Year: <span>2017</span>

75 Solutions to Fermi’s Paradox but Still Missing Mine

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Nearly three years ago I read “If the Universe Is Teeming with Aliens … Where Is Everybody?: Fifty Solutions to the Fermi Paradox and the Problem of Extraterrestrial Life” by Stephen Webb. Well Webb put out a second edition entitled If the Universe Is Teeming with Aliens … Where Is Everybody?: Seventy-Five Solutions to the Fermi Paradox and the Problem of Extraterrestrial Life (emphasis mine). And while the first inclination of any reasonable person might be to talk about the trend of increasingly long book titles, I thought this represented a good opportunity to revisit my solution for Fermi’s Paradox.

For those who need reminding, my solution is fairly straightforward. To begin with, most people who’ve given it any thought, have concluded that potential aliens would be thousands if not millions of years ahead of us technologically. This difference would make these aliens appear godlike in power, and give them abilities that would seem miraculous. Second, these aliens would likely be much more interested in our behavior (which is to say our morality), than in giving us technology, trading with us, destroying us or any of the other common tropes of science fiction. Combine the two together and you’re basically describing religion. And in particular a careful reading of the LDS/Mormon religion says that this is essentially exactly what’s going on. (Though to the best of my knowledge I’m the first person to make the connection explicit.)

Returning to the book, with 25 more solutions to choose from in the second edition, I was curious to see whether mine had finally made the cut. In short, it did not.

(I should point out that there is a chapter titled “God Exists” but it bears no resemblance to my explanation, but if you want more details I covered it when I talked about the first edition of the book.)

I expect, the reason my solution didn’t make the cut, is because Webb had not heard of it. (I intend to rectify that.) Given the solutions which did make the cut, you seriously hope that he hadn’t heard of it. For an example of what I mean, let’s look at the first three potential solutions which were included:

  • They Are Here and They Call Themselves Hungarians (Many very prominent scientists were Hungarian. Many went to the same high school.)
  • They Are Here and They Call Themselves Politicians (David Icke’s theory that most powerful individuals are shape-shifting lizard people. The less said about it the better)
  • They are Throwing Stones at Radivoje Lajic.

If these three make the cut, the bar has to be pretty low. For what it’s worth, both of the last two solutions are new in the second edition. As I said I have no desire to give Icke anymore space than I already have, but as an example of the sort of solution which Webb decided should make the cut, let’s look at the details of the Radivoje Lajic solution. Lagic is a Bosnian gentleman who claims his house has been struck by meteorites on six separate occasions. As Webb points out (somewhat tongue in cheek) given the paucity of meteorite strikes in general, either Lajic has fantastically bad luck, there is some extraterrestrial intelligence with a particular interest in this one poor dude from Bosnia, or there’s something fishy about the whole story. The point of all of this, is that I guess if it’s the middle explanation then it counts as a very weird solution to the paradox.

To be clear, I do not mean to imply that Webb puts any of these three forward as a serious solutions, but it is interesting to wonder why these made the cut and nothing even resembling my solution got included. I know I said he probably hadn’t heard of it, but on the other hand, this is someone who has spent an enormous amount of time thinking about the Paradox, and yet nothing like my solution ever occurred to him. To me this suggests a large blind spot or maybe several. And having just finished the second edition, now is the ideal time to examine what those blind spots and prejudices might be. And what it says that the story of Radivoje Lajic made the cut and nothing, in any way related to religion, did. And of course it isn’t just Webb, these blind spots are common to almost all discussions of the Paradox.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I would assume that most people are familiar with Fermi’s Paradox by now, but if not, it’s the idea that with hundreds of billions of stars (just in our galaxy) and billions of years for other space-faring civilizations to have developed, that by any rational estimate, the universe, as Webb says, should be “teeming with aliens.” This is especially true if you follow the long held statistical assumption of scientists going at least as far back as Copernicus that there is nothing special about us. That Earth, and humanity, represent an average example of what you should expect in any given star system. The paradox is that despite all of the things arguing in favor of aliens, or to use Webb’s Term extraterrestrial civilizations (ETCs) we have found zero evidence of them.

For the purposes of this blog the paradox is profoundly important. When I say “We are not saved.” Or more specifically that technology is not going to save us. Fermi’s Paradox is a powerful point in my favor. And when someone on the other side argues that technology will save us, they have to explain why across billions of years, and hundreds of billions of stars we find no evidence of it ever having done so before.

The generalized problem of the Paradox can be distilled into the idea of a filter. Something which prevents Earthlike planets (which most estimates place in the tens of billions) from developing ETCs. And the key thing to remember is this filter can be in our past (e.g. life is unusually difficult to start) or it can be in our future. Increasingly, with the discovery of more and more earth-like planets, and ever hardier life forms, a filter in the past is looking less and less likely. But if it’s ahead of us, and if we assume that if we’re ever going to spread beyond our solar system we’ll probably do it relatively soon (next 500 years?) or not at all, then the filter is probably something we’re already doing or about to do.

And here we arrive at, what I consider, the first blind spot. Webb is too focused on the idea of a filter. For one, when we eventually get to his solution to the paradox (the 75th solution) he is of the opinion that *spoiler alert* we’re alone. There are no other intelligent civilizations for us to communicate with. Thus, if we suspect Webb of having any biases they must almost certainly be in the direction of  overemphasizing the strength of all the potential filters. Second and related, of the three sections he groups the solutions into, only one, the “They Are (or Were) Here” section, specifically doesn’t assume any sort of filters, and only 10 of the 75 solutions fall into this category, and, of those ten, several are not especially serious, including the three we already encountered. Are there so few because that’s just how it naturally breaks out? Or is it because of a failure of imagination on Webb’s part. Given that my solution would fall into this category I suspect it’s the latter.

This failure of imagination is probably the chief problem. We are too tied to our biases and expectations. Though it is not only that we can’t imagine aliens vastly different than ourselves, a problem which most people recognize, I think it works the other way as well, and we are also too quick to dismiss parallels between aliens civilization and our own. And it’s this latter problem that I want to talk about first, though I would argue that Webb and others suffer from the “vast difference” problem of imagination as well.

It’s not that no one has considered possible parallels between our civilization and an alien civilization, but I have seen very few people other than myself look to what humans themselves did when they encountered other civilizations. This includes both what the Europeans did when they discovered the New World and what we do now with uncontacted tribes.

In the former case in addition to all the subjugation and resource extraction, we sent missionaries. This tactic becomes even more apparent when we consider how the Europeans dealt with the far eastern cultures like China and Japan. (I just got done watching the movie Silence by Martin Scorsese about Jesuit missionaries in Japan, so this topic is fresh in my mind.) We no longer do this in quite the same way, mostly because we have decided that it’s a bad thing to impose our ideology on others. Though it still happens. Mormons will certainly send missionaries to any country that lets them, and less religious “missionaries” spend lots of time and money doing things like bringing clean drinking water and education to less-developed countries.

How would this work with aliens? Who knows, but if we can take any broad lessons away from this comparison, it’s that aliens are anything like us they may be far more interested in whether we practice cannibalism, or burn widows on the pyres of their dead husbands, than in dazzling us with giant mile long spaceships. Which is to say that I think most people who talk about the Paradox have read too much science fiction, and they imagine that alien encounters are going to look a lot like Star Trek, ignoring the fact, as I already mentioned, that aliens are likely to be millions of years ahead of us in technology. And they will likely contact us or not contact us in any way they like. Which brings us to the other example: uncontacted tribes.

Currently on the Earth there are still many groups which have never been contacted by the “modern” world. And the agreed upon standard is to, insofar as it’s possible, leave them completely alone. And if we are going to interact with them to have as small a footprint as possible. We’re only a thousand or so years ahead of most of these people and yet, we can do a pretty good job of keeping an eye on them without any awareness on their part. Now imagine how good a job you could do if you were a million years ahead of the civilization you wanted to keep an eye on. You might be able to do things that seemed miraculous. A point I’ll return to shortly.

While Webb doesn’t draw the parallel between how aliens might deal with us and how we deal with uncontacted tribes, he does put forth several solutions which amount to this tactic. These include the Zoo Scenario, the Interdict Scenario and the Planetarium Hypothesis. All of these potential solutions imply that aliens are around, they’re aware of us, and for various reasons they have chosen to hide all traces of their existence. As I have pointed out before, in these scenarios the super-powerful alien races are effectively God. They may not be the Christian God or a Muslim God, or a God that any of the traditional religions would recognized (though they might be, and that takes us back to my explanation) but, to return to the theme of the blog, as far as humanity being saved, our salvation is now entirely dependent on these aliens. If they are powerful enough to hide from our best technology, they are presumably powerful enough to do pretty much anything else they want with us.

Thus, as far as the question of whether or not we’re saved? The answer becomes, “It entirely depends on the whim of super powerful aliens who’ve chosen to hide their existence from us.” This situation is essentially a religion, just one with no obvious doctrine. Is it that much of a jump from these solutions to exactly the same situation, but with actual religious doctrine? I would argue that this is yet another failure of imagination, another blindspot.

Much of this failure stems from the inability of Webb and others to imagine how miracles work. A subject I said I’d return to and which illustrates a lack of imagination on the other end of the spectrum. On the one side people ignore examples like Christian missionaries, because they’re too human, and on this side, they ignore anything which might violate well understood physical limits because humans believe strongly in those limits. For example everyone seems wedded to the speed of light as a hard limit. and while I certainly wouldn’t bet against it, it seems silly to declare anything out of bounds if people have a few millions years more to work on it. Thus they remove from consideration things like prayer, or life after death, or the thousand minor miracles religious people cling to, because these either violate some physical law, or they appear too mundane to be the kinds of things intelligent aliens might do, but then at the same time they assert that it’s foolish to try and predict what a highly advanced ETC might do, because they might be as different from us as we are from ants.

The point being in all of this is that people have a very hard time separating their biases from nearly everything, even thinking about why we have never received any communications or visitations from an ETC, with their presumed lack of any human biases, something which makes shedding biases especially important. In the interest of making sure that I demonstrate my own bias, I’ll close by presenting another potential solution to the Paradox, I do this to illustrate three things:

  1. My biases
  2. As an example of how nearly everything relates to the paradox
  3. How tenuous salvation through science might be

As you might have gathered I have my worries about the social justice movement. Could it be an explanation for the Paradox, could it keep us from getting out of the solar system? To be clear I’m not saying it will, I’m just saying that my biases lead me to look for evidence that it might. As I said, I don’t think technology and “progress” will save us, and from my perspective there’s a lot of reasons for that. A mania for social justice is only one of them, but it makes a good example.

Insofar as welfare and entitlement spending are social justice issues (and I would argue that they are) it’s only natural that a massive increase in that spending would crowd out spending on things like NASA. At the height of the Apollo Program, NASA spending was 4.41% of the federal budget, now it’s 0.47%, so basically one tenth of what it was at its height. All of this is to say that it’s certainly possible to end up in a situation where you’re so concerned about what’s happening on Earth that you never get around to leaving it. I’ve already spent a post explaining the difficulties of leaving Earth on any sort of permanent basis so I won’t spend a lot of time rehashing those difficulties here, suffice it say that it’s not something that can be done as afterthought, and can anyone honestly say that 0.47% of our budget could be considered as anything other than an afterthought?

(For those of you about to say, “But what about Elon Musk?” I would urge you to re-read the previous post I just mentioned, but if you’d rather not, consider that for there to be any kind of long term settlement it eventually has to be profitable. What profits could a Mars colony generate to cover it’s enormous costs?)

That’s something of the 50,000 foot view, but there are other, smaller things which concern me as well. As an example, and perhaps it was just me, I was deeply struck by the controversy over the shirt. For those that don’t recall or didn’t hear the story, back in late 2014 the European Space Agency landed a probe on a comet. This was pretty exciting and accompanied by a live broadcast from mission control. One of the astrophysicists that was on staff wore a t-shirt “depicting scantily-clad cartoon women with firearms.” Despite this shirt being worn because it was made by a female friend of the astrophysicist, it was made to be emblematic of all of the ways men make it hard for women in science. The outrage was so great that the astrophysicist was driven to tears as he made his apology. In my humble and possibly incorrect opinion, if we’re more focused on the shirt then on the fact that we managed to land a probe on an actual comet, then it’s conceivable that our priorities are not aligned in a way that would allow us to make it out of the Solar System.

In another example of a smaller thing which came to my attention recently. In an effort to give every possible group it’s due there is a history book, which despite clocking in at 1,277 pages, makes no mention of the Wright Brothers. (Despite me recently learning about it recently, the article was from 2010, so it might have changed since then.) It is certainly possible that doing space flight well will not require any historical knowledge on how we got to this point, but leaving out stuff like this certainly can’t help.

And then of course, there’s the fact that a substantial percentage of the early employees of NASA were former Nazis. I feel pretty certain that we couldn’t have pulled that off today, and while I doubt we’ll have to make exactly the same tradeoff, there are still tradeoffs to be made, and when getting off the planet conflicts with the principles of social justice, I’m afraid that unless things change, social justice is going to win. And that’s assuming that we ever even get to the point where it matters.

Of course, I already have an explanation for Fermi’s Paradox, and even if I didn’t I don’t think our fixation on social justice would end up at the top of the list, but could it be a contributing factor? Definitely. Mostly likely it’s all part of a generalized lack of will, perhaps tied into an aging civilization. I’m not the first person to suggest that we no longer dare to do big things. But it makes a lot of sense. And one undeniably big thing is putting people on Mars. I’m as excited as anyone about Elon Musk’s plan, despite the fact that I think it’s completely impractical and never going to work. (This is much the same way my excitement about libertarianism works.) But this not Elon’s fault. I suspect that we’re all a tiny bit at fault, and maybe as a society we need to spend our money better, but only time will tell.

The larger point I’m trying to get at with all this, is that if, like Webb you believe that we are all alone, then you’ve essentially placed all of your chips for long term survival and salvation on getting off the planet, and anything that threatens that project should be viewed in a very harsh light. If, on the other hand, you are persuaded by my solution then things are far less grim.

I know, Christmas is on Monday and you haven’t gotten me anything, and you feel bad, well it’s never too late to donate.

Speaking of Christmas I’ll be taking next week off for the holidays, but I’ll be back in 2018 with more of my strange mix of politics, religion and technology.

More on the Harrasocaust? Or is it the Pervnado?

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This post is a continuation of last week’s post, which was about… Well, right off the bat, I should mention that one of the topics which didn’t make it into the last post was my annoyance that there is no blanket term for what’s been happening, no word which encompasses the sudden explosion in accusations, the long buried stories, the people losing their jobs, etc. This is not to say that no one is trying. I think the most common term is the “#MeToo Movement”. But I’ve also heard the terms “Harrasocaust” and “Pervnado”. As I said “#MeToo Movement” is the most common, but that term seems more about the experiences of the victims than the actions of the perpetrators and while the experiences of the victims are an important aspect, even the most important aspect, that’s not really where my focus is (also some people have pointed out that the victims shouldn’t be responsible for publicizing the problems of sexual harassment on top of having to suffer it) Also, let’s be honest, can it really compete with the “Prevnado”?

This lack of an umbrella term is just one of the smaller topics and observations I plan to cover in this post because they didn’t fit into the previous post. It’s possible that within all the topics I’ll be able to pull out some overarching theme, but probably not. It’s more likely that this post will just be a series of somewhat disconnected observations.

To begin with, I’d like to start with something that I’m curious about. When is someone other than the accused/perpetrator going to be fired? Which is to say that most of these people have bosses right? What’s their responsibility in all this? For example, let’s look at Matt Lauer. The second result when I search for who knew about Matt Lauer is an article from Vanity Fair titled “Everybody Knew”. And yet, as far as I can tell none of the higher ups at NBC have suffered any consequences, no one else has had to resign, or anything similar. They are conducting an investigation, but it’s being handled internally, and my strong suspicion is that if someone else was going to be fired that it would have happened already.

If we look at Weinstein, we see a similar situation, though, to be fair Weinstein didn’t have a boss in quite the same way Lauer did, but when the search Weinstein “open secret” turns up 6000+ news articles, one thinks that somebody should have done something, particularly people like Quentin Tarantino, who admits he basically knew what was going on. Though perhaps not, since he’s probably the only person who’s not actually lying about how much they knew. Everyone else is shocked (Weinstein Co. Board) and saddened (Ben Affleck) and totally not complicit, and why would you even think to bring that word up?

Part of the reason this topic didn’t make it into the last post, other than space, is that it didn’t fit in as cleanly as some of the other examples. I have never claimed to be objective, and this is a great example of that, though the fact that I’m including it now should count for something.

One of the ways it doesn’t fit in, is that, at first glance, it doesn’t fit the narrative of the incipient witch hunt. If people are motivated to treat the perpetrators as harshly as possible during the Pervnado why would they restrict this harshness to just the perpetrator? Additionally I see a lot of people talking about structural sexism (and racism), and however powerful Matt Lauer and Weinstein were, they aren’t a structure, if you want to go after structural sexism, it’s not enough to get the one bad perpetrator, you really should be casting a wider net, and looking for people who had the power and responsibility to stop it but didn’t. Particularly given how obvious it is that these people existed. As part of this, it’s my impression that, in the past, it was more common for bosses to resign when something they were in charge of went badly, even if it wasn’t directly their fault. If so, I’d like to bring that back. I think the fact that (probably) no one else at NBC will face any consequences for Lauer’s behavior, is one of the factors that enabled the behavior to continue for so long, and caused the eventual Pervnado.

