going for. (Other examples include Taleb’s idea of Black Swans, and Nietzsche’s contention that “God is dead”.) 

For myself, and I assume most people, the phrase “end of history”, invoked the idea that humanity had won. That we had banished wars, come up with the best system of government, and passed into a new age where big dramatic catastrophes (the kind of stuff you learn about when you study history) would no longer occur. But Douthat claims in his book The Decadent Society that Fukuyama was arguing something very similar to Douthat’s own thesis, that liberal market-based democracy had banished it’s ideological rivals. But rather than this being a glorious triumph, it was more likely a stagnant plateau. Now I feel like I need to read Fukuyama’s End of History and the Last Man and see what he’s really arguing, but, as you might have noticed, that is not the Fukuyama book I read, so I should really move on.

Coincidentally, this book seems to tie in to many of the other books I read this month, and books I’ve read in the last few months as well. I already mentioned the tie in to The Decadent Society, but of all the connections, the greatest is to the previous book in the series Fukuyama’s book The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution which I finished in November and just as in that book his big emphasis is how difficult the formation of a stable well functioning state really is, or as he calls it “getting to Denmark”. This brings in another connection to the Mattis book with all of the difficulties he describes in both the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns. 

Beyond that Fukuyama seems very much in the camp of people who feel that war is an important component in the creation of states, and particularly in the creation of nations, those superpowered states that can call on nationalistic unity (i.e. patriotism) in the event of a threat. A process I talked about in a previous post when I discussed War! What Is It Good For?: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots.

Finally it’s connected to the book by the Durant’s in that it covers much the same territory. In fact if you were going to either read Lessons of History or The Origins of Political Order and Political Order and Political Decay I would definitely encourage you to read the latter. The caveat being of course that those two books together are over 1300 pages, while Lessons of History is a tenth of that. Also the styles are very different. The Durant’s are far more narrative, while Fukuyama is more comprehensive jumping from one example to the next in service of a particular point.

There’s obviously a lot more to the book, but this post is already really long, so I’ll just leave you with just one final take away from the book. Fukuyama argues fairly persuasively, that it’s better to start with an effective state, and then add democracy than to attempt things in the reverse order. 


Sophocles II: Ajax, The Women of Trachis, Electra, Philoctetes, The Trackers

By: Sophocles

172 Pages

As I may have mentioned, I read all of the Greek tragedies when I was young during my initial attempt to make it through the great books of the Western World. I may have also mentioned that I didn’t end up retaining much from that first read through, though that’s not to say I don’t remember anything, and one of the things I definitely remembered was the play Philoctetes, because it was around this time that I started to realize that Odysseus, far from being a heroic role-model was actually sort of a horrible individual. The details of why are too complicated to get into, and it’s more than just this play, but trust me, Odysseus was a jerk.


The pandemic continues, and I hear that people stuck at home are reading a lot more books. If you come across something great let me know. And if my reviews help you find something to pass the time with, consider donating, mostly I’ve always dreamed of getting paid to read, and donations make it seem like that’s what’s actually happening.


The Fragility of Efficiency and the Coronavirus

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I heard a story recently about 3M (h/t: frequent commenter Boonton). Supposedly, back during the SARS outbreak they decided they should build in some “surge capacity” around the construction of N95 masks. Enough additional capacity that they could double their production at a moment’s notice. It was unclear if they actually did that or if they were just thinking about it. And even if they had, it appears that the scope of the current crisis is great enough that it’s not as if this one decision would have dramatically altered the outcome. Still it’s hard to dispute that it would have helped. 

The question which immediately suggests itself is how would the market have treated this development? In fact imagine that there were two companies, one who took some portion of their profits and plowed them back into various measures which would help in the event of a crisis and one that didn’t. How do you imagine that the stock market and investors would price these two companies? I’m reasonably certain that the latter, the one who took the profits and disbursed them as dividends, or found some other use for them, would end up with a higher valuation, all else being equal. In other words I would very much expect Wall Street to have punished 3M for this foresight, particularly over a sufficiently long time horizon where there were no additional epidemics, but even in the few years between doing it and needing it.

What this story illustrates is that attempts to maximize the efficiency of an economic system also have the effect of increasing and possibly maximizing the fragility as well. And while, in general, I don’t have much to say about the Coronavirus which hasn’t been said already and better by someone else. I do think that this may be one of the few areas where not enough has been said already and where I might, in fact, have something useful to add to the discussion. 

To begin, I want to turn from examining the world we have to looking at the world we wished we had, at least with respect to the virus. And as long as we’re already on the subject of masks we might as well continue in this vein. 