Basically what it comes down to, is that the lack of calls for bosses, co-workers, assistants, friends, etc. to resign, would appear to be strong evidence against a mania for making snap judgements, ignoring due process and exhibiting a lack of proportionality. The question is why? Why have these people been spared? As I pointed out even if we’re not in danger wandering into “Madness of the Crowds” territory with the Pervnado, if you’re worried about harassment being baked into the structure (and there is strong evidence for this.) Then you would expect at least some examples of this happening. There’s got to be some particularly egregious example, some particularly permissive boss, that should be enough to attract the attention of a corporation eager to avoid yet more negative publicity. So again, why have these people been spared by the Pervnado?

I’m not sure, but my best guess is that there is something of an implied understanding. You have one side saying, “This is a bad guy. We want his scalp. It has gone on way to long. He needs to be gone yesterday. If you immediately fire him then we’ll turn a blind eye to your own role in things, but say anything about due process or an investigation, and we’ll take your scalp as well.” And the other side says, “Whatever you say! Just leave me out of it!”

Certainly there are examples of the opposite happening, of people (like Scott Rosendall from last week) who have gotten in trouble for urging restraint, or caution. Thus, despite, looking, on the face of it, like an argument against the mania it could be feeding it. If you take your time, conduct a thorough investigation, actually get Garrison Keillor’s side of the story, etc. Then that’s when the committee for public safety comes for you. But if you’re “Shocked! Shocked I say!” and claim that you had no idea, and that you fired the individual the very second you found out, then maybe that’s the best way of saving your own scalp.

That said, if it is part of the mania, it’s hard to imagine that this sort of thing will protect them forever. If this is anything like the past, one day you’re running the guillotine the next you’re in it.

After considering how wide the Pervnado will go, and wondered why it hasn’t gone wider, I’m also curious how deep it’s going to go, which is to say how far back? Roy Moore lost the election last Tuesday, largely based on allegations which date back to the late 70’s early 80’s (with one outlier in 1991). I said largely based on the allegations, but it’s also it’s important to remember that he was a pretty poor candidate beyond all that, which certainly contributed to things. But perhaps the most damning thing may have been the (R) after his name. That may seem like an extreme statement to make, but consider that even the 1991 allegation (which as I said is an outlier) was the year before Bill Clinton was elected, two years before he took office. And most importantly, two years before he was accused of sexually assaulting Kathleen Willey, and four years before his relationship with Monica Lewinsky.

And, of course we haven’t even mentioned the most damning allegation: Clinton’s rape of Juanita Broaddrick. To be fair this was all the way back in 1978, but that’s still right around the same time as the majority of things that Moore was accused of and more severe on top of that. And yet, you have Hillary jumping on the anti-Weinstein bandwagon (after he had raised $1.4 million for her) and talking about how shocked she is by the allegations. Am I the only one struck by the irony of this?

I understand that Clinton is not currently running for election, like Moore was, and I understand that does make a difference, I also understand that Clinton was a great candidate as compared to Moore who, as I said, was kind of an awful candidate, and that that also makes a difference. (Though I think we all agree it probably shouldn’t.) But before I get too partisan. My central question is, can anyone honestly tell me that if we applied the same standard to Bill Clinton that we applied to Moore, or Franken, or Weinstein, or Lauer, that we wouldn’t also make him part of the Pervnado? Another thing that didn’t fit neatly into the last post, and so I left it out.

Moving on, since I’m doing a follow-up, that gives me the opportunity to respond to some of the comments people made. Particularly those that were critical of my previous post. I’m not surprised at all that people were critical, but I was surprised by the content of some of the criticism. In particular, one of my readers felt that I was implying that all feminists have abandoned due process in favor of the witch hunt, and that I further implied that all feminists were fine with people losing their jobs for minor, or non-existent infractions.

The surprising part, of course, was the fact that I had been very careful to not use the word “feminist” anywhere in my previous post, specifically in an attempt to avoid exactly this accusation. Needless to say it didn’t work.

When I asked him where he got the idea that I was talking about all feminists, he mentioned that I had used the word “some” in several places, and that if I wasn’t referring to feminists who was it referring to? For example, these statements from the last post:


  • some on the fringe truly believe that all men engage in true sexual harassment
  • I could certainly imagine some people saying well this isn’t an example at all of harm being caused to innocent people
  • I don’t think I should be forbidden from talking about this issue (as evidenced by this post) but I can understand why someone might make that argument.


I replied that all that I meant by “some” is that the attitudes I was talking about are held by enough people that it was appropriate to use that term rather than “one”, or “few”, or “many”. And that if, as I argued, this “some” holds a harmful opinion, then I am concerned that they either might have the power to implement this opinion in a way that increases the harm (which has probably happened already) or that the “some” will continue to grow until they become “many” and have the power to cause harm simply by virtue of their numbers.

But it is interesting to consider the feminist position, and in the course of his response he did link to a couple of very interesting articles. The first was from Ms. Magazine and it acknowledges the possibility of what the article calls “sexual panic”. It’s an insightful article and insofar as this represents the feminist position (For the reasons I discussed earlier, I hesitate to apply that label on my own authority). It brings up some excellent points. Here’s some of the things that jumped out at me:

  1. The description of elements which separate “the Harvey Weinsteins and Louis CKs and Roy Moores of the world” from “innocent and misunderstood dudes” would appear to put Bill Clinton in the former, rather than the latter group.
  2. Like me the article makes a compelling argument that there is a continuum of harassment:

These “small” acts are not, therefore, benign or inconsequential. But they are also not synonymous with assault. A cat call is not a rape. Al Franken’s hand on a butt during a state fair photoshoot is not equivalent to the systematic trolling of underage girls by Roy Moore or decades of quid-pro-quo workplace assaults by Harvey Weinstein.

  1. Interestingly she also references the satanic daycare panic, but declares that:

There was no there there. But there is very much a there here.

By which, I assume, she means that there is an underlying problem now, but there wasn’t then. I’m not sure I would agree with this. My memory is that child abuse, in a similar fashion to sexual harassment was very much something which happened far too often without being noticed or reported, and that the satanic daycare incident happened when there was a huge push to be more aware of child abuse in general. Also I’m not entirely sure this is a point in her favor. You would expect, that in situations where there is an underlying problem that it’s easier for it to turn to panic, because you can always retreat to that foundation as justification for even very extreme actions. (Observe that the excesses of communism followed from the very real problems of inequality/poverty.)

  1. Finally, the article ends up being light on recommendations, mostly urging greater nuance. An opinion I certainly understand and even share to a certain degree, but I think the difference between nuance and subjectivity is harder to define than people think. And once we allow a completely subjective response, what keeps us from going overboard?

It’s this subjectivity that worries me. Both because it’s so open to abuse, and because it has such a chilling effect on all interactions. Where do you draw the line between awkward flirting and sexual harassment? I think all too often it’s draw based on the attractiveness of the person involved. Like that classic SNL sketch where you have Fred Armisen and Tom Brady starring in a PSA for sexual harassment. In the end Fred Armisen can’t say “hi” without being accused of something bad, while Tom Brady can walk up to a female coworker in his underwear and be fine. Because Fred Armisen is a giant nerd, and Tom Brady is a fantastic specimen of human perfection. (Interestingly SNL just did another, similar video, though not quite as on point.)

Obviously I’m not the first person to mention that one woman’s harassment is another woman’s flirting. Others have done it before me and more comprehensively. In particular I want to draw your attention to an article by Claire Berlinski. She covers many of the same points I do, including the idea that by our current standards Bill Clinton has to be considered a serial predator.  This is one of those articles where you can’t go wrong reading the whole thing. But I particularly appreciated the fact that she has experienced exactly the sort of thing everyone is talking about, but that she reacted completely differently than those who are leveling accusations.

In recent weeks, I’ve acquired new powers. I have cast my mind over the ways I could use them. I could now, on a whim, destroy the career of an Oxford don who at a drunken Christmas party danced with me, grabbed a handful of my bum, and slurred, “I’ve been dying to do this to Berlinski all term!” That is precisely what happened. I am telling the truth. I will be believed—as I should be.

But here is the thing. I did not freeze, nor was I terrified. I was amused and flattered and thought little of it.

She then compares this to the accusations leveled against Michael Oreskes of NPR (I guess this is the fifth NPR employee I’m aware of.)

Harvey Weinstein must burn, we all agree. But there is a universe of difference between the charges against Weinstein and those that cost Michael Oreskes his career at NPR. It is hard to tell from the press accounts, but initial reports suggested he was fired because his accusers—both anonymous—say he kissed them. Twenty years ago. In another place of business. Since then, other reports have surfaced of what NPR calls “subtler transgressions.”

She then goes on to provide other examples, stories apparently involving no more than a hug, a request for someone’s home address, or an inappropriate comment, and points out that no matter how minor these might be, if the person felt uncomfortable then the new standard is that these people should be fired.

As I said in the past, I am not urging that there should be no consequences, but it appears that, unless the police become involved, there is only one possible consequence, professional obliteration, and it’s applied uniformly and irrespective of the severity of the crime.  And, as I speculated in my last post, the binary nature of the punishment could be making people hesitant to apply it. Meaning that some (my example last week was Woody Allen) are getting off scot-free (so far) because not enough people are comfortable with obliterating their life.

All of this finally brings me to the other article my reader sent me. This one was in the Guardian and urged Don’t let the alt-right hijack #MeToo for their agenda. The article pointed out, as Berlinski did, that they have created a powerful new weapon. One that could easily take down an Oxford don or half a dozen NPR employees (in the last few paragraphs I came across another one.) And this weapon is indiscriminate enough, that it can used against those it was intended to exclude just as easily as those it was intended to target.

The biggest example of this, though it was eventually unsuccesful, was when some people on the right used a tweet to get Sam Seder at MSNBC fired. It’s good that it wasn’t successful, but it’s also a single example of sanity in an ocean of panic. The author’s solution is to claim that if the people currently in charge will just step aside, and put the people who have been victimized in charge, that there will be investigations and due process. Which, honestly I read as, if we don’t do these things, then we’re providing ammunition for our opponents to use against us. Which I completely agree with.

In the original back and forth with my reader, I mentioned that I would really like to see examples of this (investigations and due process). And perhaps the MSNBC guy is an example of just this (though saving the job of someone at MSNBC is hardly swimming against the stream) and I had hoped that Al Franken might actually stick around. (The more I think about it the more I wish it had been put to the voters.) But instead what I see is a constant stream of “madness” over the tiniest things. Just today an article came out with Matt Damon saying, as I have, that there’s a continuum of harassment. That:

you know, there’s a difference between, you know, patting someone on the butt and rape or child molestation, right?

Both of these points seem impossible to dispute, and yet people have almost uniformly jumped down his throat. The Berlinksi article was not immune from this either, and she spends a significant amount of time talking about how hard it was to get the article published and how many friends urged her to not even try.

It’s evident to me that I could continue writing about this for awhile, I mean I still haven’t managed to fit in the Pence Rule (He doesn’t dine alone with women who aren’t his wife.) And the idea that, in light of the Pervnado, rules like this would appear to be a no brainer. (Though surprisingly this is not an opinion shared even by all christians.) There’s also much more to be said about the potential chilling effects on courtship and dating, particularly when people have the option of unlimited pornography. Finally, there’s the worry that women who do not feel victimized will decide after the fact that they were victims (see the Natalie Portman quote in the Berlinski article). But next week I am going to move onto another subject, and so those loose threads will have to wait. Though I’m sure they’ll be topical for quite awhile.

The key thing I hope people take away from this, is that if you’re opposed to sexual harassment, as I assume we all are, then recent tactics in the fight against the Pervnado have the possibility of backfiring. Of making some offenders less likely to be punished at all, of creating a weapon which can be used indiscriminately, of making interactions between the sexes more fraught than they already are. Of hurting more than they help.

The number of men you can safely support without worrying about whether they’ve done something bad continues to decrease. But I assure you, you can support me without fear, I mean after all I’m someone you’ve most likely never met writing under a pseudonym, so of course I have to be trustworthy.

The Madness of the Crowds and Sexual Harassment

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People who believe in continual progress offer a wide variety of examples in support of that belief, examples which appear to show that things are better now than they have ever been and that this trend will continue forever. Or to place it in relationship to the theme of this blog, they offer up reasons for why we are saved, or perhaps, if they want to hedge a little bit, why salvation is just around the corner.

Generally these examples involve pointing out that there’s less superstition, or cruelty, or just ignorance in general, particularly at the level of an entire society. Sure some people might believe that the Earth is flat, but the entire society no longer believes it. (And I know that at least some people suspected the Earth was round as far back as the 6th century BC, don’t overthink the example.) One of the people to first quantify this society wide ignorance was Charles Mackay, a Scottish journalist who in 1841 published the book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (hereafter just “Madness”). Having an interest in both progress and examples of society wide delusions, I kept encountering mentions of this book until finally, I decided to read it. I would not recommend doing similarly.

A brief review: Sometimes when you read a old book, it becomes apparent that it’s still around and still being talked about because the ideas continue to be relevant or the writing is fantastic, or sometimes both. (Shakespeare is definitely this way for me.) Other times when reading an older book you realize it’s still being talked about because it spoke very directly to some big issue; it was impactful for it’s time, but  it’s not a classic in any absolute sense. I have often heard that Uncle Tom’s Cabin fits into this category. Other times something is still being talked about because it was the first example, like the Epic of Gilgamesh. If you’ve read Gilgamesh you know what I mean. We keep it around because it’s basically the earliest surviving work of literature, but to a modern reader it’s just weird. Madness ends up being in both of these categories.

First, I think 1841 was a time when science and reason were definitely in a full on collision with superstition and ignorance and consequently Madness had particular resonance with people of the time. Second, as far as I can tell Madness was the first comprehensive overview of all the ways in which Europe had lost its collective mind, going back all the way to the High Middle Ages. In the book Mackay covers subjects like the South Sea Bubble, the Mississippi Scheme, the Crusades, dueling, alchemy, witchcraft, and numerous other cases of collective beliefs which turned out to be incorrect, harmful, or just vastly inflated.

So far, so interesting. The problem with Madness is the endless stories. With most social science books, of which Madness is clearly an early example, you appreciate the anecdotes, since it humanizes the statistics, but in Madness it’s all anecdotes, for example with alchemy he spends a couple of pages giving a general overview, and then proceeds to spend 100 pages providing biographies of staggering detail on no less than 37 separate alchemists. (Including several pages on Nicholas Flamel for you Harry Potter fans out there.) If you’re already pretty much sold on the phoniness of alchemy and the non-existence of a philosopher stone, then that’s probably at least 30 alchemists too many. Also the language is pretty dense and archaic, which when combined with the rest makes it difficult read even if there weren’t 30 extra alchemists.

As you have probably gathered I wouldn’t recommend the book, and yes my “brief review” did turn into something of an “extended rant”. Anyway… moving on…

You may be wondering why I would even bring up a book that I didn’t enjoy very much (despite being glad the book exists.) and which, if small-p progressives are to be believed, doesn’t even apply anymore. Certainly, while this sort of a thing was a problem in 1841 when Madness was published, it can’t possibly still be a concern in 2017. Obviously, we’re long past dealing with the sort of problems that Mackay was talking about right? The march of progress is ever onward and upward!

Put me down as someone who still believes that popular delusions exist, and that the crowds can still go mad. As someone who thought the presentation of Madness could have been better, but still believes in the importance of the central theme.

For those who paid any attention during the financial crisis, this may not be a surprise. But I have also listened to numerous people who would argue that this isn’t an example of a popular delusion or if it is, it’s an isolated example. And evidence only that financial markets suffer bubbles, not that an entire societies go insane. I wish this were so, and while I would certainly accept that the madness and the panics are not as all encompassing or as dangerous as they once were, they have definitely not disappeared entirely. For those whose memories go a little bit farther back you may recall the panic of ritual satanic abuse during the 1980’s. Which resulted in ridiculous accusations and stories, like those which lead to the appalling McMartin PreSchool Trial. (Which I only just discovered was the longest and most expensive criminal trial in US history.)

Some of you may already know where I’m headed with all of this and others of you may still be wondering what my point is. Well, consider, if this sort of thing still happens, what might be a current example? And recall, before I actually mention the example I have in mind, that I’m not saying that it’s a delusion, rather that it’s a situation which has some elements in common with past excesses, and might, therefore, deserve further scrutiny. I’m thinking about the wave of sexual harassment allegations which have swept over the country in the last couple of months (hard to believe it all started on October 5th.) And I think it’s worth asking, is there any element of madness to it?

Of course by asking this, I don’t want anyone to assume that I am saying that sexual harassment is a collective delusion, that’s both absurd and insane. I am most definitely not saying that. But, one of the things that jumps out in all the incidents I’ve listed is that in every case there was something going on. In every case they started with a true problem or a true opportunity. Just as sexual harassment is a true, and very severe problem. But how do we know when something passes from a good idea, to an extreme overreaction. And in the case of sexual harassment, how do we know when things go from long-overdue justice, to collective mania?

Let’s take three examples from the book: the South Sea Bubble, Alchemy and the Crusades. These are all examples of large groups of people getting together to do something, which, in retrospect, seemed pretty dumb. But as far as the South Sea Bubble goes there was actually some pretty lucrative trading to be done with South America. With respect to Alchemy there was some amazing discoveries being made with chemistry, and it did appear that we might be on the verge of something truly miraculous. And finally, speaking of the Crusades, it was not unreasonable for an increasingly powerful Christian Europe to take an interest in the Holy Land. Where they went off the rails in all of these cases is when the perceived importance of what they were doing became more important than common sense, or laws, or scientific rigor, etc. If you’ve been following things you can probably see where I think the spike in accusations might deserve some scrutiny.