As the pandemic progresses one of the big things people are noticing is the difference in the number of infections between the various countries. In particular South Korea, Japan and Taiwan have done much better than places like Italy and Spain. There are of course a number of reasons for why this might be, but there’s increasing anecdotal evidence indicating that the availability of masks might be one part of the equation. 

For example, Taiwan is very closely connected to China, and one might expect that they would have gotten the virus quite early. Probably before people really understood what was going on, but definitely well before the recent policies of social distancing really started to be implemented to say nothing of a full on quarantine, and yet somehow, they only have 235 infections, which as of this writing puts them below Utah!

There are of course numerous reasons for why this might be, but I’m more and more inclined to believe that one big factor is that Taiwan is a mask producing juggernaut. In fact as recently as a few days ago they pledged to send 100,000 masks a week to us. They can make this gesture (and I know 100k is actually just a drop in the bucket) because they’re currently producing 10 million masks a day! For a country that only has 24 million people. Meaning that while that won’t quite cover one mask per day per person it’s enough that if people avoid leaving the house unnecessarily and if some masks can be reused they have enough for everyone to be wearing one at all times when they’re out of doors.

South Korea is similar and the big challenge there was not that they weren’t producing enough masks, but to stop exporting the masks they were already making. Finally reports out of Japan indicate that about 95% of people are wearing masks. But more importantly reports were that even before the pandemic around 30-40% were wearing masks just as a matter of habit. Is it possible that this slowed things down enough to allow them to get on top of it once the true scale of the crisis was apparent?

As I was writing this post I did some research on the topic, but before the post was finished Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex came along, as he frequently does, and released Face Masks: Much More Than You Wanted to Know which is a very thorough examination of the mask question. What he found mostly supports my point, and in particular this story was fascinating:

Some people with swine flu travelled on a plane from New York to China, and many fellow passengers got infected. Some researchers looked at whether passengers who wore masks throughout the flight stayed healthier. The answer was very much yes. They were able to track down 9 people who got sick on the flight and 32 who didn’t. 0% of the sick passengers wore masks, compared to 47% of the healthy passengers. Another way to look at that is that 0% of mask-wearers got sick, but 35% of non-wearers did. This was a significant difference, and of obvious applicability to the current question.

On the other hand, when we turn to the US and Europe, in contrast to Southeast Asia, there is definitely not a culture of mask-wearing and even if there had been, most of those countries apparently imported masks from places like Taiwan and China (a point I’ll return to) meaning that when those countries stopped exporting masks there were even fewer available here, enough that people started worrying about not having even enough for the healthcare providers. Once this problem became apparent various authorities started telling people that masks were ineffective. A policy which has since been called out for not merely being wrong, but contradictory, counterproductive and undermining trust in the authorities at a time when they needed it most. 

For most people, myself included, it’s just common sense that wearing a mask helps, the only question is how much? Based on evidence out of the countries just mentioned, and the SSC post I would venture to say that they help quite a bit. Also they’re cheap. Particularly when weighed against the eventual cost of this pandemic.

We’ve all learned many new things since the pandemic began, one of the things I didn’t realize was how bad the SARS epidemic was and how much the current precautions and behavior of the Southeast Asian countries is based on lessons learned during that epidemic. And while it’s understandable that I might have missed that (particularly since I didn’t start blogging until 2016) the CDC and the federal government on the other hand should have been paying very close attention. In fact, you would have expected that they might have taken some precautions in case something like that happened again or worse, started in the US. (Though to be fair, we don’t have wet markets, if that is where it started. As if we didn’t already have enough conspiracy theories.) Instead the US Government’s response has been borderline criminal. (Other people have done a much better job of talking about this than I could, but if you’re interested in a fairly short podcast just about the delay of testing that avoids sensational accusations, check out this Planet Money episode.)

To continue using the example of masks, I think it’s worth asking what it would have taken for the government to have a one month supply for every single person in the country. Stockpiled against a potential pandemic. According to this Wired article, before the pandemic 100 disposable masks were going for $3.75, let’s be conservative and round up and say that masks cost 4 cents a piece. From there the math is straightforward: 330 million people X 30 days X $0.04, is ~$400 million dollars, or 3% of the CDCs budget, or less than what the federal government spends in an hour. Still, I’ll agree, that’s a fair amount of money. But remember that’s the absolute maximum it would cost. I’d actually be surprised if once you factored in the huge economy of scale that we couldn’t do it for a 10th of that or even a 20th of that. And it would presumably have been cheaper still to just buy the necessary machinery for making masks and then mothball it, with a “break in case of emergency” sign on the door. Once you factor in all the potential cost savings, it’s hard to imagine that this would have cost more than $25 million (in fact if the government wants to offer me a $25 million contract to make it happen for next time I would be happy to take it.) And when you consider that it’s probably going to end up costing the US over a trillion dollars, plus the expected odds of something like this happening, you start to wonder why on earth they didn’t do this and countless other things that might have come in handy. (A strategic toilet paper reserve? I’m just saying.)