Now that we’ve set the stage, let’s begin by looking at all the ways in which the current spike in awareness is both true and necessary. First, there can be no doubt that a lot of powerful people have abused their positions of power to sexually harass, assault and rape those who were less powerful. Harvey Weinstein is still the classic example of this with more than 83 women coming forward to tell stories of how he used his position to do all manner of truly despicable things. Perhaps equally despicable was his efforts afterwards to silence his accusers, generally by destroying their careers. But of course it’s also true that it wasn’t just Weinstein, he was just the snowflake that started the avalanche. Now, with everyone from opera conductors to NPR personalities (at last count we’re up to four just in that category) being accused, you have to assume that this is an extremely widespread problem. It’s also indisputably true that we should not go back to the days where this sort of behavior was kept secret or where women (and others) felt like they couldn’t come forward. Which is to say that it’s true that the old ways were bad (which is still something which needs to be said at times like these.)

All of these things are true, and belong at the center of the current crisis/scandal. Nor is this an exhaustive list, there are other upsetting things, which are also true and completely inappropriate. But there are also other true things which are less obvious, but perhaps no less important to talk about. Things which are being ignored, and putting all of the emphasis on some true things while ignoring other true things is when you risk turning the initial true kernel into a broader witch hunt.

First, not all men are guilty by association or complicit in covering things up. There is not some sex-specific original sin which is only now coming to light. This would seem like something that would go without saying, but I have seen people make this exact accusation.

Second, and closely related to the above, it is not the case that only women are harrassed and only men do the harrassing. And if this isn’t just a way of demonizing men, pointing out this fact and giving equal time to men who’ve been harassed would be a great way of demonstrating that.

Third, it is not okay if innocent people have their lives destroyed. Which is also something which would seem to go without saying, but there are many people who think the problem is bad enough that if innocent people get caught up in things that it’s just the cost of doing business.

Finally it’s not true that every form of harassment should carry equal punishment. But that seems to be how it’s playing out.

Let’s take each of these points one by one and expand upon them.

As far as the first point, I offer this up more as the danger we seem to be headed towards rather that an assessment of our current situation. I don’t think many people outside of some on the fringe truly believe that all men engage in true sexual harassment. But, that said, there are articles like this one in the Guardian which while not saying all men are guilty does say that all men must be challenged about sexual harassment, which seems like it’s not as far from believing all men are harassers as I would like. And of course there are many people who would argue that as a man I shouldn’t even be weighing in on this, which is another way of framing things which comes fairly close to a war of one sex against another. As I said, the most extreme form of this argument still exists only on the fringe, but as I have pointed out before, lots of times the fringe ends up becoming the middle if you just wait long enough.

This attitude of one sex against the other may be most alarming when applied to the second point, men who are sexually abused by other men or by women. I don’t think I should be forbidden from talking about this issue (as evidenced by this post) but I can understand why someone might make that argument. I can even understand calling out men for their possible complicity in ongoing harassment even if they’re not the harasser, but I don’t understand why, if you’re really concerned about the issue of sexual harassment, assault and rape, you would discount someone’s story, just because they’re not a woman. I understand that this point has been somewhat under the radar, and that perhaps you haven’t even considered it, but, if nothing else, it does create an interesting dynamic. I admit I hadn’t given much thought to it until I read Scott Alexander’s take on it over at Slate Star Codex, and rather than spend much more time fumbling around and demonstrating my own ignorance I would urge you to just go read his post.

(Also this is probably also a good time to mention that with Scott’s permission I have turned his blog into a podcast (including the post I just mentioned) in the same way I did with my blog. If you’re interested you can find it on iTunes and Sticher (or there’s the raw rss feed.))

The third point, the possibility of extreme harm being done to innocent people, is where most of my worry is focused. And where I think we’re in the most danger of ending up in a “Madness of the Crowds” situation, Unfortunately it’s difficult to get a true sense of how many innocents have been wrongly caught up in the recent events. I couldn’t find any statistics on the number of false allegations of sexual harassment, and given the current climate it might be something which is changing as we speak. So instead I’ll offer up an anecdote, and acknowledge that there are limitations to using a single point of data. I came across this anecdote in an article by David Cole in Takimag. For the complete story you should read the original article, but in short it concerns Scott Rosendall, a talented actor, who also happens to be confined to a wheelchair. A short while ago he warned about the current climate of snap judgements wandering into witch hunt territory. It was a FaceBook post, which the original article describes as “thoughtful and carefully worded” I can’t verify that for myself because it has since been removed. (No surprise) But in any event you might be able to guess what happened next. I’ll let Cole describe it:

Well, that turned out to be a mistake! Within minutes, his Hollywood colleagues began insulting him, berating him, and defriending him. And it was about to get worse. One woman in his circle accused him of having “groped” her. She’s a movie editor and documentary film director, but I can’t use her name because when I reached out to interview her, I promised to keep her anonymous. So I’ll call her Linda. Her claim is that at a party some years ago, Scott “put his hand on her chest.” Scott agreed that he did touch her upper chest (not her breasts) while trying, for comedic effect, to make a priest’s “blessing” motion. Linda told him she didn’t like to be touched, and he apologized. A screen shot of a text clearly shows that the woman accepted his apology. She never mentioned the “incident” again for three years, and the two continued to mix cordially at social events.

But following the “witch hunt” post, that all changed. She went after him full-throttle, and she encouraged her friends to do the same. He was called a “monster,” a “molester,” “a creeper who thinks he’s on our side,” and “as bad as a rapist.” There were calls to harass him at his job and “kick his ass.” One woman sent him a late-night threat that implied he was going to be “hunted.” There was absolutely no sense of proportion to the reaction. When Scott tried to defend himself, when he pointed out that Linda had long ago accepted his apology, the attacks intensified. Now he was “blaming the victim.” I’d never seen such vitriol directed at someone, in many cases from people he’d considered friends. Scott was devastated. He issued several heartfelt apologies, not one of which made a damn bit of difference to his pursuers.

Also, as you might imagine, following all of this, Scott has the perfectly legitimate fear that he may never act again.

Part of what this story illustrates is the differing definitions of innocent. I could certainly imagine some people saying well this isn’t an example at all of harm being caused to innocent people, he wasn’t innocent, he touched her chest! Well… he claims it was an accident, he has proof that he both apologized and that she accepted the apology, if that’s not innocent I’m not sure who is. Also Cole tried to find out from Linda exactly what happened and she refused to say whether it was just a accidental touch of her upper chest or something more extreme, so we don’t even have a “he said, she said” situation it’s a “he said/she won’t answer” situation.

But let’s say for the moment that he is guilty. Is he as guilty as Garrison Keillor who claims he also apologized, had the apology accepted, and now feels he may to leave the country? Is he as guilty as Al Franken? Louis CK? Matt Lauer?

This takes us to the final point, despite a broad range in the severity of their behavior all of those people including, probably, Scott Rosendall, got the same punishment: losing their job and being permanently shunned by everyone. Now, to be fair, there is another level, above that, where you do something so bad the police become involved. This appears to include Weinstein, Tobeck and Spacey, and probably a few others, but not Matt Lauer. And who knows what will end up happening there. Which means, as far as I can tell everyone gets the same punishment, and I don’t think this makes sense. I understand that these are serious offenses, but there is a gradient to the offenses. Unfortunately there doesn’t appear to be a gradient in the punishment. Take Al Franken for example, I was never a fan, but I don’t think he should have had to resign. I confess I’m not 100% sure what the intermediate punishment should have been though traditionally money has done a pretty good job of filling that role. And also given that he’s a politician, there is a built in system for determining whether someone should keep their job. It’s called voting…

(To be fair, there is an additional dynamic when speaking of Democratic politicians. As the Economist pointed out in a recent article, they may be falling on their sword hoping that eventually Republicans like Trump and Moore will be forced to do the same, but until then, we may end up with a lot of “dead” democrats.)

For those who still aren’t sure why this is bad. Who presumably read the story of Scott Rosendall and were unmoved. Who feel that no price is too high to pay to get all harassers out of the workplace regardless of the severity of their crime, consider it from another angle. Consider Woody Allen. Dylan Farrow recently wrote an article wondering why, with everyone else being put to the sword, has Woody Allen escaped. Try this on for size, could it be because there’s only one possible punishment? Is it conceivable that he’s escaped because, while there are plenty of people who agree he should receive some punishment, that not enough people think his life should be completely obliterated? And, given you can either do that or do nothing, they’ve chosen to do nothing? Is it even possible that the current batch of predators got away with it for so long for the same reason? Something to chew on, I hope.

To reiterate, I am not saying that current events have devolved into some kind of widespread irrational madness. But I am saying that when things reach a pitch like this, it’s easy to toss aside important safeguards like presumption of innocence, and burden of proof, and being proportional in your response, because the things which have been happening are just so bad. But remember when you’re talking about potential witch hunts, once you start tossing the safeguards out, things almost always get even worse.

Worried about falling into a collective delusion, of following the herd in a bad direction? Consider donating to this blog. Trust me, almost no one else is doing it, you’ll definitely be an iconoclast.

Review of “Rationality: AI to Zombies”: Religion as a Framework

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Last week I started my review of Rationality: AI to Zombies (RAZ) by Eliezer Yudkowsky, with a post comparing Bayesian Rationality to Talebian Antifragility. My conclusion was, that though they both represented very useful frameworks for understanding the world and making decisions under uncertainty, I concluded that antifragility was better at working with the world as it actually was, and especially, with handling the impossibility of predicting the future.

This week I’d like to compare the framework of Bayesian Rationality to yet another framework for making decisions under uncertainty, religion. And interestingly enough Yudkowsky’s book, despite its disdain for religion, gives us an interesting jumping off point for showing exactly why religion is necessary.

To begin with, the book’s ostensible purpose is to educate the readers in the aforementioned framework of rationality. And both the A to Z title and the length of the book (equivalent to 2393 pages) gives one the expectation that they’re in for a fairly exhaustive education, at that. If you start looking into the history of the book, there is one other reason to expect a step by step education in the art of rationality. When these essays first appeared they were called the sequences. And they formed the backbone of the website It was in this form that I first encountered them, and, in my completely subjective recollection of things, they were spoken of almost reverently. Only later, were they compiled into a book. And despite the preponderance of atheists among the ranks of the rationalists I don’t think calling this collection the rationalist bible is that far from the mark.

Perhaps you’re not willing to grant it the role of “rationalist bible”, even so, you have to admit that the word “sequences” is evocative. It certainly suggested to me that if I just read the articles in “sequence” that they would teach me everything I needed to know about Bayesian Rationalism. Well I did, and they didn’t.

In the end, as I mentioned last time, it didn’t ever entirely rise above the fact that it was still just a collection of blog posts. Now don’t get me wrong these are some great blog posts, and when grouped around a specific focus they do a good job of explaining many things, but I don’t think, when the book is considered in its entirety, that they ended up being as “sequential” as I had hoped, nor were they as comprehensive. There was a lot of fluff in there, as you might imagine.

You may be wondering when I’m going to get to religion, and there may even be some atheists out there who already think they know the connection. Having mentioned that the book represents something of a rationality bible, (even going so far as to toss in the word “reverently”) and knowing, as we all do, that rationality is one of, if not the, primary belief system of atheists. They expect me to do that thing where I mention that both rationality/atheism and religion are just systems of belief, and now that I’ve show that rationality has a bible, and a group of followers, and a bunch of beliefs which will perfect them, isn’t it, then, just one more religion? And, in fact, this is precisely NOT what I’m going to do. No, that would be far too lazy. Which is not to say the comparison is entirely without value, particularly when you start talking about Transhumanists and “The Singularity”. But that’s not where I’m headed. Rather, what I want to do is compare how rationality does when compared with religion in terms of educating people in their respective frameworks.

If, as I claim, RAZ’s ostensible purpose is to provide an education in the art of rationality, how well did it do? Well, I can only speak for myself, but having read it, I don’t feel very educated. There were some interesting bits that one couldn’t get just from reading Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman,  but fewer than I expected. Mostly I feel like, while I do have a few new tools, I didn’t get much in the way of new ideologies or frameworks. And if I had decided to embrace everything in its entirety I’m not sure I would have been able to describe exactly what it was I was embracing. (Winning? Or is that Charlie Sheen’s Philosophy?)

Now I have said before that I’m a bear of very little brain, so it is possible I’m missing something, or that it took me long enough to read the book that there were chapters in the earlier sections of the book which precisely answer this objection and I have since forgotten them. But humility aside, I did read the book, how many people can be expected to do that? All of which is to say, that if, after finishing a 2300 page book, I still don’t feel like I have a framework to draw on, how much harder is it going to be for the vast majority of people to acquire this framework who are never even going to hear about the book, let alone finish it? Rationality is not some system which naturally fits in with human biases and desires, in fact it’s the exact opposite, the rationalists want you to overcome your biases. Absent some technological “rewiring” of humanity, how effective could this ever be? To put it more simply, if only 1% of the population (and probably much less than that) can understand and incorporate the sequences, then what do we do with the other 99%?

And this is where I want to start my comparisons between rationality and religion. As I have said, both are frameworks for behavior. They both want to take the default individual and improve them. And if you’re on the outside looking in, the obvious question is: which one is better? There a ways to examine this question and varying comparisons we could make, but let’s start by just looking at things from an individual level.

Rationalists, particularly those with atheist or agnostic leanings would almost certainly argue that an efficient rationalist is a better person than an obedient Christian. (I am using Christianity as an example, because that’s what I know best, but I think most of my points would apply to the other religions as well.) I expect that as part of their argument they might make the claim that the efficient rationalist would do a better job of allocating resources, for example: choosing which charities to support. I assume they might further argue that the rationalist would be free from the harmful prejudices of the obedient Christian, for example: they would be less likely to be homophobic or racist. I’m sure that on top of the few obvious things that they would argue much more besides. I actually don’t think this is true. I would contend that the very best Christians are probably better people than the very best atheists, even if one was to use impartial standards (like charitable giving, or community involvement.) To begin with, I’ve met some truly amazing religious individuals, and secondly, recall that because of how many religious people there are, as compared to the number of rationalist atheists, that even if the percentage is smaller, the absolute number will still be much greater, and with that bigger pool, the best example is probably much better.

But let’s set all that aside, and for the purposes of this particular argument grant that the very best rationalists are better than the very best Christians. That if both are given their purest expression, that rationalists are better people. Even if we imagine this is so… So what?

I believe a lot of rationalists and atheists and secularists of all stripe, believe that because something appears to be working for them, that it should not only be equally effective at working for other people, but that if extended to the society at large that everyone would be better off. I certainly see where they get this idea, but there’s no law that says that ideologies have to scale.

There are in fact several factors involved in creating an ideology that works for an entire society. One which doesn’t just result in a few good people, but in good people and good outcomes at all levels. The first and most obvious of these factors is that it has to work. It has to produce better individuals than you would get otherwise. Many of the non-religious individuals we have been talking about are going to claim that we don’t need to go any farther because religion doesn’t even do this. That whatever else may be said about it, it doesn’t work. Are you sure about that? You shouldn’t be.

In fact, far from being a flawed framework which needs to be replaced, there is significant evidence that religion has a broad positive influence. Which is not to say there is no disagreement, but when outlets from Forbes to The Huffington Post tout the advantages of religion, it’s not inappropriate to ask if maybe we already have access to a framework that’s working. Which would make sense. As I have discussed in the past, many people want to view religion as a collection of meaningless superstitions which are either actively harmful or of no benefit whatsoever, but I find that argument entirely unconvincing, particularly when many religious traditions appear in nearly identical forms across nearly all cultures, regardless of how different they are in other respects. Also religion is so ubiquitous, particularly if you go back a few decades that are you sure you know what people are like in the absence of a religious framework? Finally, on top of all the other benefits which people claim for religion, I would like to add the fact that religious people have more children, which is a long term guarantee of success which doesn’t get nearly enough attention. (As they say the future belongs to those who show up for it.)

The second factor to consider, and closely related to the first, is how well does it work on average, ignoring the exceptional cases? For our purpose we need to ask, what does an average rationalist look like? Here rationalists are at a severe disadvantage. To a reasonable approximation, there aren’t any average rationalists. To even consider rationalists as a category, we’re already restricted to looking at only exceptional individuals. (Whether they’re just exceptions from the norm or truly exceptional I leave as an exercise for the reader.) Thus any evaluation of society-wide impact has to start by determining how common they even are. What standard would we use to declare someone a follower of rationality? Are these people who’ve read the entirety of RAZ? People who’ve ever visited People who’ve read Thinking, Fast and Slow? The only remotely authoritative numbers I can find would be for the last category. But my best guess for each would be five figures, six figures and seven figures respectively. Which puts the percentage of rationalists at either less than 3/100ths of a percent, 3/10ths of a percent, or 3 percent, depending on which standard you want to use. With the number certainly being on the lower end of this range, since even if you were so bold as to declare every reader of Daniel Kahneman a rationalist, the number of books which were read only loosely correlates to the number of books which were sold, particularly for books like that. (In fact this exact book showed up very high in a list of books that people started reading but never finished.)