When you consider all of the budgetary cuts that were proposed for the CDC, which have emerged in the wake of the pandemic, and which generally involved only tens of millions of dollars, it seems unlikely that even $25 million would be allocated just for masks, but why is that? With a federal budget of $3.8 trillion why are we so concerned about $25 million? (It’s the equivalent of worrying about $25 when you make $3.8 million a year.) I understand people who are opposed to government spending, heck I’m one of them, but this also seems like one of those classic cases where people balk at spending anything to prevent a crisis, while somehow simultaneously being willing to bury the problem in a giant mountain of money once the crisis actually hits. It would be one thing if we refused to spend the money regardless of the circumstances, but if recent financial news is any indication we’re obviously willing to spend whatever it takes, just not in any precautionary way. (Somewhat related, my post from very early in the history of the blog about the Sack of Baghdad. Whatever the federal government and the CDC were doing in the months leading up to this, it was the wrong thing.)

One assumes that this desire to cut funds from even an agency like the CDC, where budgets are tiny to begin with, and where, additionally, the cost of failure is so large, must also come from the drive for efficiency we already mentioned or it’s modern bureaucratic equivalent. Which I understand, and to an extent agree with. We shouldn’t waste money, whether it’s taxpayer money or not. But given the massive potential cost of a pandemic, even if one never emerged, it seems clear that this spending wouldn’t have been a waste. But how do we get to there from here? How do we make sure this drive to save money and increase efficiency doesn’t create priorities which are so lean that they can’t spare any thought for the future. How do we avoid punishing companies who exercise foresight, like the example of 3M? Or how do we ensure that governmental agencies are making reasonable cost benefit calculations which take into account the enormous expense of future calamities, and then taking straightforward precautions to prevent or at least mitigate those calamities?

One of the most obvious potential solutions, but the one that seems to generate the greatest amount of opposition, is the idea of increasing the price of items like masks during periods of increased demands. Or what most people call “price gouging”. Let’s return to the story of 3M and imagine that instead of price gouging being universally frowned on, that instead it was widely understood and accepted that if there was an emergency 3M was not only allowed, but expected to charge 10 times as much for masks. In that case they’re not just hoping to help people out when the calamity comes, they’re also hoping to make a profit. This is in line with the generally accepted function of business, and presumably stockholders might reward them for their foresight, rather than punish them for not being “efficient” enough. In any case maintaining a surge capacity for mask production would be a gamble they’d be more willing to take. 

Notice I said 3M, which is different from people buying up thousands of masks and then reselling them on Amazon. As a generalizable principle, if we were going to do this, I would say that people should be able to raise prices for goods they control as soon as they think they see a spike in demand. So if someone had started stocking up on masks at the first of the year before anyone realized what was going to happen then they ought to be able to sell them later for whatever they think the market would bear. This early buying would have been a valuable signal of what was about to happen. But once the demand is obvious to everyone then 3M should raise their prices (and profit from the foresight of building a second production line) and Costco (or whoever) should raise their prices. I understand that this is not what happens, and that it’s not likely to happen, but if you want a market based approach to this particular problem, this is it.

A governmental solution mostly involves doing the things I already mentioned, like relying on the government to stockpile masks, or to proactively spend money to prevent large calamities. Though you may be wondering how subsidiarity, the principle that issues should be handled at the lowest possible level, factors into things. Clearly state or even local governments could also stockpile masks, or give tax incentives to people for maintaining spare capacity in the manufacture of certain emergency supplies. But as far as I can tell subsidiarity was long ago sacrificed to the very efficiency we’ve been talking about, and thus far I’ve seen no evidence of one state being more prepared than another. Though speaking of tax subsidies, it’s easy to imagine a hybrid solution that involves both the public and private sectors. 3M would have faced a different choice if the government had offered a tax credit for building and maintaining surge capacity in mask construction.

You could also imagine that greater exercise of anti-monopolistic powers might have helped. If you have ten companies in a given sector, rather than one or two you’re more likely to have one company that bets differently, and maybe that bet will be the one that pays off. Additionally globalization has also been a big topic of conversation, and was one of the first effects people noticed about the pandemic. Hardware companies were announcing delays for all of their products because they are all built in China. But we also saw this in our discussion of masks. Most of the mask production also appeared to be in Southeast Asia, and once they decided they needed the masks locally the rest of the world was caught flat-footed. Of course, economists hate the sort of tariffs which would be required to rectify this situation, or even improve it much, and they also mostly hate the idea of breaking up monopolies, but that’s because their primary metric is efficiency and as I’ve been saying from the beginning, efficiency is fragile. 