Let’s compare this to the percent of religious people: 70% of Americans are Christian to one degree or another with 53% of all religious people declaring that religion is very important. Meaning by any conceivable measurement, and no matter how optimistic you are about the number of rationalists, they’re completely overwhelmed by the religious. This should give you a sense of how large of a task the rationalists face before their society-wide impact can even begin to approach the society wide impact of religion. To look at it from a different angle, if you can improve religion by 1% it will almost certainly have a greater impact than increasing the number of rationalists by 100%.

All of which takes us to the final factor I want to consider, and the one I started, with how accessible is the ideology/framework of rationality as espoused by RAZ? I think it’s already clear that my opinion is “not very”. But having already looked at the exceptional individual in our exploration of the first factor and at the average individual in our exploration of the second factor for this final factor I’d like to look at how the two frameworks work at the very bottom of the spectrum. For this group let’s use prisoners as our representative sample. Here I would expect very little argument that religion is more effective here than Bayesian Rationality. But once again data of all kinds is particularly scarce, though it is interesting to imagine how many prisoners would fit into the three buckets I mentioned earlier. I’m guessing the number of people in jail who’ve read RAZ might be in the single digits. Particularly since it’s only available electronically.

The one piece of data we do have is somewhat ambiguous. We have some limited evidence that atheists are less common in prisons than in the general population. And if we use atheists as a rough proxy for rationalists than that might give us something to work with, but it cuts both ways. One could view it as proof that atheism keeps people out of jail, or alternatively, that the majority of prisoners, having hit bottom turn to religion for redemption. I obviously favor the latter view, though it’s a wonder there isn’t any more data on this. I would think it would certainly be interesting to know if very religious inmates end up with a lower recidivism after release. Or if giving prisoners intensive courses in bias detection and statistics would make any improvement. (I suspect not which is why I favor the religion as redemption view.) One thing I have noticed as I’ve been looking into this subject, is that research on the positive social effects of religion has fallen out of fashion with most of it being done decades ago.

In any event, we could wish for better data, but given the enormous amount of anecdotal evidence, I choose to assert that religion is uniquely effective with those at the very bottom of the heap. You could assert otherwise, and you could choose to believe that all we need to do is have every inmate read a 2000 page book and they’d be far better off than with any religion, but I’m not sure even Yudkowsky believes that.

The point of all of this, is that for a framework to be successful it can’t be something that is usable only by the elite (unless you’re really in favor of a tyrannical oligarchy.) It’s not enough for the very best follower of your ideology to better than the very best follower of a competing ideology, it has to be something which can be understood by and which resonates with everyone from the the lowest prisoner to the greatest king. And religion does this. People criticize religion for being simplistic, but that’s a feature not a bug.

As I said in beginning, if only 1% of the population has the intelligence and inclination necessary to understand Bayes Formula, or the Availability Heuristic or why Yudkowsky feels so passionately that the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is superior to the Copenhagen Interpretation (and that’s more of a 0.01% thing), than Bayesian Rationality with RAZ as it’s bible is never going to succeed. Compare this to religion which has rules like don’t kill, only have sex with your wife, whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them, etc. Things which anyone can understand and which also lead to good outcomes.

Is religion, or specifically Christianity perfect? Far from it. Indeed it could be said that religion is the worst framework for correct behavior, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time, to adapt the old Churchill quote.

In short, what I’m trying to get at is that we have various frameworks for trying to get people to behave well, to avoid bad things and do good things. Rationality may have better rules than religion, and it may even have better outcomes than religion, but after having read RAZ, I feel I can state with certainty that 99% of people are never going to bother with it. And if that’s the case then how much better is it really?

If it’s not clear, this post is less a criticism of RAZ than a defense of religion. Creating a framework to encourage good behavior and good outcomes is hard, and RAZ and the associated ideology are interesting attempts. And to a very great extent Yudkowsky and his co-ideologists should be applauded for even attempting it. But it is worthwhile to consider that maybe, just possibly, all of the religious people who preceded us, the 99.9% of all humanity that was religious, were just perhaps, not all low-IQ, bigots, who were full of hate, but rather doing the best that was possible. And that when everything is taken into account, and when all of the factors are considered, that religion is already the best ideology for creating good outcomes and good people?

You know one way of proving you’re a good person? Donating to blogs you enjoy. No, really.

Review of “Rationality: AI to Zombies”: Rationality vs. Antifragility

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I’ve mentioned here and there over the past few months that I’ve been working my way through Rationality: AI to Zombies by Eliezer Yudkowsky, and last week I finally finished that mammoth tome. Okay it wasn’t an actual tome, it was a kindle ebook, but using the page estimate on Amazon, had it been a book, it would have been 2393 pages. Which may make it the longest book I’ve ever read, surpassing stuff like Les Miserables and War and Peace. (In case you’re wondering, both of those were more enjoyable.) And, given that length, there’s a lot that could be said about it. Consequently, it may take more than one post for me to cover everything I want to. We’ll have to see, but to start off with I’d like to focus on the difference between Talebian Antifragility, my preferred framework, and Bayesian Rationality, the framework espoused by Yudkowsky in this book. And why one is better than the other.

As anyone who’s followed me for any length of time could guess, I think antifragility is better than rationality. (See this post, if you need to brush up on what antifragility is.) This is not a conclusion I came to just recently, and in fact I think I covered it pretty well in my prediction post from the beginning of the year. But back then I was reluctant to paint with too broad a brush, particularly since, at the time, I didn’t feel that I had read enough to be confident of accurately representing the rationalists. Over 2000 pages later I no longer have that concern.

To be fair, I don’t think they’re unaware the ideas of Taleb and antifragility, I’ve seen both mentioned here and there, and late in the book Yudkowsky says:

Truly it is said that “how not to lose” is more broadly applicable information than “how to win.”

This is not a bad summation of the principle of antifragility, but unfortunately insights like these are few and far between, and rather than focusing on how not to lose, or more accurately on how to survive, his focus is on winning, to the point where that is how he defines rationality.

Instrumental rationality, on the other hand, is about steering reality–sending the future where you want it to go. It’s the art of choosing actions that lead to outcomes ranked higher in your preferences. I sometimes call this “winning.”

So rationality is about forming true beliefs and making winning decisions.

There are a couple of big things wrong with this definition, to start with, his focus on winning. And before I do anything else, I should clarify why I have such a problem with it. I mean isn’t winning good? Doesn’t winning encompass not losing? Yes and yes. But not all “wins” are equal, at a minimum there’s not just the how of winning, but when you win. It’s pretty easy to win right this second. If you’re a government, you give the masses exactly what they’re clamoring for. For example in Zimbabwe, when Mugabe took most of the land from the white farmers, and gave it to his supporters. If you’re a bank, you can win by giving everyone a mortgage, regardless of their credit, just like the now bankrupt Washington Mutual did. And if you’re a heroin addict you “win” by injecting more heroin. Importantly, all of these decisions fit Yudkowsky’s description of choosing actions “that lead to outcomes ranked higher in [their] preferences.” All of them were winning. And one of the easiest things about winning right this second is that the path is clear. You don’t have to predict the future at all. (This will be important later).

To be clear, the examples above are not meant to be representative of what I think Yudkowsky means when he says that rationality equals winning, but I fear it’s pretty close to the mark of what most people mean by it, and because of this the subtleties that Yudkowsky brings to the debate are lost. Meaning to the extent that people in a position of power listen to him at all, it’s just one more thing that gets interpreted into “Do whatever it was you were going to do already.”

Given that he contributed a couple of chapters to Global Catastrophic Risks, I don’t think Yudkowsky is unaware of the time frame over which winning has to happen, but I also don’t think he pays nearly enough attention to the trade offs which may be required. One thing that Taleb points out is that often, to win at the end, we have to do a lot of losing at the beginning. The point of antifragility is to accept small, manageable losses in order to realize large, dramatic wins. And that conversely taking easy wins in the short term can lead to large, dramatic losses. Meaning that however well intentioned and careful Yudkowsky himself is, that rationality, as he lays it out, could end up generating lots of meaningless short term victories which farther down the road lead to long term catastrophe.

To be clear, I am fine with conceding that rationalists are not so fixated on short term wins, that they are likely to emulate Mugabe, or Washington Mutual, or to shoot up heroin. But in just the last post I covered other, far more subtle ways, in which “winning” turned out to have significant amounts of “losing” attached, but in ways that were difficult to detect, and took a long time to manifest. Where “steering the future” ended up being a lot harder than people thought. All of this is to say that while Yudkowsky and the rationalists want to make everything about winning, I want to make everything about surviving. Because, as long as you’re surviving, you’re still in the game. And being in the game is important because there’s only two ways out of it, by losing or by winning permanently and forever. And guess which is more likely to happen? Thus, as Yudkowsky said, in the game the rationalists are playing it’s more important to not lose than it is to win. But that’s not what the book says.

As an aside, winning the game permanently and forever might be possible, and transhumanists (another group Yudkowsky belongs to) think that just such a win is within their grasp, either through brain uploading, or a superintelligent, friendly AI, or interstellar colonization, or something equally futuristic. And perhaps this is exactly the win we should all be working towards, but I would also argue that, if history is any guide, it’s more likely that the promise of this ultimate victory will lead us to overextend, with potentially disastrous consequences. As examples of the kind of thing I’m talking about, I would offer up all invasions of Russia, most revolutions (but particularly the communist ones) and every villainous plan from every movie as examples of exactly the sort of overreach that happens when you’re in search of a permanent victory.

I said initially that there were two problems. The first is the overreliance on the idea of winning, and the second is the difficulty of knowing what actions actually lead to a “win”, especially the farther you get from the present. As I mentioned “steering reality” is fairly straightforward when applied to the immediate future, less straightforward but still mostly worth attempting at the time horizon of a few years, and mostly impossible when you push much beyond that. Meaning that your choice of which actions to take in order to get your high-preference outcomes are less and less consequential the farther out it gets, and may eventually end up being no better than acting randomly, in terms of bringing about the future you imagine.

And actually, this is giving the “future predicting business” too much credit. It’s easy to say, that since it might at least work initially, even if it eventually ends up being about the same as acting randomly, it’s better than nothing. But in practice, once people are given the power of “steering reality”, and choosing the actions they think will have better long term outcomes, this centralization often leads to far worse outcomes. The list of times this has happened is both extensive and tragic: North Korea, the Irish Potato Famine, the 2007 Financial Crisis, China’s Great Leap Forward, etc.

However, I’m sure the rationalists don’t see it that way, and as a defense against my first criticism, that they are too focused on winning and not focused enough on survival, I am sure that they would point out that Yudkowsky does mention the importance of not losing and further that he is very aware of existential risks, being one of the primary advocates of AI safety. They might also argue that they are more aware of the tradeoffs between short-term winning and long term winning than I am giving them credit for. That Yudkowsky is only one guy, and however voluminous his book, it is only a small part of the canon. (Please feel free to point me to where it is being discussed.) I’m also sure that they could also point out the many mediocre outcomes which might derive from the more minimal, “just don’t lose” standard. All that said, Yudkowsky did have nearly 2400 pages in which to make that case, and to the best of my recollection he didn’t mention this point. Also my perception of the community is that there is far more, “The future is going to be awesome!” Than, “We need to be super careful…”

As to my second criticism, the idea that predicting the future is impossible and that their attempts to steer reality are just as likely to have bad outcomes as good ones. They might answer by pointing to the central role identifying and eliminating biases has in rationality, and the idea that it was exactly these sorts of biases that led to all the tragic examples I offered above. And, given, that they have identified and corrected for these biases that they are less likely to make the same errors. This is almost certainly true, and I feel confident in saying that if Yudkowsky were made dictator for life that we would not have a repeat of The Great Leap Forward, nor would the country turn into North Korea. Though when it comes to the 2007 financial crisis, I am less confident. I think even with Yudkowsky in charge, something very similar still would have happened. In spite of that, they might, very reasonably argue that some steering of reality is better than no steering, particularly if you eliminate biases, which they claim to have done.

This is a reasonable argument, but I am still of the opinion that, in certain key respects, it provides only the illusion of understanding and control. And this is because, as far as I can tell, Bayesian Rationality still suffers from one weakness which is greater than all the others when compared to Talebian Antifragility, it does not take into account that all errors are not equal. There are some things where being wrong matters not at all, and other things where being wrong is the difference between surviving and losing forever.

With everything we’ve covered thus far, it could be argued that Yudkowsky and I are on the same page, he just didn’t get around to saying so specifically, in his 2000 page book. And, yes, you should be picking up some sarcasm here, but I feel entitled to it, because I had to read that same 2000 page book. However, with respect to this latest criticism even that excuse is unavailable, given that, within the book there are several examples of him being more concerned with how wrong something is, while paying very little attention to how much it matters

I want to focus on two particular examples. In the first he devotes an entire section (out of 26 total) to refuting David Chalmer’s philosophical zombie theory. In the second example, he begins another section promising to explain quantum mechanics and then spends most of it railing against the Copenhagen Interpretation. The actual substance of both the original idea and Yudkowsky’s objections are not that important, what’s important is that in both cases the difference between the two positions has no effect on how things actually work, no discernable, experimental differentiation, and except for the tiniest effect on certain, very niche, ideologies, the future envisioned by one side is identical to the future envisions by Yudkowsky. Despite this, in both cases he spent, frankly, a tedious amount of time mounting a thorough refutation. None of this is to say that I disagreed with Yudkowsky’s arguments, in both cases I was certainly convinced, but even if I wasn’t, even if nobody was, what would it have mattered? These may be large errors philosophically, but practically, they’re inconsequential.

In both cases I got the impression that it was far more important to be correct than it was to explore the consequences of being correct. But allow me to give you a more concrete example, one that I used already in my prediction post.

For a complete overview of the argument I would urge you to read that post, but to briefly recap my point. The rational way of predicting the future is to make a clear, easy to check prediction and assign it a confidence level, (as in I’m 90% confident this will happen or I’m 70% confident.) Then once the time specified by the prediction has passed you check to see if it actually happened. If done correctly,, then 90% of your 90% confidence predictions should come to pass, 80% of your 80% confidence and so on. It’s generally better to be underconfident than overconfident, but the ideal with this system is still to match your confidence with reality. It should be said that in general the problem with past methods was not with people being too cautious, but with being too certain.

In any event, I’m reasonably certain this is the sort of prediction Yudkowsky espouses, though it’s yet another thing he doesn’t really get around to in 2000+ pages. (In fact it’s actually surprising how few practical examples there are in the book.) Part of the reason I’m certain, is that the system is very Bayesian in character. The confidence level is your initial/prior probability and as things change you should use the probability implied by the changes to update your prior probabilities and establish new probabilities.

This is a good system, it’s definitely WAY better than the how things worked in the past. Which was for experts to make an outrageous prediction, state it with absolute certainty and be right about as often as dart-throwing chimps. That is a horrible system, and while most of the credit for exposing it and changing it belongs to Philip Tetlock, and the Good Judgement Project, to the extent that the rationalists are pushing people to this methodology that’s a good thing, but there’s a problem, and the problem is, as I pointed out, not all errors are the same. Or to put it another way, outcomes are asymmetrical.

In my previous post, I didn’t have access to Eliezer Yudkowsky’s predictions, but I did have access to the final results of the 2016 predictions of Scott Alexander from SlateStarCodex, which if you know anything about this space, is basically the next best thing. Now, before I get into it, I should mention that I have an enormous amount of respect for Alexander, and this exercise is only possible because he was so rigorous in making his predictions using the methodology I described.

Returning to the predictions, as you can imagine, since it was 2016 he made some predictions about the presidential election. He gave Trump an 80% chance of losing, conditional on his winning the republican nomination, and he gave him a 60% chance of getting that. Which means if you do the math, that he gave Trump an 88% chance of losing. As we all recall, Trump did not lose, but that’s okay, because even if we round up and count this as one of his 90% predictions (which he did not, he treated it as two separate predictions) Alexander got about 90% of his 90% predictions correct, so the system works, and everything is fine right?

Not exactly, because as I pointed out in the original post, the stuff he was wrong about (Trump and Brexit) was far more consequential than the stuff he was right about. Which is to say that being 90% accurate about your 90% predictions doesn’t make the world 90% the way you expected and 10% of the way different, because generally the stuff you’re wrong about has far more impact that then stuff you’re right about. At the political level (which is where Alexander was predicting) our world isn’t 10% Trump, it’s nearly 100% Trump.

Now, I don’t want to give you the impression that Alexander was egregiously wrong, in fact given that he made his prediction at the beginning of 2016, he actually did really well. His prediction matched 538’s for January, and he was much better than the Sam Wang of the Princeton Election Consortium, who gave Hillary a 99% chance of winning, and Wang was a professional forecaster. No, the point I’m trying to get at is that while Bayesian Rationality, as championed by Yudkowsky, is more aware of its mistakes, and while it offers several small, but nevertheless significant improvements to the scientific method, that it still falls victim to the hubris of understanding and predictability.

All of which is to say, that as far as I can tell, while I’m sure there is some difference in Yudkowsky’s framework between an event with a 1% probability which has very little impact (say that the Copenhagen Interpretation turns out to be correct) and a 1% probability which has an enormous impact (say 50+ nukes going off in a war) but given the time he spent in his book on the first vs. the second, whatever that difference might be is not nearly great enough. And this is the critical weakness of Yudkowsky’s Bayesian Rationality when compared to Talebian Antifragility, that within the 2393 pages of his book there is no system for, or even mention of, dealing with the asymmetry between those two examples.

In closing you may feel that I have been too critical of the book, well if that’s so, then you may want to skip the next week or two, because I’m not done. But also, on this subject, I’m critical because this book is already pretty useful, and it comes close enough to being right that criticism actually has a chance of closing the gap, particularly on the subject of asymmetric outcomes and risk. I suspect (perhaps incorrectly) that if Yudkowsky and I sat down that it would be pretty easy to reach a common ground in this area. However next week I have no such hopes because we’re going to be talking about religion, and the strong anti-religious bias of both the book and the larger rationality movement. Though I think you’ll see that two biases are more closely related than you might imagine.

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How Do We Solve the Problems We Create?

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If you read many self-help books, or listen to any motivational speakers or even if you just read the occasional inspiration quote that get posted by that one friend on facebook (you know the one I’m talking about.) You start to realize that certain stories or analogies get used over and over again. One of the analogies I’ve encountered on several different occasions concerns the problems that arise when you help a chick to hatch. Here’s an example of what I mean from the blog of a licensed clinical social worker:

Some new hatchers assist emerging chicks too soon and/or too thoroughly. Anxiety at this stage is high, especially for first-timers.  They misinterpret the needs of the chick and prematurely intervene, sometimes with dire consequences. Some of these dire consequences are due directly to the well-intentioned intervention (ex: hemorrhaging due to torn membranes) and some are due to the consequences of the well-intentioned intervention (ex: the chick’s circulation wasn’t allowed to pump hard enough to allow them to warm themselves up once hatched).  The bottom line is, chicks actually need to peck their own way out of their own shell. Without the strengths developed within their struggle, they are left vulnerable to their environment.

This is true for people too.  Our life experiences (including how we respond to them) are our shells, and figuring out how to navigate them effectively prepares us to effectively navigate our world.

Perhaps you’ve encountered this analogy or maybe you haven’t, but either way, this post is going to be about the necessity of struggle, which is the kind of thing that calls for an analogy, or an inspirational story. But as usual rather than just starting with story, I have to explain the whole thing and make it complicated. In fact, as a further complication, now that I’m re-telling it, and in the process, lending the enormous credibility of my blog to the whole thing, I feel compelled to see if there’s any truth to it.

A quick search seems to indicate that it is one of those things that’s mostly true, though as with so many things there are caveats. Yes, the general recommendation is that you shouldn’t help the chick hatch. That said, it’s not an automatic death sentence for the chick if you do. It does appear that more often than not if you help it hatch it will probably later die, but that may be less about the struggle giving the chicken the necessary tools to live and more the fact that if a chick is too weak to break out of its shell that it’s probably too weak to survive period. So perhaps this isn’t the best analogy, but I’m too lazy to find another one, also if you don’t think a certain amount of  struggle is necessary then I’m honestly not sure what you’re doing here in the first place.

However, in the interests of being thorough I suppose I could spend a small amount of time trying convince those on the fence that struggle is, in fact necessary. Though I would think the chick and the shell thing would be all the proof anyone would need, particularly given how directly and unequivocally I presented it. But I suppose it’s possible it didn’t convince you.

In that case, to understand struggle, let’s start at the highest level, you’re either religious, or you’re not. If you are religious, than struggle is built in to basically all religions both doctrinally and observationally. On the other hand, if you’re not religious than natural selection is all about the struggle for survival. Outside of that, I suppose there’s a third option, where you believe in some sort doctrine-free spiritualism which doesn’t include any struggle at all, something along the lines of The Secret, but if that’s the case then let me say, and let there be no mistake about whether I’m serious, because I am, you’re an idiot. And you should go away. Meaning you’re either an idiot (and we can ignore that category because I just told them to leave.) Or you believe struggle is part of existence.

But wait, you may be saying. You claimed that struggle is necessary. Going from being part of life to being necessary is still a big leap, one which you haven’t made. Very well, for the religious, one has to assume that struggle is necessary on some level or it wouldn’t exist. For the non-religious, non-idiots, it’s a little more complicated, and in fact it is in this area where I’ll be spending most of my time.

From here on out I’m going to assume that we all agree that struggle is part of existence (the idiots having been banished) and that all that’s left is determining whether it’s actually necessary. On this point there are two ways of thinking:

Camp One: These are the people who believe that struggle is so deeply intertwined with how things work from an evolutionary standpoint, that it would be impossible to eradicate it entirely without consequences that are worse than the initial suffering. Such consequences might include, but are certainly not limited to, bodily atrophy, diseases, autoimmune disorders, apathy, depression, lack of offspring etc.

Camp Two: These are people who believe the opposite, that technology will eventually enable us to eliminate struggling (and presumably also pain and suffering and malaria and auto-play videos on websites.) They will admit that perhaps struggle is necessary now, a la the chick and the egg, or needing to exercise to stay healthy, but that it’s on it’s way out. Yes, we once lived in a world where struggle was necessary to toughen us up, develop immunities, exercise willpower, and so forth, but that all of the things which were once “powered” by struggle will eventually be powered some other way, or be done away with entirely.

I think both groups would agree that it’s worthwhile and benevolent to remove unnecessary or counterproductive struggle, and by extension unnecessary pain and suffering. The questions which divides to two are how cautious do we need to be before we declare that something is unnecessary or counterproductive and is there some line, past which, we should not proceed?

At this point you would almost certainly like an example. And one of the best known involves the recent increase in the occurrence of allergies. There are several theories for why this is happening, but almost all of them revolve around allergies being a by product of some overzealous attempts to eliminate a form of natural struggle.

The best known of these theories is the hygiene hypothesis. The idea here being that in the “olden days” children were exposed to enough pathogens, parasites and microorganisms that their immune system had plenty of things to keep it occupied, but that now we live in an environment which is so sterile that the immune system, lacking actual pathogens, decides to overreact to things like peanuts. As I said this is just one theory, but all of the alternative theories also involve the absence of some factor which humanity previously considered a struggle. Also it is interesting, speaking of peanuts, that the NIH recently reversed their recommendation from avoiding peanuts until children were at least three, to recommending that you give peanuts to kids as soon as they’re ready for solid food (approximately four months old.) Which obviously follows from this model.

As I said I’m not claiming that we know with absolute certainty that allergies are increasing because we’ve eliminated some necessary struggles. Though I will say that if that is the case, Most affected people, particularly those with the severest allergies, would trade those allergies in a heartbeat for growing up in a slightly less hygienic environment. Which I suppose makes this a point in the group one column. This is something where eliminating the struggle was not worth the tradeoff.

If this trend was limited to allergies, then I wouldn’t be writing about it, but we’re also seeing dramatic increases in the diagnosis rate of autism. And while part of this is certainly due to it being diagnosed more, almost no one thinks that this explains 100% of the increase. On top of allergies and autism, if you were following the news over the summer you may have seen a story about sperm counts halving in the last 40 years. This one is less well understood than the allergy problem, but it almost certainly represents something we’re doing to make life easier, which has the unforeseen side effect of reducing sperm counts, and by extension fertility.

These first three examples may all be genetic issues, but there are also cultural issues with modernity. For example the number of suicides and attempted suicides has skyrocketed in recent years, particularly among young people, whom you would expect to be the most impacted by recent cultural changes. Obviously there are lots of people who feel the increase comes because teens are struggling too much, but any sober assessment of historical conditions would have to conclude that this is almost certainly ridiculous. On the contrary, as I have said previously, if you remove struggle from a children’s life then you also remove the reasons why they might be unhappy. And, if after all these things are removed, they are still unhappy, the logical conclusion, since it’s nothing external, is that it has to be internal, and from that conclusion suicide can unfortunately often follow.

You may disagree with this theory, and may be it is only a temporary blip, unrelated to any of our misguided attempts to make life easier for kids, not evidence of a long term trend, but how sure are you of this, and are you willing to bet the lives of thousands of young people on whether or not you’re right?

On this last point you may be noticing some similarities to a previous post I did about the book Tribe, by Sebastian Junger. As you may or may not remember, stressful situations improved mental health. And as wars become less stressful mental health appears to be getting worse. If you don’t remember that post, this paragraph from Tribe is worth repeating:

This is not a new phenomenon: decade after decade and war after war, American combat deaths have generally dropped while disability claims have risen. Most disability claims are for medical issues and should decline with casualty rates and combat intensity, but they don’t. They are in an almost inverse relationship with one another. Soldiers in Vietnam suffered one-quarter the mortality rate of troops in World War II, for example, but filed for both physical and psychological disability compensation at a rate that was 50 percent higher… Today’s vets claim three times the number of disabilities that Vietnam vets did, despite…a casualty rate that, thank God is roughly one-third what it was in Vietnam.

As I pointed out back then, if you parse this out, Vietnam vets had a disability per casualty rate that was six times higher than World War II vets and current vets have a disability per casualty rate 54 times as high as the World War II vets. All of this is to say that there is significant evidence that making things easier (less of a struggle) doesn’t make things better.

For the most extreme view on this problem let’s turn to a response to 2016 EDGE Question of the Year, What do you consider the most interesting recent [scientific] news? What makes it important? This particular response, by John Tooby, was titled: The Race Between Genetic Meltdown and Germline Engineering. And the gist of the article is that previous to that advent of modern medicine most people died, and this was especially true of individuals with harmful genetic mutations. This is no longer the case, and thus humanity is accumulating an “unsustainable increase in genetic diseases”.

The article makes several fascinating points:

  • On the necessity of a certain number of people to die before reproducing:

For a balance to exist between mutation and selection, a critical number of offspring must die before reproduction—die because they carry an excess load of mutations.

  • On how fast this problem can escalate

Various naturalistic experiments suggest this meltdown can proceed rapidly. (Salmon raised in captivity for only a few generations were strongly outcompeted by wild salmon subject to selection.)

  • He even goes on to say that this may be the explanation of the worldwide decline in birthrates among developed nations

If humans are equipped with physiological assessment systems to detect when they are in good enough condition to conceive and raise a child, and if each successive generation bears a greater number of micro-impairments that aggregate into, say, stressed exhaustion, then the paradoxical outcome of improving public health for several generations would be ever lower birth rates. One or two children are far too few to shed incoming mutations.

This strikes me as one of those obviously true things that no one wants to think about. But it also dovetails in very well with the theme of the post, and brings up an issue central to the claims of the second group, those who believe all struggle and suffering can be eliminated through technology. In this case we know exactly how to fix the problem, it’s even in the title. We just have to master germline, or more broadly, genetic engineering. Furthermore this isn’t some hypothetical technology with no real world examples. The CRISPR revolution promises that this is something we could do very soon (if not already). The chief difficulty at this point is not in editing the genes, but in knowing what genes to edit. And I don’t want to minimize the difficulties involved in that effort, but there’s definitely nothing about the idea which seems impossible. Nearly all experts would say it’s not a matter of if, but when.

As a matter of fact mastering genetic and germline engineering would probably help with all of the examples we’ve looked at. Despite what people want to claim there’s a genetic component to nearly everything, certainly with autism, but probably also with allergies and low sperm counts and even suicide risk. In theory anything that can be treated with a pill could be treated with genetic engineering and this treatment would probably involve fewer long term side effects. At least health-wise…

So there you have it, the second group is correct, all we have to do is improve CRISPR to the point where we can genetically modify humans, do some experiments to figure out which genes do what, and the negative mutation load, and the low sperm count and the allergies and the autism, and possibly even the elevated suicide will all go away. Struggle was necessary to healthy development, but once we master the genome it won’t be, at least not for anything that can be fixed with genetics. In other words as Tooby’s title declares, we’re in a race between genetic meltdown and germline engineering. Obviously we have to win that race, but as long as we do that, everything will be fine right?

Are you sure about that? From where I sit, if we develop genetic and germline engineering of the kind Tooby is talking about, that’s not the end of our problems, it may be the end of certain specific problems, but it’s the beginning of a whole new set of problems. (Perhaps you’ve seen the movie Gattaca?)

I know that the current laws on genetic engineering are still embryonic (get it? embryonic?) But it is nevertheless true that most people already recoil at the thought of designer babies, or really anything involving modifying genes much beyond doing it as a means of curing disease. Up until this point I’ve used genetic and germline engineering somewhat interchangeably, but they are different. Germline engineering is the process of making modifications which are heritable. If you use it to make someone exceptionally strong, their children would have a greater chance of being exceptional strong as well. This is why Tooby specifically talks about a race between germline engineering and genetic meltdown, because whatever fixes you made would have to transfer for it to be of any use. One of the reasons this differentiation is important is that the US has mostly banned germline engineering, beyond this you can find countless articles debating whether it’s ethical or not.

If, despite the ban, and the ethical questions and people’s distaste at the idea of designer babies, if Tooby is to be believed, we really don’t have any choice in the matter, which means, along with solving the genetic meltdown problem we buy ourselves a whole host of new problems. Including:

Greater divisions between rich and poor: This problem is bad enough already, but toss in the ability for the rich to increase their child’s IQ and health and suddenly you’ve got gaps which no amount of affirmative action, or protests are going to fix.  Also there’s a non-trivial chance that this ends up being a positive feedback loop. With the new smarter richer groups discovering additional positive mutations to add to the mutations they already have at a faster and faster rate.

Racial problems: This is similar to above but probably even more radioactive. Radioactive enough that I don’t even want to speculate. (I’ll give you one hint: transracial.) But I’m sure you can imagine several potential scenarios where this technology makes everything a whole lot worse.

Bioweapons: If you can develop positive mutations then you can develop negative mutations, and while the delivery for those would still need to be accomplished, none of the technology makes this problem harder and it may make it a lot easier. Which takes us to our next point.

Limited Genetic Diversity: Once people start making modifications they will coalesce around certain mutations, leading to a great number of people whose genetic diversity is significantly less than the “default”. Also as we know there are some “bad” mutations which have good side effects (the classic example being sickle cell anemia.) If a disease mutated to affect one, it would be equally effective against all of them. And following from the last point that disease wouldn’t have to be natural.

Different “breeds”: At some point when this has gone on long enough (and really not even all that long) it’s not inconceivable that you could have various breeds of humans, as different from one another as great danes are from toy poodles. How the world deals with something like this is well beyond my ability to predict, but I can’t imagine that it makes things better.

The good news for Tooby, but the bad news for anyone worried about any of the above is that CRISPR is not the Manhattan Project. It doesn’t take billions of dollars and millions of man hours, it’s something you can do from home. Now germline engineering is more difficult, but not that much more so. Certainly it’s not the kind of thing the US could keep any other country from doing if they wanted to.

All of this has taken us pretty far from the topic of whether struggle is necessary, and our two groups. But if nothing else you can begin to see the complexities involved in group two’s assertion that we can eventually solve everything through technology. Yes you can help a chick hatch, but most of the time it will die. Yes, you can make war safer and less connected to the rest of life, but PTSD will go way up. Yes modern medicine can keep people alive who otherwise would have died, but their negative mutations end up in the gene pool. Yes we can solve that with Germline engineering, but that creates a whole new set of problems. Yes we can make life materially better for everyone by using fossil fuels but the resultant CO2 causes global warming.

This is a complicated subject and I am not urging a retreat to some kind of prelapsarian past. But I think we should question the idea that any struggle is bad, that technology and progress has all the answers, and that we can solve all the problems we create.

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Is Facebook More Like a Newspaper or a Video Game?

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Over the weekend I listened to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (as narrated by Nick Offerman.) It’s an enjoyable book, though something of a polemic, and easier to understand if you know that Twain hated Sir Walter Scott (among other things he blamed him for the Civil War). As you may or may not know, Scott was a well-known novelist of the time who romanticized the entire medieval period, and, when you read Twain’s novel, it’s apparent that it was born out Twain’s dislike of Scott specifically and of the idealization of the medieval period more generally.

One of Twain’s major goals was to show how backward everything was during the medieval period, and how awful things were for the great majority of people. Consequently one of the major themes of the book is the importance and wonder of progress, and on that front I may revisit it in more depth, but for now I just want to pluck one fact out of the book to set the stage for this post’s subject.

If you’re unfamiliar with the story, an engineer is sent backward through time to the era of Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, and Camelot. Where, in the course of various adventures, the engineer attempts to modernize ancient Britain by implementing such things as the telegraph (and telephone), a new monetary system, and the abolition of slavery. All of it spiced up with the liberal application of dynamite. But of all the things this engineer considers important, Twain lays particular emphasis on the creation of a newspaper. As I recall it’s one of the first, if not the first thing the engineer turns his mind too once he has a free hand.

The importance of newspapers specifically and the free press more generally, was not only important to Twain, of course, it has been a major feature of American ideology going all the way back to the founding. And it has generally been seen as something which by itself counterbalances all manner of possible abuses. For example, this quote from Jefferson sums up the role of “papers” nicely:

The people are the only censors of their governors: and even their errors will tend to keep these to the true principles of their institution. To punish these errors too severely would be to suppress the only safeguard of the public liberty. The way to prevent these irregular interpositions of the people is to give them full information of their affairs thro’ the channel of the public papers, & to contrive that those papers should penetrate the whole mass of the people. The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers & be capable of reading them.

This was written while Jefferson was ambassador to France, and if you’re familiar with his later long running battle with Hamilton (which occurred mostly in the newspapers of the time) it’s possible he may have eventually moderated this absolute support. But I’ll have more to say about that later.