Before moving on, two other things that don’t quite fit anywhere else. First, doesn’t it feel like there should be a lot of “surge capacity” or room to take precautions, or just slack in the modern world? Somehow we’ve contrived a system where there’s basically a car and television for every man, woman and child in America (276.1 and 285 million respectively vs. a population of 327.2 million) but somehow when a real crisis comes we don’t have enough spare capacity to do even as much as nations like Taiwan, Japan and South Korea? As I’ve already suggested, there are obvious difficulties, but doesn’t it feel like we should be wiser and better prepared than we have been in spite of all that?

Second, am I the only one who would have felt a lot better about the huge stimulus package if we weren’t already running a deficit of $984 billion dollars in 2019? This, despite supposedly having a great economy for the last few years? In any rational system you build up reserves during the good years that you can then draw on during the bad years. That does not appear to be what we’re doing at all. I hope the MMT advocates are right and the size of the US government debt doesn’t matter, because if it matters even a little bit then at some point we’re in a huge amount of trouble.

Which brings us back to our topic. If, as I’m claiming, all of the modern methods are unworkable, we might ask what have people done traditionally, and the answer for most of human history would involve families, and to a lesser extent tribes, along with religious groups. And I suspect that there are quite a few people who are gaining a greater appreciation for family at this very moment. In my own case, I have deep stocks of many things, but toilet paper was not one of them (an obvious oversight on my part). As it turns out my mother-in-law has a ton (not from hoarding) and so rather than show up at Costco at 7 am, or buy it on the black market I can just get it from her. And if she hadn’t been able to help me I’m sure that my religious community would have. (Just to be clear I still haven’t burned through the TP I had on stock at the beginning of things, I’m just laying the groundwork to make sure I don’t get caught flat footed.) This whole story is an account of surge capacity. Though it may not look like it at first glance. But think of it this way, when you need help, having a single child that lives on the other side of the country doesn’t do you much good, but when you have five kids, three of whom live close by, you have four times as many resources to draw on in a crisis, and potentially six times as many depending on what you need.

Going even deeper, friend of the blog Mark wrote a post over on his blog which I keep thinking about, particularly in relation to the current topic. He talks about redundancy, fragility and efficiency as it relates to biological processes. In other words, how does life solve this problem? He gives the example of building a bridge and compares how an engineer would do it versus how a biological process would. While the engineer definitely wants to make sure that his bridge can bear a significantly greater load than whatever they judge to be the maximum, beyond that his primary goal is the same as everyone else in the modern world: efficiency. The biological process, on the other hand, would probably build a bridge made up of dozens of overlapping bridges, and it might cover the entire river rather than just one stretch of it. In other words from an engineering perspective it would be massively overbuilt. Why is that? Because life has been around for an awfully long time, and over the long run efficiency is the opposite of what you’re striving for. Efficiency equals fragility which, as we’re finding to our great sorrow, equals death. 


I suspect that some of you are either already suffering financial difficulties as a result of the pandemic or that you will be soon, so rather than ask for donations, let me rather make an offer of communication. If anyone needs someone to chat with feel free to email me. It’s “we are not saved at gmail”. I promise I’ll respond.


Meditations on Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson

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It may seem odd to spend an entire post on a book that was published 25 years ago, but after re-reading The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson recently I just can’t help myself, the book is just that good. Or, at least the first 99% of it is, I’ve always felt that the ending was too abrupt, and ultimately unsatisfying. Of course any discussion of how something ends means that there’s definitely going to be spoilers, but that’s another reason for talking about something published 25 years ago, the time limit on spoilers has long since expired. 

Diamond Age is set in a future where nanotechnology has revolutionized the world, nearly everyone has a matter compiler, and for those that don’t public matter compilers provide the necessities of life (food, blankets, etc.) for free to anyone who requests them.

In parallel with this development the world has been divided into globe spanning tribes, or phyles, as the book refers to them. Phyles are groups of people sharing a tighter cultural bond than individuals in a modern nation state (though perhaps not a historical nation state?) while being more geographically dispersed. (All cites contain multiple phyle enclaves.) Phyles include groups like Mormons, communists (the Senderos), secret cryptographically oriented phyles (this is Stephenson after all) and finally there are the three great phyles:

The Han (consisting of Han Chinese), the Neo-Victorian New Atlantis phyle (consisting largely of Anglo-Saxons, but also accepting Indians, Africans and other members of the Anglosphere who identify with the culture) and Nippon (consisting of the Japanese). The novel raises the question as to whether Hindustan is a fourth Great Phyle, or a “riotously diverse collection of microtribes sintered together according to some formula we don’t get.” (h/t: Wikipedia)

It should also be noted that not everyone belongs to a phyle, and those who don’t are second class citizens. 