To our examples of Twain and Jefferson we could add the First Amendment, of course, and also dozens of other historical quotes all supporting the freedom of the press. Though, as I said in the past, despite all this historic support, there have been some people who have recently started to question unlimited freedom of the press. Still this mostly comes up with reference to hate speech. When you’re talking about being informed about politics, almost everyone from Jefferson, down to the present day has felt that absolute freedom to discuss politics is central to the American ideology and particularly central to the workings of democracy. At least… everyone thought this… until Russia came along… and started buying ads on Facebook…

Okay, I might be exaggerating the impact, but the alarm over the issue is interesting. Particularly the question of where Facebook fits, when we’re talking about freedom of the press and newspapers and all the things which have been so important back to the very beginning of the republic.

When speaking of where social media fits, if nothing else, it’s definitely clear that the rules of the game have been dramatically changed. To illustrate this I’d like to start with looking at the money spent by the Russians. Lots of people go on and on about the Russians tampering with the election, but how much money and influence were they really throwing around? For me this appears to be the part of the story getting the least critical attention, but the part which is potentially the most fascinating. To keep things simple let’s look just at what was spent on Facebook.

From what I can tell there are two numbers floating around, $100,000 and $46,000. I think one number is earlier in the year, and one number is right on the eve of the election, but I’m happy to add the two of them together to get a grand total of $146k being spent by the Russians on Facebook. In fact let’s be even more conservative and assume that some spending hasn’t yet been uncovered and double it, and then round the whole thing up to $300k.

Having come up with a total, the first question I want to ask is, how does that compare to what the candidates themselves spent on Facebook? Well the number there, as far as I can tell, is $81 million for both candidates, which means the two candidates outspent the Russians (even using our very conservative figure) by 270x (or 3/10ths of a percent.) And, as I said this is a conservative estimate, TechCrunch, a site, which as far as I know, doesn’t have any conservative leanings, looks at the more narrow pre-election spending and concludes the Russians were outspent by 1,760x (or 6/100ths of a percent.)

But wait? You may be saying. I heard that the Russians reached 126 million people, isn’t that 40% of the country? Surely that has to represent more money than the $146k or even the $300k we’re talking about? Perhaps. As far as I can tell Facebook will sell you impressions (a fancy way of counting every time your ad gets loaded whether or not the person even notices it) for a half a cent. At that rate 126 million impressions would have cost them $630k, so still very much within the realm of numbers I’m talking about and it only takes our worst case scenario from 270x, to 129x (still less than a percent) as much spending. But also, Facebook gives you a break if your content is particularly viral, meaning that maybe they got the impressions for less than that. Also, I assume that Facebook, at the point where they have to appear before congress and explain themselves, would make sure they reconciled the amount spent with the number of people reached, but maybe not. Either way I don’t think it changes the fact that the Russians spent a relatively tiny amount. This comparison becomes more extreme when you look beyond the candidate’s Facebook spending to the total campaign spending, which clocks in well north of a billion dollars. (This site gives the total money raised by both candidates at $2.35 billion.) Of course then you’d want to look at total spending by the Russians across all platforms, but you still get a situation where the money spent by the candidates is hundreds of times greater than that spent by the Russians.

All of this leaves us with two possible conclusions: Either, the Russian money was a drop in the bucket, and it had no effect on the outcome of the election. (And everyone should get over things.) Or, social media spending, particularly of the kind the Russians did, is disproportionately effective, and that for a measly 150k (or 300k, or 600k) they were able to buy the presidential election for Trump, when it otherwise would have gone to Clinton.  Now, to be fair, this was a close election, and in close elections you have the benefit of being able to point to any single factor and credibly claim that it could have swung the election (2000 is great for that sort of thing). And thus, I suppose, it’s even possible that there’s a third option. That each dollar the Russian groups spent on Facebook was about as effective as a dollar spent on TV ads, or canvassing, or what have you, but that the race was close enough that it still made the difference in who won.

If it’s the first, that the Russian spending made no difference, then there’s not much of a story, just the typical Monday morning quarterbacking that’s going to happen after any close election. Democrats can’t accept that they lost “fairly” and so they focus on nefarious outside influences to explain the election. It wasn’t that Clinton should have campaigned more in Michigan (or at a minimum kept her TV ads there running in October), it was the evil Russians (cue Boris and Natasha.)

This is certainly a possible explanation, and perhaps even the most likely, but it’s not very interesting, so for the rest of the post I’m going to assume that social media did have a disproportionate impact on the race, and to be fair there is more evidence than just the Russian angle. When even the Economist is running a cover story titled Social media’s threat to democracy you have to figure that I’m not the only one who thinks that social media spending might have been disproportionately effective. For example, if we look beyond the Russian angle, many people think that it was Trump’s (technically Jared Kushner’s) mastery of Facebook that explains why he won. This section from The Economist is particularly interesting:

The Leave campaign…experiment[ed] with different versions [of Facebook ads]… dropping ineffective ones. The Trump campaign in 2016 did much the same, but on a much larger scale: on an average day it fed Facebook between 50,000 and 60,000 different versions of its advertisements…Some were aimed at just a few dozen voters in a particular district.

As I said in the beginning, there’s a strong bias in American towards considering the press, and particularly the newspapers, to be the good guys and going out of our way to give them as wide a latitude as possible, particularly in reporting political matters. If that’s correct and the press are the good guys, what changed with Facebook? Why is it different than a newspaper? Why is its effect malevolent where previously, on the balance, the press was considered to have a benevolent effect? (There is an argument that it doesn’t, but for the purposes of this post we’re going to assume that Twain and Jefferson were correct.)

I think that quote about the 50,000 ads a day gives us a pretty good idea of the difference.

The first place where most people are inclined to place blame is the hyper-partisan character of the ads Trump and the Russians (and to a lesser extent the Democrats) were showing on Facebook. And I agree this is tempting target, but remember how I said that we would return to a discussion of Jefferson? Well, when Jefferson, who, remember, was a strong supporter of freedom of the press, was waging his titanic battle against Hamilton. That battle mostly took place in the newspapers of the time, and the partisanship and venom of those newspapers makes our own disagreements seem pretty mild. And these weren’t obscure newspapers, these were the major papers of the time. Thus I don’t think hyper-partisanship is a very good candidate for the difference between newspapers at the founding of the country and social media today.

The next place people look, and a place I’ve gone to myself, is the idea that Facebook is just too big. Senator Al Franken (yeah the guy who used to be on SNL) just recently gave a speech about this issue. Wired titled it the Speech that Big Tech has Been Dreading, and in it Franken not only called out Facebook, but also Google and Amazon, saying the following:

Everyone is rightfully focused on Russian manipulation of social media, but as lawmakers it is incumbent on us to ask the broader questions: How did big tech come to control so many aspects of our lives?

Now whether Facebook has too much control or whether they’re big enough to be a true monopoly is certainly up for debate, but you can see where a large number of people get a significant amount of their information from this one source. In other words, there are a lot of people who spend 4 hours a day on Facebook, but don’t spend five minutes reading something like New York Times. Now if Facebook ended up showing these people a broad selection of news from all over the political spectrum this dominance might not be a problem, but as we all know, Facebook targets you with ads they know you will like. And beyond that they provided Trump and the Russians with the ability to target ads down to the level of the individual. As the Economist pointed out, in addition to those 50,000 ads, they were also running ads which were aimed at just a few dozen voters in a particular district. All of which brings me to my next point.

When you read the front page of the New York Times, or even of the local paper you know you’re reading exactly the same front page as everyone else. This has largely carried over to the web. When I go to I see the same thing my wife sees when she goes to But this is not what happens at all with Facebook, as the example of targeting a few dozen individuals indicates. But people don’t realize this. People see something on Facebook and they naturally assume that this is more or less what everyone is seeing. Consequently they are far less likely to question whether it’s true or not. And even if they do question it, or ignore it, or if it’s ineffective in any way, then the Trump team still has 49,999 tries, each DAY, to get it right.  All of which is to say that Facebook (and most social media) is targeted and responsive in a way that makes it a completely different animal from traditional media. The Economist describes it thusly:

The algorithms that Facebook, YouTube and others use to maximise “engagement” ensure users are more likely to see information that they are liable to interact with. This tends to lead them into clusters of like-minded people sharing like-minded things, and can turn moderate views into more extreme ones. “It’s like you start a vegetarian and end up a vegan,” says Zeynep Tufecki of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, describing her experience following the recommendations on YouTube. These effects are part of what is increasing America’s political polarization, she argues.

Even taking into account this increase in polarization, if that’s all there was to it, we’d probably be okay. But on top of everything else, not only do Facebook and similar sites, disseminate hyper-partisan information, act as a near monopoly, convince isolated people that they’re part of a community, and increase polarization, they are also are doing their very best to make all of this as addictive as possible.

This is usually the point where someone comes along and accuses me of being just another old guy who thinks the world is going to hell in a handbasket and just wants the damn kids to get off his lawn. And maybe that is exactly what’s going on. Here’s what the article from The Economist had to say about this possibility:

Social media are hardly the first communication revolution to first threaten, then rewire the body politic. The printing press did it (see our essay on Luther). So did television and radio, allowing conformity to be imposed in authoritarian countries at the same time as, in more open ones, promoting the norms of discourse which enabled the first mass democracies.

Several things are worth pointing out from that quote. First, there at the end, we have another example of past media serving to improve democracy. Second if you boil down the question to whether social media represents a communication revolution, and separate it from the effect it may or may not have had in the most recent election, I think most people would not hesitate to declare it revolution. If that’s the case, perhaps we should move away from considering the narrow question of what the Russians did or didn’t do, since we may be too close to the issue, and examine other examples of communication revolution. The quote mentions two, the more recent TV and radio revolution and the revolution in printing at the time of Martin Luther.

For those who aren’t up on their history. The reason they had an essay on Luther is that we just hit the 500th anniversary of the nailing of the 95 Theses to the Wittenberg church door (if that in fact happened). And as they allude to, one of the big reasons the Protestant reformation happened when it did was the invention of the printing press. Luther himself was a master of the medium and in the 1520s, he was responsible for more than a fifth of the empire’s entire output of pamphlets. At the time one churchman said, “Every day it rains Luther books. Nothing else sells.”

As you also may or may not recall the Protestant Reformation resulted in one of the bloodier periods of European history (the 30 Years War, the French Wars of Religion, the English Civil War, etc.) So that’s one of the revolutions. On the other hand, the TV and Radio revolution was almost entirely peaceful and we can always hope that even if social media does represent a revolution it will be more similar to the revolution brought on by TV and Radio than the one brought on by the printing press. Though, I fear that when you look at ease of control, social media is a lot closer to the decentralized revolution of the printing press, then the centralization of TV and radio.

The only question left, assuming you agree with me thus far, is what we should do about it? The Economist asks the same question and comes up with this response:

What is to be done? People will adapt, as they always do. A survey this week found that only 37% of Americans trust what they get from social media, half the share that trust printed newspapers and magazines. Yet in the time it takes to adapt, bad governments with bad politics could do a lot of harm.

I agree. People will adapt. But remember that Facebook and the other sites can also adapt. The Russians can adapt. And we already read about the 50,000 adaptations the Trump campaign was making every day. I have no doubt we will eventually adapt, but in the meantime we’re trying to hit a moving target, and a lot can happen while we’re working it out.

Finally, given the evident success of this tactic, how much more money and how much bigger is this problem going to be in 2020?

If this post made you hate social media, or if you already hated social media, consider donating to something that isn’t, this blog. Sure I’m not as reliable as the newspaper, but I’m better than your crazy uncle.

The Difficulties of Mormon Diversity

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At the end of every blog post I try to add something clever about donating. The “try” part isn’t about adding the sentence, it’s about being clever, and I fear that I fail more often than not. But asking for money is always something of a grubby business, with lots of questions attached. For example, just the other day, one of my donors, who I know personally, asked me what I did with the money. Well there are hosting expenses for the podcast, and I use some of it for my vague attempts at marketing. Of course, the dream is to make a living at it, but I am a LONG way from doing that.

Among the questions, you might be wondering about, is whether I, myself, donate to any blogs or podcasts. I do, to several. One of the blogs/podcasts I donate to is LeadingLDS, and if you happen to be LDS I urge you to give it a listen. It’s fantastic. And of course once you do listen to it, and realize how great it is, you should donate to it as well. It’s run by my good friend Kurt Francom, and in fact if you could only donate to one of us, you should definitely donate to him. He is trying to make a living at it.

You may be thinking that all of this is a prelude to some sort of fundraising drive, that pledge week has come to the blog, but actually all of this is just my way of introducing the subject. Recently LeadingLDS published an article, by Ryan Gottfredson, about the orthodox-

progressive divide in Mormonism. It was a great and thought-provoking article and it prompted me to want to discuss the same issue. There are several reasons for this: First, I want to offer some comments on the original article. Second, I want to offer more extreme examples of what he’s describing, though still within the context of the Mormon Church. And finally, I want to look at how this applies to the world at large, because, obviously, a similar split is happening everywhere, not just within the LDS Church.

As I said, let’s begin with my thoughts and comments on the original article. Right off the bat, I should make clear, that I thoroughly enjoyed it. Not only did it cover a topic that needs as much attention as possible, but it did it in a way that was straightforward and useful. Accordingly here, in no particular order are some things I liked:

  1. His emphasis on not avoiding conflict but managing it, was particularly timely, and something I think that everyone should be reminded of, but particularly religious leaders, since there is often an incorrect assumption that if religion is working properly that there will be no conflict.
  2. Furthermore pointing out that conflict, if handled well, can be beneficial. (A point I’ll definitely be returning to when it comes time to discuss the world at large.)
  3. Specifically identifying the orthodox-progressive divide, naming it, and relating it to other religions in a way that was easy to understand. In particular, I think most Mormons would be alarmed to have a split in Mormonism as great as the split in beliefs between Orthodox and Reform Judaism.
  4. I thoroughly enjoyed his examples, particularly given that I have encountered three of the four things he gave examples of personally, so it was nice to know it wasn’t just me. (Full disclosure: I have a beard. This will be important later.)
  5. As our understanding of psychology grows it’s becoming more apparent that fundamentally some people have a more “liberal” or progressive disposition while other people have a more conservative disposition. He specifically brings in the OCEAN standard, which I won’t get into, but if you’re curious you should check out the original article.

My final point is a bigger one, and unlike the other five, it’s a criticism. But you should not take this to mean that I didn’t like the article or that I wouldn’t recommend it. As I already said it’s great. This is only an indication that it takes more words to expand on why a certain part might be a little weak, than it takes to say, “Preach on Brother!” a bunch of times. So what is this criticism? I feel that his examples, and his orthodox-progressive continuum are both drawn too narrowly.

Let’s look at his actual examples, as I said above, I liked them, but I also think that if we closely examine the problems he discusses, that while they are real, are not the kinds of things that keep people up at night. At least the stuff he talks about is not what’s currently vexing me. I’ll start by relating his examples and then offering up a different example, in a similar vein, but vastly more severe. I’ll be doing this from the perspective of a hypothetical Stake President. For those who aren’t LDS, the Stake President, is the highest authority most people would actually know and interact with. In other words for most issues, he’s where the buck stops.

Gottfredson’s first example of conflict between the orthodox and progressive wing of the Church concerned a meeting about ministering to people on the fringe. And the problems which arose when someone brought up people struggling with same sex attraction as one of the groups on the fringe. From the article:

More orthodox members… were not very happy that same-gender attraction was brought up in the meeting, and several went to the Stake President to complain.

As I said I have experienced situations very similar to this. And yes you will have people who feel that even mentioning same sex attraction (SSA) is the first step on a slippery slope that leads to gay marriage in LDS temples. But when even the LDS apostles are talking about reaching out to individuals struggling with SSA, and when the Church is putting up a website about the issue. I don’t think this example is really going to be that difficult for our hypothetical Stake President.

Now, to turn to a more extreme version of this. My wife has several close family members who are gay and in the past she actually marched in the gay pride parade, as you might imagine she is not the only LDS person to have done so. In particular I’m thinking of Mormons Building Bridges, who have a webpage devoted exclusively to pride parades. On that page they mention an interview with one of the apostles, Elder Todd Christofferson where he seems to be saying it’s okay to march in a pride parade. Despite this, imagine a situation where a member’s gay son, and the son’s husband want the member to march with them in the pride parade. You can see where this situation, even in light of the comments by Elder Christofferson, presents a very different, and much more difficult question, than the situation given in the example.

To reiterate, this is not to say that the initial example is not valuable, but rather to say that things won’t end there. And I’m interested in examining how to deal with conflict which increasingly appears to difficult or impossible to reconcile.

His second example is about beards, and the argument wasn’t so much about the appropriateness of beards but whether a Stake President was making a reasonable request to have certain of the leaders be clean shaven, and if so, whether it was the individual’s duty to obey that request. In reality it was less a debate about beards than a debate between obedience and agency/choices.

Nearly this exact thing happened to me. I was called to a position of leadership and the Stake President asked me to shave my beard. At the time, I’d had my beard for probably 13 years (with the exception of shaving it off once on a dare, but then growing it right back.) And I admit it did seem silly. But I was prepared to shave it off, if that’s what he wanted. Fortunately the Stake Presidency was replaced before I was put in, and the new Stake President didn’t care. I bring this up to point out that, having been on the other side of this issue, that while it was a little bit annoying it wasn’t that big of a deal.