As you might imagine, given how phyles are constructed, culture plays a very large role in the world of Diamond Age, and discussing how Stephenson treats the various cultures, but particularly the Neo-Victorians (or Vickys as they’re often called) is how I’m going to be spending most of my time. 

If you read my book review round up from a couple of weeks ago you’ll remember that I included a quote from Diamond Age on the subject of hypocrisy. The character who was offering his opinion on how hypocrisy had been elevated to “the mother of all vices” was Lord Finkle-Mcgraw, a member of the Neo-Victorian phyle, and in most respects the main driver of events in the novel (though not the main character). As I mentioned the Vickys were one of the “great phyles” and this phyle took the form of a weird corporate oligarchy that owed its allegiance to the British monarchy. Finkle-Mcgraw is an equity lord, meaning that he had a share in the profits of the phyle. This whole construct seems like the kind of thing that would be completely unworkable in reality, but in the book, the Vickys are portrayed as being the phyle you definitely want to be in. 

Stephenson’s portrayal of the Neo-Victorians, is definitely what struck me the most on my first read through of Diamond Age, however many years ago. In particular this idea that the tribe holding to traditional values and historical norms would end up being clearly the best tribe. This was in stark contrast to most of the science fiction I had read before, or since in which traditional values either don’t make an appearance or are brought on the stage solely for the purpose of demonstrating how much better future values are, and if the author can throw in some mockery of traditional values, so much the better. But in Diamond Age these values were not only present, they provided a competitive advantage! 

It’s tempting to take the next step and hold this up as a broader vindication of tradition, but I’m sure if I did people would hasten to point out that this is fiction, and there are no rules that because something happened in a novel that the chances of it happening in reality are thereby increased. Still, if they’re going to be engaging, the best novels have to reflect at least some reality, and I think that’s precisely what Stephenson has done. 

Speaking of reality, and as something of a tangent, one question that occurs after reading Diamond Age, and other Stephenson novels, is where do his political sympathies lie? After his latest novel, Fall (which I reviewed here) featured a whole subplot about internet extremism among (very) fundamental Christians I saw several people asserting that he was obviously very liberal, and if not, then at least very disgusted with Trump. That may be so, but I find it hard to believe that someone could write so eloquently on the subject of traditional norms and customs without having some recognition of their power.

Also to tie it back into the discussion here’s what Finkle-McGraw thinks about culture. 

[He] began to develop an opinion that was to shape his political views in later years, namely, that while people were not genetically different, they were culturally as different as they could possibly be, and that some cultures were simply better than others. This was not a subjective value judgement, merely an observation that some cultures thrived and expanded while others failed. It was a view implicitly shared by nearly everyone but, in those days, never voiced.

I’ll leave it to you to decide how much overlap Finkle-McGraw’s view of culture has with Stephenson’s. Also it should be noted that when he’s speaking of “those days” he’s basically talking about our own time (or at least the 1990’s when the book was written). It would be hard to read that section without immediately following it up with the question of what, exactly, makes one culture better than another? And by making the Vickys the most enviable phyle, Stephenson appears to answer that at least part of it is due to their embrace of traditional norms and customs. 

In the novel (and in reality?) it’s because of the unity such an embrace provides. A unity that is greater because membership in a phyle is clearly something people have to work for. Not something which happens automatically as an accident of birth (though clearly that has some influence). This makes the phyles of Diamond Age much closer to religions than would be typical for a modern nation. Though as Samual Huntington argues in his work on civilizations you can’t have a civilization without a religion, and that historically the two have been tied together much more closely than they are now. Beyond the specific appeal of the Neo-Victorians, I also find the idea of nations with much tighter ideological bonds very appealing, particularly these days. (And it strongly resembles the proposal of an ideological archipelago proposed by Scott Alexander.)

As you might imagine unity is not the only thing the Vickys have going for them. They’ve combined this unity with immense scientific and engineering prowess as well. It should be obvious that this is a powerful combination, but Stephenson doesn’t handwave it into existence, rather he makes the difficulty of maintaining both of these qualities at the same time one of the central themes of the book, going so far as to have one character, the delightful Miss Matheson, point out that, “It is the hardest thing in the world to make educated Westerners pull together…” (A point I also made in a previous post.) If this is the case how is it done? I’ll allow Miss Matheson to once again provide the answer:

It is upon moral qualities that a society is ultimately founded. All the prosperity and technological sophistication in the world is of no use without that foundation—we learned this in the late twentieth century, when it became unfashionable to teach these things. 