As a more extreme example, imagine this: I often talk about the Mormon Transhumanist Association (MTA). Once again we turn from my actual Stake President, to our hypothetical Stake President, who may already be getting pressure we don’t even know about on beards (I have it on pretty firm authority that President Uchtdorf is very anti-facial hair.) And then you get someone from the MTA, who comes in and asks him what the Church’s position is on replacing his perfectly working hand with a cybernetic hand, or wants to know the church’s position on cryonics. With the beard you can at least look at Church Presidents previous to David O. McKay, but where do you go for the answers about cybernetic hands? You may think this is more “improbable” than “extreme”, but it will be happening sooner than you think, for example cryonics is already available.

His third example concerns a discussion of the apostasy of early members of the Church, along with offering reasons for why these people might have apostatized. This discussion alarmed people who didn’t want any focus given to potentially negative events from the early history of the Church. Once again, given the lengths that the Church itself has gone to provide illumination on these issues, including publishing the Joseph Smith Papers, the Gospel Topics Essays, and things like that, I don’t think this is going to be very tough one for our hypothetical Stake President to handle.

Once again it may seem like I’m beating up on the original article, which is not my intent. In the original example he’s talking about being in the middle of giving a lesson when the people he’s teaching start to object, I have very much been in a similar position, and I agree that it requires a great degree of tact to avoid causing offense or discomfort. Accordingly the article touches on something that’s very common and very difficult, but it’s manageable, and the original article is exactly what you should be reading to understand how to manage it. As I said, the direction I’m headed and what I want to explore is the stuff that is less manageable, not only because of my own curiosity, but because I think that’s the way things are headed.

In any event, returning to the example, we’ve discussed the original, what’s the more extreme version? Well at the last conference, apostle Dallin H. Oaks gave a talk where he revisited and re-emphasized the Church’s Proclamation on the Family, explaining how it came about, the care with which it was crafted, and the ways in which the world has changed since it was issued. In it he draws particular attention to the ways in which attitudes towards same-sex marriage (SSM) have changed and reiterates that the Church’s position has not, and is still that “marriage [is] between a man and a woman”. Lincoln Cannon, prominent member of the MTA (and yes, I’m using them again) responded to this by, as far as I can tell, acknowledging the inspiration of the Family Proclamation, but pointing out that it doesn’t specifically enjoin against same-sex marriage. And further pointing out that Church standards on marriage have changed, i.e. with respect to polygamy. All of this culminating, again, as far as I can discern, (perhaps he’ll stop by and clarify) in arguing that Elder Oaks is wrong when he claims that the church’s standard will not change even in the future.

His final example, concerns a statement released by the Church in support of the LoveLoud festival, which has a specific focus on LGBT youth. Once again the response was predictable with some people angry at the recognition while others applauded the Church for being so inclusive. In this case it’s something the Church officially did, so our hypothetical Stake President should have no problem passing the buck upward, so to speak, though to be fair it is possible for people to become disaffected and leave because they’re more conservative than the main body. Still, as I think the previous examples of SSM and SSA show, people who feel the Church is not progressive enough are far more likely to leave than those who feel we’re not conservative enough.

As the more extreme example, I turn to another episode of LeadingLDS where Francom had a roundtable interview with several members who experience SSA, gender dysphoria and family members of individuals with those issues. In this episode one of the female panelists was married to a man who strongly felt that his true gender was female. To make her husband feel comfortable the ward/bishop (and I assume the Stake President) had decided to allow this man to attend church meetings while dressed as a woman. That is, by all accounts, remarkably open-minded, and I suppose we already know what decision the Stake President made in that situation, but I don’t imagine that it was an easy decision, and I’m guessing that most Stake Presidents are hoping to not have to deal with similar situations.

Again, I am not providing the more “extreme” examples as an attempt to undermine the original article. In fact following the LDS principle of milk before meat, I think the original article represents some excellent milk, and a great entry way into understanding the issue, and dealing with the conflicts that can arise, in fact if you have somehow made it this far without reading Gottfredson’s article you should read it before continuing with this one. But, having read that article I think there’s some pretty tough meat to tackle afterwards. Whether it’s someone who wants to march in the gay pride parade, or a man who wants to wear a dress to church, and the question of where to draw the line is difficult and only going to get more difficult. It’s definitely something I’ve struggled with for a long time.

I may have mentioned a recent trip to Montreal, but I don’t think I mentioned why I went. Well, the purpose of that trip was to visit an old mission companion, who has come out as gay, left the church and now lives with his husband/partner. (Which I guess makes me one of the progressive members? Who would have thunk it.) While there, I asked my friend where I should draw the line. Obviously his response was that I should be pretty accommodating, but even he thought the story of the man attending church in a dress was stretching things.

Obviously being maximally accommodating is one possible strategy, and is, in fact, the strategy that probably the majority of people have adopted. And by doing this we do end up with maximum diversity. Which is one of Gottfredson’s recommendations. That said, diversity is an interesting word, and I don’t think I’m being very controversial to say that it’s a loaded word, so loaded that it’s lost many of the nuances of meaning it might once have had. In fact if I’m being honest I think that these days it’s become less an exhortation which leads beneficial actions and outcomes, and more a password, that lets you skip otherwise difficult questions and shows that you’re “with the program”.

I know that for the really progressive (those people featured in the extreme examples) Dallin H. Oaks is probably their least favorite apostle, but I’d like to reference a talk he gave on diversity back in 1999:

Since diversity is a condition, a method, or a short-term objective—not an ultimate goal—whenever diversity is urged it is appropriate to ask, “What kind of diversity?” or “Diversity in what circumstance or condition?” or “Diversity in furtherance of what goal?” This is especially important in our policy debates, which should be conducted not in terms of slogans but in terms of the goals we seek and the methods or shorter-term objectives that will achieve them. Diversity for its own sake is meaningless and can clearly be shown to lead to unacceptable results.

And this is where, to conclude, I’d like to shift from talking about the Church to talking about the world at large. There is a similar orthodox-progressive split, and similar conflicts, and similar calls for diversity. And I think both the examples we’ve already covered and Elder Oaks counsel about diversity being a means to an end, rather than an end itself, transfer very well to the wider society.

To being with, not only is diversity a means to an end, but there are various kinds of diversity. (This is one of the nuances which is in danger of being lost.) The two biggest categories are ideological diversity and qualitative diversity. As an example someone might have the quality of being a women, or asian, or transgendered, but none of those qualities necessarily imply anything about their ideology, which may also be different, or, more and more, exactly the same.

To Gottfredson’s credit he mostly emphasizes ideological diversity, which, if you’re looking at diversity as a means to an end, rather than an end itself, is the sort of diversity we should be encouraging. (Interestingly, religion is one place where someone might plausibly argue that you shouldn’t have a diversity of ideas.) Ideological diversity is how you get new ideas, it’s how you keep one idea from being taken to an extreme, and it’s the only way liberal societies function period. Despite this there has recently been a rejection of ideological diversity in favor of qualitative diversity.

In many respects this rejection mirrors what is happening in the Church, though at a much larger scale. And the punchline to all this is that qualitative diversity is, for all intents and purposes, diversity for its own sake, and because of that ends up being naturally opposed to ideological diversity because it is, in fact it’s own separate ideology. Qualitative diversity/diversity for its own sake, ends up being indistinguishable from ideologies like “Live and Let Live” or “Do whatever makes you feel good.”  Or more broadly the idea that no one should be able to tell anyone else what they should do. And if that’s your ideology I suppose that’s fine, but by cloaking it as true diversity, those advocating this end up entirely undermining, true, ideological diversity.

Of course you can see why Elder Oaks was worried about it, since telling other people what they should do is the essence of religion. And I understand that people are uncomfortable with this, and that it is, in fact, precisely the reason they’re not in favor of ideological diversity. Because certain ideologies may condemn whatever it is they want to be doing. But, as usual, people overstate the value of individualism and understate the value of sacrifice and community. Thus there is a natural tension between doing something for the good of the community and the inherent selfishness of diversity as many people commonly understand it. This is what makes Gottfredson’s advocacy of ideological diversity, and all advocacy of ideological diversity so important. And this is what makes allowing the constructive conflict he advocates, important as well, because ideological diversity functions best when there is a marketplace of competitive ideas.

There’s much more that I wanted to say, and I’m not entirely sure that what I’ve have said is as clear as I want it to be, but I’m out of time. So, I’ll end by emphasizing the importance of allowing ideological diversity. Of not confusing it with diversity for its own sake, and finally of recognizing that this whole subject is becoming more and more difficult. So, if your hypothetical Stake President, asks you to shave your metaphorical beard, remember the importance of ideological diversity, and try to be understanding…

If you do have any money left over after supporting LeadingLDS, consider donating to me. But it’s okay if you donate to them instead.

Speculative Attempts to Complicate Through History

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I’m an okay chess player. But I’m a voracious reader, and so the amount of reading about chess I’ve done is high relative to my skill. (If you were being technical you might say I have a high pages/Elo rating, which is actually bad.) All of this is my way of saying, when I start talking about chess, which I’m about to, that I’m not trying to put myself forward as some sort of chess savant, merely someone who’s read a lot. And in that reading I came across an idea which has ended up being a useful framework for thinking about a lot of situations that have nothing to do with chess. It’s the idea of a “speculative attempt to complicate” and as far as I can tell I am the only one who’s adopted it for use outside of chess, given that a search on the term (in quotes) yields only seven results.

(As a tangent if you ever doubt my mastery of search engine optimization, just watch me rocket to the top of that seven, now eight item search, with my well chosen title.)

What is a speculative attempt to complicate? In chess notation you use an exclamation mark for good moves (more is better) and question marks for bad moves (more is worse) but you’ll also occasionally see an exclamation mark and a question mark, and if the question mark is first (i.e. “?!”) it means “A speculative attempt to complicate”. The idea being that the game isn’t going great for the person making the move, so they make some speculative, chaos-causing, non-standard move, hoping that out of the chaos a new setup will emerge where they’re in a better position. The idea being that if they do what’s expected they’ll just lose, but if they cause some chaos, or if they complicate the game, the possibility exists, that once the complication is resolved, that their position will be better.

In 1787 the King of France, Louis the XVI, was losing the game of running the country. And to be fair the deck was stacked against him (to mix metaphors). At the time, people were dealing with the heady ideals of the enlightenment. There was a rising, and restless middle class, not to mention, social unrest, famines and wars. And, speaking of wars, the American Revolution was of particular impact, in that it not only served to stoke revolutionary fervor in France, but added an immense amount of money to France’s already substantial debt. And as it turned out this debt was getting to be a problem, though, at least here, the King was not blameless, since he, his father and his grandfather had spent an enormous amount of money on themselves (you may have heard of a little thing called Versailles?) In fact while things like social unrest and war and famine may have been more important in the final analysis, it was the country’s debt which really started the ball rolling, or as historian John Shovlin said:

It is a truism that the French Revolution was touched off by the near bankruptcy of the state.

For those paying attention you may see why this post follows my last post. And, to be clear, I’m not claiming that the debt caused the revolution. It wasn’t the biggest problem, but in 1787, on the eve of the revolution, it was the most immediate problem. Obviously neither the King nor his finance minister were unaware of this problem and the quick succession of ministers who were dismissed after failing to solve it, should give some clue as to its severity. However despite the number of people who made the attempt, the problem proved impossible to resolve. Eventually, in desperation the King convened an Assembly of Notables. The arcana for why he convened the assembly and what he was hoping they would accomplish is too lengthy to get into, but structurally, although the assembly probably wanted to do something, they ended up being largely ineffectual. (One wonders if that would have changed if the nobles had known what was coming.) With the notables/nobles unable to get on top of the problem there was only one thing left to do, convene the Estates General. While convening the Assembly of Notables was kind of a risky move, convening the Estates General was the King’s true speculative attempt to complicate. Perhaps the fact that it had been 175 years since the last time they were convened (1614) will give you some sense of how risky, unprecedented and desperate this move was.

It’s interesting to imagine what would have happened if the King had not made this move. I’m no expert on the French Revolution, and given all the revolutions that subsequently occurred, just in France, it may be that the overall arc of things would not have been that different. Perhaps the King would eventually have to have abdicated in favor of someone else. Perhaps if he hadn’t convened them everything would have been a lot worse. What is clear is that none of the major players, and particularly the king, would have convened the Estates General if they had known what was going to happen: Robespierre, the execution of the King, the rise of Napoleon, etc. etc. (One wonders if even Napoleon, who was 20 at the time, would have “pulled the trigger” if he had known the whole arc, probably, but it’s hard to say.)

Also one other thing about speculative attempts to complicate. By this point you have probably realized that we do have other terms for what the King was doing that are in more common usage. Someone can “go out on a limb”, “roll the dice” , or “throw a hail mary”. But the problem with these terms is none of them mention the idea of complicating the situation as a way of turning around a losing game. Rather these terms just represent desperate gambles that will either clearly fail or clearly succeed. The pass is either caught or it isn’t. Had Louis the XVI asked the UK for help (totally inconceivable I realize), or had he implemented a radical new tax, or if he had executed the latest finance minister rather than firing him, those are all hail mary’s, but by convening the Estates General he was complicating matters, primarily by granting de facto authority to a lot of new people, all of whom were wildcards to a certain extent.

Lately a similar idea has been getting press in the US and the parallels are a little bit eerie. We are also in a situation where there’s broad agreement that government is broken. There’s even some agreement that one of the main problems is financial, though, to be clear, despite what I said in the last post, I don’t think the US is heading towards bankruptcy in the same fashion as the French Monarchy. (History doesn’t repeat, it rhymes.) But, for those who are the most worried about financial crisis, there is an unused clause of the constitution, that may allow them to make a speculative attempt to complicate in a game they feel like they’re otherwise going to lose, just like the king.

This particular speculative attempt to complicate involves calling a constitutional convention, as provided for by Article V. In one of the recent articles about this possibility from the Economist, they explain the interesting backstory of the convention clause:

THE I’s had been dotted; the T’s were crossed. The 55 delegates to America’s first and so-far-only constitutional convention had hammered out compromises on the separation of powers, apportionment of seats in the legislature and the future of the slave trade. But on September 15th 1787 George Mason, a plantation owner from Virginia, rose to his feet to object.

Article V of the draft text laid out two paths by which future amendments could be proposed. Congress could either propose them itself, or it could summon a convention of representatives from the states to propose them. Mason warned that if the federal government were to become oppressive, Congress would be unlikely to call a convention to correct matters. To protect the people’s freedom, he argued, convening power should instead be vested in the states. Should two-thirds of their legislatures call for a convention, Congress would have to accede to their demand: a convention they should have.

The constitution was signed two days later, with Article V changed as Mason had suggested. Since then 33 amendments have been proposed, with 27 subsequently ratified, a process which requires approval in three-quarters of the states. Whether the issue was great (abolishing slavery) or small (changing the date of presidential inaugurations), all 33 of the proposals came from Congress. Mason’s mechanism for change driven by state legislatures has never been used. Even politically informed Americans often have no idea it exists.

As mentioned it’s never been used, so that gives us yet another parallel, it had been 175 years since the last time the Estates General were convened, it has been 230 years since the last constitutional convention. It may be too early to queue the ominous music, but you can see why it’s interesting.

As the article mentioned even well-informed people often have no idea that such a thing is possible, and if you are one of those people who had no idea you may be experiencing some combination of curiosity, fear or possibly boredom. Let’s start with boredom.

You might be experiencing boredom because your immediate reaction is to view it as one more thing which, while technically possible, is very unlikely. Something like Evan McMullin becoming president in 2016 if he had won in Utah and the electoral college was otherwise deadlocked, or like the Secretary of Housing and Urban development becoming President after everyone else is killed. Well, one of the reasons it’s in the news is that it may be more likely than you think. At this point 27 states have requested a convention. A convention only requires 34, which leaves just 7 more states. Conveniently, there are 7 Republican states who haven’t requested a convention and in the next couple of years they’re all going to consider the issue.

What does being Republican have to do with it? Well the major impetus for all of this is a balanced budget amendment. These are the people I mentioned who are really concerned about the financial crisis and are attempting their own speculative attempt to complicate. In any event, what this all means is that, according to the article, opponents and supporters are giving even odds of it happening by 2020. Thus it may not be as unlikely as you think. Better odds than people gave Trump and we all know how that turned out.

From this you may be ready to move to curiosity, but before we do that, let’s look at one other reason for boredom. The subtitle of the Economist article is “If it did, that would be a dangerous thing.” Okay, admittedly that’s not a phrase that immediately brings boredom to mind. But in the letters section of the next issue one of the supporters of Article V, wrote in and retorted that holding a constitutional convention wasn’t dangerous, and that, in fact, it isn’t even an actual constitutional convention. That it was rather a “convention for proposing amendments”, in other words it’s only point would be to get a narrowly worded amendment approved for voting, in the current case the balanced budget amendment. Thus while the convention wouldn’t necessarily be boring per se, it would be a lot less exciting than The Economist (or any of the other articles) is claiming.

But, of course, I’ve come a long way without saying why the Economist called it dangerous or why Esquire called it a constitutional crisis. And if you’re still with me, at this point, you’re probably more curious than bored. And to satisfy that curiosity I suppose we should actually look at Article V:

The Congress, whenever two thirds of both houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose amendments to this Constitution, or, on the application of the legislatures of two thirds of the several states, shall call a convention for proposing amendments, which, in either case, shall be valid to all intents and purposes, as part of this Constitution, when ratified by the legislatures of three fourths of the several states, or by conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other mode of ratification may be proposed by the Congress;

I think the key word in the clause about the state conventions is, “amendments” plural. I know the guy who wrote the letter to the editor in The Economist seemed pretty knowledgeable, and cited a lot of legal precedents, but at a minimum, from my reading, it looks like there would be grounds for someone to try and go beyond just the balanced budget amendment to propose numerous amendments. Even if they did, it still appears, that this just puts the amendments on the “ballot”, so to speak, and that you would still need 3/4ths of the states to approve them.