I can imagine many people disagreeing with this statement, particularly coming from the mouth of a fictional character, in a book written 25 years, ago, but if so perhaps you will find less to object to in another statement from Miss Matheson:

Some cultures are prosperous; some are not. Some value rational discourse and the scientific method; some do not. Some encourage freedom of expression, and some discourage it. The only thing they have in common is that if they do not propagate, they will be swallowed up by others. All they have built up will be torn down; all they have accomplished will be forgotten; all that they have learned and written will be scattered to the wind. In the old days it was easy to remember this because of the constant necessity of border defence. Nowadays, it is all too easily forgotten.

If you disagree with a foundation of morality I hope you can at least be persuaded that most people would like to preserve what they have built and the things that they have learned. Certainly binding together into a culture is one way of trying to ensure that, but how do you then go on to preserve the subsequent cultural repository? If you’re the Vicky’s how do you maintain unity and technological progress? And more broadly how do you maintain anything at all?

A large part of the problem comes from the fact that the people creating the culture are different from the people living within the culture. It’s made clear in the book that many of the most ardent Neo-Victorians embraced the phyle as a rescue or a correction (or a reaction?) to the licentiousness that surrounded them when they were growing up. But having rejected promiscuity, the last thing they’re going to do is expose their children to it, meaning that people born into the culture won’t have the opportunity to replicate the conditions which lead to the creation of the culture in the first place. The book is initially driven by Finkle-McGraw’s attempt to overcome that problem. Which he does by engaging a young engineer, named Hackworth. Despite its length their initial conversation is worth repeating:

Finkle-McGraw: Tell me, were your parents subjects, or did you take the Oath?

Hackworth: As soon as I turned twenty-one, sir. Her Majesty—at that time, actually, she was still Her Royal Highness—was touring North America, prior to her enrollment at Stanford, and I took the Oath at Trinity Church in Boston.

Finkle-McGraw: Why?

Hackworth: I knew two kinds of discipline as a child: none at all, and too much. The former leads to degenerate behavior… My life was [also] not without periods of excessive, unreasoning discipline, usually imposed capriciously by those responsible for the laxity in the first place. That combined with my historical studies led me, as many others, to the conclusion that there was little in the previous century worthy of emulation, and that we must look to the nineteenth century instead for stable social models.”

Finkle-McGraw: Well done, Hackworth! But you must know that the model to which you allude did not long survive the first Victoria.

Hackworth: We have outgrown much of the ignorance and resolved many of the internal contradictions that characterised that era.

Finkle-McGraw: Have we then? How reassuring. And have we resolved them in a way that all of those children down there live interesting lives?

Finkle-McGraw somewhat euphemistically uses the term “interesting” as a catch-all for the many things which drove him and Hackworth to be Neo-Victorians, and which create success and character in general. But regardless of the culture or in the case of the book, the phyle, maintaining the culture that got you to where you are is a constant problem and nowhere more so than right now.

These days, there are many people who view progress as something of an unstoppable force, or at least an inevitability, and if that’s the case then nothing I say will matter in the slightest. And it would be nice if this were so, but I would hope that something like the coronavirus at least engenders some doubt that things will be quite so smooth. If lines at Costco and the price of gold are any indication it certainly appears that way. (If you’re interested in my take on things, I’m not sure I have much to add, but I’m sure it will form the subject for my personal life section when I do the next book review post.)

As I have repeatedly indicated I am not so sanguine about the future. I think that getting to where we are was a massive effort that built on centuries of trial and error, and yes also a significant amount of morality. That we seem to be abandoning many of the things which got us here without really considering whether they might have been important (i.e. Chesterton’s Fence). That not only are we not making life “interesting” for our kids but that many of us are declining to have kids at all. 

Ultimately as Miss Matheson says, it’s a question of survival and propagation. We’ve reached a point where there are no barbarians at the gate and where the idea that there might ever be barbarians is scoffed at. And maybe there won’t be, maybe the barbarians are all gone, and no effort is required to keep civilization going or make the lives of children interesting. But even in the absence of barbarians, I feel positive that some effort is nevertheless required to maintain civilization. That in the end certain traditional standards, standards which got us to where we are will also end up being critical to keeping us where we are.


Somewhat unconnected to the topic, while I was writing this I experienced my first earthquake (magnitude 5.7). I try to neither overreact or underreact, but I’ll tell from an eschatological perspective having an earthquake in the middle of a plague is a bad omen. If you were thinking of donating, then this might be the time to do it, after all you never know when the world might end.


All Eschatologies Are Both Secular and Religious

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As I look back over my posts, I notice that some of them are less about being interesting in and of themselves, and more part of building the foundation for this crazy house I’m trying to erect. Some posts are less paintings on a wall than the wall itself. Having recognized this tendency, I’m giving you advance warning that this looks to be one of those foundational posts. I do this in order that you might make an informed decision as to whether to continue. That said, I’m hoping that there will be some who find the process of wall construction interesting in and of itself, and will continue to stick around in hopes of seeing something well made. Though I offer no guarantee that such will be the case. Quality is always somewhat elusive.

With the insufficiently committed having been dispensed with, we can proceed to the meat of things.  

In 1999 the Matrix was released in theaters. Beyond being generally regarded as one of the better sci fi action movies of all time it was also most people’s introduction to the idea that, by using sufficiently advanced technology, we might be able to simulate reality with such a high degree of fidelity that an individual need not ever be aware they were in a simulation.

A few years later, In 2003, philosopher Nick Bostrom put forward the Simulation Hypothesis which took things even farther, going from being able to imagine we might be in a simulation to asserting that we almost certainly are in a simulation. As this is something of a bold claim, let’s walk through his logic.

  1. Assume that if computer power keeps improving, that computers will eventually be able to run simulations of reality indistinguishable from actual reality.
  2. Further assume that one sort of simulation that might get run on these superpowered computers are simulations of the past.
  3. If we assume that one simulation could be run, it seems further safe to assume that many simulations could and would be run. Meaning that the ratio of simulations to reality will always be much much greater than 1. 
  4. Given that simulations are indistinguishable from reality and outnumber reality, it’s highly probable that we are in a simulation, but unaware of it.

As you can see The Matrix only deals with step 1, it’s steps 2-4 that take it from a possibility to a near certainty, according to Bostrom. Also for those of you who read my last post you may be curious to know that Bostrom also offers up a trilemma:

  1. “The fraction of human-level civilizations that reach a posthuman stage (that is, one capable of running high-fidelity ancestor simulations) is very close to zero”, or
  2. “The fraction of posthuman civilizations that are interested in running simulations of their evolutionary history, or variations thereof, is very close to zero”, or
  3. “The fraction of all people with our kind of experiences that are living in a simulation is very close to one”

Regardless of whether you think the probability that you live in a simulation is close to 100% or not, it’s almost certainly not 0%. But, you may be wondering, what does this have to do with eschatology? As it turns out everything. It means that there is some probability that the end of the world depends not merely on events outside of our control, but on events outside of our reality. And if Bostrom is correct that probability is nearly 100%. Furthermore, this is similar, if not nearly identical to how most religions imagine the end of the world as well. Making a strong connection between religion and the simulation hypothesis is probably an even harder pill to swallow than the idea that we’re in a simulation, so let’s walk through it.

To begin with, a simulation immediately admits the existence of the supernatural. If the simulation encompasses the whole of our perceived reality, and if we equate that reality with what’s considered “natural”, then the fact that there’s something outside of the simulation means there’s something outside of nature, and that something would be, by definition, supernatural. 

It would also mean that god(s) exists. It would not necessarily say anything about the sort of gods that exist, but someone or something would need to create and design the simulation, and whatever that someone or something is, they would be gods to us in most of the ways that mattered. 

Less certain, but worth mentioning, these designers would probably have some sort of plan for us, perhaps only at the level of the simulation, but possibly at the level of each individual. 

When you combine the supernatural with a supreme being and an overarching plan, qualities that all simulations must possess just by their very nature, you end up with something that has to be considered a theology. The fact that simulations have a theology doesn’t demand that there is also an associated religion, but it also doesn’t preclude it either. If you’re willing to accept the possibility that we’re living in a simulation, then it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to imagine that one or more of the religions within that simulation might espouse beliefs which happen to match up with some or all of the theology of that same simulation. In fact I would even venture to argue that it would be more surprising if they didn’t. Even if you want to argue that it might be strictly by chance.

To be clear, yes, I am saying that if you’re willing to grant the possibility that we are currently in a simulation, then you should also be willing to grant that some religion, be it Muslims, Mormons or Methodists, might have elements within their doctrine which map to the theology of the designers, either by chance or by supernatural inspiration. And one of those elements, possibly even the most likely element to have in common, is how things are going to end. If anything was going to “leak through”, how it all ends would be a very strong candidate.

I know some people are going to be tempted to dismiss this idea because when one imagines a simulation they imagine something involving silicon and electricity, something from a movie, or a video game. And when one imagines the supernatural and God they imagine clouds, angels, robed individuals and musty books of hidden lore. But in the end most religions come down to the idea of a body-spirit dualism, which asserts that there are things beyond what we can see and detect. As opposed to materialism which asserts that everything comes from interactions between things we can see and measure. A simulation is obviously dualistic, and definitionally, what criteria can we use to draw a sharp line between the dualism of religion and that of a simulation? Particularly when you consider that both must involve supernatural elements and gods? 

I understand that the religious view of the world is entirely traditional, and seems old and stuffy. While the idea that we’re in a simulation encompasses futurism and transhumanist philosophy. But that’s all at the surface. Underneath, they’re essentially identical.

To put it another way, if a Catholic were to say that they believe we live in a simulation and that furthermore Catholicism is the way that the designers of the simulation reveal their preferences for our behavior, what arguments could you marshall against this assertion? I’m sure you could come up with a lot of arguments, but how many of them would boil down to: “well, I don’t think that’s the way someone would run a simulation”? Some of them might even sound reasonably convincing, but is there any argument you could make that would indisputably separate Catholicism from Simulationism? Where knowledge about the character of the simulation couldn’t end up filtering into the simulation in the form of a religion?

For those who might still be unconvinced, allow me to offer one final way of envisioning things. Imagine everything I just said as the plot of a science fiction novel. Suppose the main character is a maverick researcher who has become convinced that we live in a simulation. Imagine that the novel opens with him puttering around, publishing the occasional paper, but largely being ignored by the mainstream until he discovers that designers of the simulation are about to end it. Fortunately, he also discovers that they have been dropping hints about how to prevent the end in the form of obscure religious prophecies. Is that plot solid enough to sustain a book? Or would you toss it aside for being completely impossible? (I think it’s a great plot, I may even have to write that book…)

If you happen to be one of those people who worries about x-risks, and other end of the world type scenarios. What I, at least, would call secular eschatologies. Then unless you’re also willing to completely rule out the idea that we might be in a simulation, it would seem obvious that as part of your studies you would want to pay at least some attention to religious eschatology. That, as I suggest in the title, all eschatologies might end up being both secular and religious.

You might think that this is the only reason for someone worried about x-risks to pay attention to religion, and it may seem a fairly tenuous reason at that, but as I’ve argued in the past there are other reasons as well. In particular religion is almost certainly a repository for antifragility. Or to put it another way religion is a storehouse of methods for avoiding risks below the level of actual x-risks. And even if we’re speaking of more dramatic, extinction threatening risks, I think religion has a role to play there as well. First, we might ask why is it that most religions have an eschatology? That is, why do most explicitly describe, through stories or doctrine, how the world will end? Why is this feature of religions nearly ubiquitous?

Additionally there’s a good argument to be made that as part of religion people preserve the memory of past calamities. You may have seen recently that scientists are saying some of the aboriginal Australians might have passed down a tale that’s 37,000 years old. And then of course there’s the ongoing speculation that Noah’s flood, which also appears in the Epic of Gilgamesh, also preserves the memory of some ancient calamity.

Having made a connection from the religious to the secular, you might ask whether things go in the other direction as well. Indeed they do, and the connection is even easier to make. Imagine that you’re reading the Bible and you come across a passage like this one in Isaiah:

For, behold, the Lord will come with fire, and with his chariots like a whirlwind, to render his anger with fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire.

For by fire and by his sword will the Lord plead with all flesh: and the slain of the Lord shall be many.

If you believe that this sort of thing is going to come to pass, then it would appear that there are modern weapons (including nukes) that would fit this description nicely. More broadly while it’s somewhat more difficult to imagine how:

…the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places.

-Revelation 6:14

Such descriptions are the exception, rather than the rule. Most eschatological calamities included in the doctrines of the various religions, like plagues and wars, are likely to have secular causes, and the potential to be made worse by technology. (Note the rapid global spread of COVID-19/coronavirus.) And while I think many people overfit religious doctrine onto global trends, I certainly can’t imagine that it would be tenable to do the opposite. How someone interested in religious eschatology could ignore what’s going on in the larger world. 

In the end, as I said during my previous post on the topic, I’m very interested in expanding the definition and scope of the discipline of eschatology. And even if you don’t agree with everything I’ve done in service of that expansion, I think bringing in Bostrom’s Simulation Hypothesis opens up vast new areas for theorizing and discussion. Yes, the hypothesis itself is very speculative, but the most compelling argument against it is that there will never be humans capable of making such simulations, which argument, itself, represents a very strong eschatological position. One way or another you have to take a position on how the world is going to turn out. And given the enormous stakes represented by such a discussion, I think it’s best if we explore every possible nook and cranny. Because in the end there’s a tremendous amount we don’t know, and I for one don’t feel confident dismissing any possibility when it comes to saving the world.


If we are in a simulation I wonder how the designers feel about those people who are “on to them”? Do they react with pleasure at our cleverness? Or do they unleash all the plagues of Egypt? If it’s the latter I might soon find myself in need of some monetary assistance.