Three-fourths of the states is a pretty high hurdle, and even when you toss in the possibility of multiple amendments, it’s not, on it’s face, “dangerous” or a “crisis”, but this is why I started by talking about speculative attempts to complicate and the convening of the Estates General. The king didn’t convene them because he wanted to be beheaded in four years. He convened them for the very narrow purpose of fixing the financial crisis. Just like the, suggested, constitutional convention is being organized for the very narrow purpose of proposing a balanced budget amendment.  And the danger and the potential crisis come from the idea that just like the Estates General went WELL BEYOND their original purpose, there is some possibility that a new convention would go well beyond it’s original purpose. This is where fear enters into the picture.

But what reason would the convention have to go beyond it’s original purpose? I think when people consider the current divisiveness and anger, the answer to that question is obvious. Though, to be clear, things were a lot worse in 1789 than they are in 2017. That point aside I’d like to draw your attention to another issue which goes unmentioned by any of the articles I’ve read. The other method in Article V for proposing amendments, the congressional method,  is broken. The last amendment was passed in 1992, 25 years ago, and given that it was initially proposed in 1789, I don’t think it should win any awards for either speed or efficiency. Nor was it particularly controversial.

The last one before that was 1971, 46 years ago. And it was the relatively uncontroversial amendment of lowering the voting age to 18. As evidence of how uncontroversial it was, it was the shortest time from proposal to ratification of any amendment. And, though I won’t bother to go through each amendment one-by-one, I would say that you have to go all the way back to 1920, or nearly 100 years, to find an amendment that was actually controversial. I’m referring to Amendment 19, the one giving women the right to vote, (an idea that’s completely uncontroversial now.) It could possibly be argued that the 24th, eliminating the poll tax, was controversial, but if so, it’s the only one in 100 years that was.

As I have argued previously, the Supreme Court has mostly usurped the role of the amendment process. Making it largely unnecessary, particularly for those on the more liberal side of things. And thus one way of looking at this may be as a battle between the liberal method for amending the Constitution and a new way the conservatives are trying to implement. And in part I think that’s why people are worried. If this convention does happen and it does end up being yet another battleground, how could the left/Democrats/progressives sit it out? Perhaps if they’re sure, like the letter-writer I mentioned earlier, that the judiciary will keep things tightly contained, they might not worry. But I wouldn’t count on it.

If you’re looking for reasons to worry, the soonest a convention could happen would be 2019 (blame Montana) and it probably wouldn’t happen until 2020, and a lot can happen in 3 years (just ask Louis XVI). Imagine that in that time, Trump has managed to appoint another justice to the Supreme Court. And imagine that with both Gorsuch and this new judge that things start moving in a direction the left doesn’t like. Imagine that some of the rulings which act like amendments, for example Roe v. Wade, are in danger of being overturned. Imagine further that before the convention can be held that Trump wins re-election. None of these scenarios is that unlikely (though I acknowledge that the cumulative probability is low). If a convention is held and all of these things have happened, does anyone imagine that the convention would be a nice quiet affair?

I’ve gone fairly deep on this one example of a speculative attempt to complicate, and to wrap things up I should probably go wide. Perhaps you’re convinced that the convening of the Estates General was an attempt to complicate and that it went poorly. And maybe you’re even convinced that the proposed constitutional convention bears enough resemblance to what happened then for people to be concerned. Despite all this, you’re almost certainly looking for other examples, which is what I mean by going wide. Making one connection doesn’t prove much of anything, but what if there are dozens of examples of speculative attempts to complicate? I would argue that there are, and that, in fact, they’re everywhere once you start looking. However, this doesn’t mean that the individuals making these “moves” always realize that that’s what they’re doing.

A couple of examples:

After 9/11 the US was losing to the terrorists (or at least that’s how it felt), Saddam was still in power and the Middle East was a mess. After considering all of this President Bush decided to make a speculative attempt to complicate by invading Iraq, though he probably didn’t think of it that way. And here we see one of the key features of the unknowing speculative attempt to complicate. The people attempting it often only see the likely, good outcomes, not all the possible outcomes. In this case Bush thought that overthrowing Saddam was obviously a good thing, and there was even a chance that he could turn Iraq into a peaceful and stable democracy that would be a beacon to the rest of the Middle East. I assume that there was always a chance that this is exactly how it would go, and Saddam was a bad guy, and, as I said, the Middle East was a mess. Finally, It did feel like we were already losing, and how much worse could it be? Well we got our answer. Iraq is basically a client state of Iran. (Or so my Lebanese cab driver claimed.) ISIS replaced Al Qaeda. And while Iraq may have provided the spark for the Arab Spring, that’s definitely been a mixed bag, particularly when you consider the Syrian Civil War. Meaning, whatever else you may think of it, Iraq was a speculative attempt to complicate, and it didn’t work out.

Wars are the biggest example of this sort of thing, and World War I in particular really took the cake. Gavrilo Princip and the Bosnian Nationalists were losing their quest for independence so they made a speculative attempt to complicate and assassinated the Archduke. Germany was losing the game of colonies and they made their attempt by starting the war and invading Belgium. Britain was worried about staying on top navally and they joined in on the side of the allies. The Austro-Hungarian empire was crumbling so they decided to invade Serbia. And the list could go on. Many people honestly thought a war was exactly what was necessary to shake things up. They also believed, almost to a man, and on all sides, that it would be a quick war. I was just reading the World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig (of which I may say more in a future post), who was there during this period. He talked about exactly this feeling playing out at the beginning of the war in Austria, where young men were “honestly afraid” that the war might be over before they could get there. And I’ve read other books that described exactly the same thing happening in other belligerent nations. Numerous speculative attempts to complicate, all made by people who were only looking at only the potential good outcomes, not loss of empire, execution by the Bolsheviks, hyperinflation, or another, worse war 25 years later.

Currently I see speculative attempts to complicate everywhere I look: the debt ceiling brinksmanship, Catalonia voting to secede, Brexit, Kim Jong Un’s nuclear posturing, or perhaps the biggest one of all, the election of Trump…

Is donating to this blog a speculative attempt to complicate? Maybe, it is complicated and unlikely to make much difference. But it might nevertheless yield interesting results.

The National Debt in Three Lists of Six Items

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I mentioned last week that I “feel a post about the deficit coming on.” Which makes it sound a little bit like a bowel movement. Perhaps that’s a valid comparison. Certainly it’s a subject that affects our lives a lot more than we would like to admit, but also rarely discussed in polite society. Finally, if things get out of whack, there can be disastrous consequences.

I don’t recall specifically thinking about this at the time, but I’m sure the news that the national debt recently passed 20 trillion dollars had to play a part in my desire to write about it now.

Perhaps you also heard the news that the national debt had passed $20 trillion, but it’s equally probable that you didn’t. It didn’t appear to be very big news, at least from my perspective. Certainly people mentioned it, but I think the news was dominated by Irma and as usual, i.e. Trump. As I said, it’s possible that it was just me, but in an effort to find a more objective source I stumbled onto the Vanderbilt Television News Archive. Searching a period from September 11th (I’m sure that’s part of the problem) to today (October 20th) There were zero stories which mentioned the “deficit”, 4 stories which mentioned “debt” (and none of them actually appear to be talking about the national debt) versus 109 stories which mentioned the word “hurricane” and 190 stories which mention Trump. Leading me to conclude it wasn’t just unremarked on from my perspective.

I do understand that $20 trillion is somewhat arbitrary, and it would be difficult to make the case that somehow $20 trillion is qualitatively different than $19.5 trillion. Still they’re both staggering numbers, high enough to deserve some comment, I would think, even if we hadn’t passed a major (albeit somewhat arbitrary) milestone. My go to source for the a snapshot of the problem and all its facets is the US Debt Clock, which is equal parts illuminating and frightening. As of this writing the debt, stands at $20.424 trillion (meaning we’re closing in on halfway to our next trillion.) The debt clock helpfully translates this into more easily understandable numbers and tells us that this equates to a debt of $63,646 per citizen and $169,251 per taxpayer.

I would hazard to predict that most people start worrying when they hear these numbers, but it’s most likely a directionless worry. What can the average citizen do about a $20 trillion dollar or even a $63k of debt? Of course there are people whose job it is to worry about these sorts of things and to offer advice about what should be done. This includes people with direct responsibility like those who actually work at the Treasury Department, but I would also extend it to include people outside the system, like economics professors and newspaper columnists. And many, if not most, of these people, the most notable of which is Paul Krugman, contend that there’s really nothing to worry about.

Why aren’t they concerned? Well, if you look into it you’ll come across a few different reasons for this. I’ll provide a brief overview of several of them, though this list is not comprehensive. And then later I’ll look at why, despite these reassurances, we might still need to worry.

  1. Unlike individuals who are obligated to pay back their debt according to the terms of the original loan, governments are not so obligated, they just have to, as Krugman said, “ensure that debt grows more slowly than their tax base. The debt from World War II was never repaid; it just became increasingly irrelevant as the U.S. economy grew, and with it the income subject to taxation.”
  2. Krugman also points out (from the same article) is that, unlike individual debt, which is money we owe to someone else. The national debt is money we owe to ourselves. Just to be clear this is true for the majority of the money, but there’s still $6 trillion dollars which is owed to foreign investors.
  3. When you compare the debt to the national GDP, and compare the US’s indebtedness to other countries it’s not that bad. The US is only number 8 in terms of indebtedness, and based on debt as a percentage of GDP, we’re only half as bad as the #1 country, Japan. (Over 100% vs. well over 200%.) And Japan is doing okay, meaning presumably we have a long way to go before we have to worry.
  4. Borrowing money is currently a very good deal. Ever since the financial crash the interest rate the government has to pay to borrow has been extremely low. To once again use the analogy of a typical consumer, sure it’s stupid to borrow money on a credit card that charges 18%, but borrowing money at 1.5%, particularly if you could find a way to reinvest it at 5% would be a great deal.
  5. Our debt is in dollars, and we can print dollars. One person compared defaulting on our debt to the difficulty of starving to death in a warehouse full of food. It’d be possible, but not very likely.
  6. Our assets greatly exceed our liabilities. The US government owns buildings, land, infrastructure, and some exceptionally valuable nuclear missiles. Our debt may be a huge negative value, but our net worth is an even huger positive value.

Those are a selection of the most common reasons the experts give for not worrying about the national debt or the current deficit. I may have missed one or two, but I think I got all the big ones. And now, if you’re anything like most people you may be torn between the gigantic size of the debt, and your long standing belief that debt is bad, on the one hand and the “experts” telling you, on the other hand, not to worry about it.

Unless this is the very first post of mine that you’re reading, you can probably guess that I think the debt, and the ongoing deficit, are problems. Problems we should be worried about. That being the case, what would I say in response to the six reasons listed above urging me and everyone else not to worry?

  1. Krugman says that we just have to ensure that the debt grows more slowly than the tax base. I agree, but I don’t see any evidence that this is happening. The government consistently spends about 18% more than it takes in, and most future projections show that this will only get worse. I’ll have a lot more to say about this point.
  2. I also understand that this is money we owe to ourselves, but that doesn’t make it frictionless. It’s not like when my wife owes me $20, but really she doesn’t, because we have a joint checking account. This joint ownership has significantly more players involved, with significantly less affection. As a thought experiment, imagine the US reneging on the domestic portion of the debt with a cheery, “Well it was all money we owed ourselves!” And see if, afterwards, anyone is still making that argument from the smoking ruins of Washington DC.
  3. I agree that other countries have it worse. And perhaps as long as Japan is fine we can confidently continue on our course, but just because Japan is fine now (though there’s argument even with that) doesn’t mean they’ll be fine forever, nor does it even mean that we’ll be fine until we hit the same level as Japan. Japan is one data point, and not even a very good comparison to the US, given the vast differences.
  4. Yes, interest rates are currently low, but it’s not as if there’s some method whereby the minute they go up we pay off the $20 trillion dollars and go back to being financially prudent. Rather we still have that debt (and probably a lot more) and we start to have to pay the higher rate of interest, which takes up an increasing percentage of the total budget. Federal debt isn’t a 30 year fixed rate mortgage it’s an adjustable rate mortgage that lasts forever.
  5. It is true that our debt is denominated in money we can print, but that doesn’t mean that printing money is free of consequences. You may have heard of a little thing called inflation? I suppose this technically does mean we can’t default on our debt, but that doesn’t mean bad things can’t happen and that we shouldn’t be worried.
  6. Finally, getting back to friction, we do have vast assets, but how liquid are those assets? If it comes to it, who’s got the money to really buy an aircraft carrier? I’m sure China would, but that’s a situation where the cure is worse than the disease. People like Krugman make a lot of noise about how you can’t compare household debt to government debt, and in this case, you can’t compare household assets to government assets. There is no ebay for the Pentagon.

At this point we have a bunch of clever reasons not to worry about the deficit and a bunch of clever responses for why we still should. And if asked to choose between the cleverness of a Nobel Prize winner like Krugman and my cleverness, or what I’m attempting to pass off as cleverness, it’s perfectly reasonable to want to choose the Nobel Prize winner over me. But before you do that, there are some additional things for you to consider. First there is no true cleverness here or on the other side. No one really knows anything. Having a debt of $20 trillion dollars is so far outside of the range of normal human and historical experience that neither the expert’s reasons for calm, nor my responses are based on anything actually resembling data.

This is not to say people haven’t tried. As I mentioned above, when you compare the US to Japan our debt as a percentage of GDP looks pretty good. But how strong is this comparison? Well, by the normal standards of scientific rigor it’s really, really weak. On the other side of things Reinhart and Rogoff released a study which showed once your debt to GDP ratio got over 90% that economic growth slowed. This at least was more than a one to one comparison between the US and Japan, but it also had some problems, not the least of which was the lack of real data. In other words, it doesn’t matter what side you’re on, we’re definitely in uncharted territory. Which is fine, if the consequences for being wrong are small, but the consequences for being wrong are not small, the chances of being wrong may be small, but the consequences of being wrong definitely aren’t. (And I don’t think the chances of being wrong are especially small either.) The US Government Bond market represents a single point of failure, and if it fails, it would be catastrophic in ways you could hardly imagine.

All of which takes us to a point I make again and again, certain risks are so great that even if the probability is low, making sacrifices to prevent that catastrophe are not only warranted but wise. And while I agree that in the short term the danger is pretty low, no one is sure what the endgame is going to be, and that’s where I’d like to turn now.

To begin with, let’s return to Krugman’s assertion. That debt just needs to grow more slowly than the tax base. Once again, I agree, but this last happened around the year 2000, and it was a tiny blip even then. I don’t see any reason to suspect it’s going to happen again, certainly not in the foreseeable future, particularly when you consider the enormous, and increasing cost of the entitlement programs. Thus even if we grant that a certain amount of debt is okay and maybe even beneficial, I don’t think anyone believes that we can take on infinite debt. But if debt continues to grow faster than taxes, something is going to have to give. That might not even happen until debt is 1000% of GDP, but regardless, as long as debt grows faster than taxes something will have to change. So what are the options?

Given that it’s worked so far, let’s turn to another list of six items. This time a list of options.

  1. Grow our way out of debt:  As I have already mentioned this is the ideal way to deal with debt. But as I have also pointed out it doesn’t seem very likely to happen. Since 1967 the debt has grown at an average rate of 8.65%, while GDP has grown at an average rate of 2.85% during that same period. Increasing the tax rate can overcome some of this gap, but that will only take you so far. (See Option 3) Also if anything growth appears to be slowing while the budget (particularly mandatory spending) just keeps getting bigger. Again I agree with Krugman that as long as our growth keeps up with our debt, we probably have bigger things to worry about, but I don’t see the slightest evidence that this is happening.
  2. Cut Spending: Obviously this is where all the arguments are taking place. Though despite all the Sturm und Drang over entitlement cuts and the revocation of Obamacare, I haven’t seen much evidence that anything like this is going to happen.  And if you look at the amount that would have to be cut, it’s frankly ridiculous. Imagine that you wanted to get the debt down to 50% of GDP within the next 20 years. Assume that the economy grows at 3% per year without a recession. (Which is extremely optimistic.) Our current GDP is around $18.5 trillion, so in 20 years it would be $33.5 trillion, meaning 50% is $16.75 trillion. That’s $3.25 trillion dollars less than our current deficit, meaning we’d have to not only balance the budget, we’d have to be 162 billion dollars under budget on average, every year for 20 years. In the recent history that did happen from 1999-2001. But 3 years in a row is a lot different than 20 years in a row, particularly given that in less than 20 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office projections, entitlements and interest are expected to consume 100% of revenues. Finally, even if we assume that the right mix of politicians could do this, how would they ever get elected?
  3. Raise Taxes: Obviously these first three options are all closely related, and, to me, they all appear extremely unlikely, though I know that some people feel that raising taxes would be the easiest of the three. That said it’s not as straightforward as people think. There’s a functional limit to how much you can extract both practically and politically in taxes, and the tax rate has less to do with it than you think. Look at this graph and observe how despite the top marginal rate being all over the place (at one point as high as 90%) the actual revenue collected since World War II, as a percentage, has barely budged. And as I mentioned, there’s very good reason to believe that growth is slowing, and when that’s combined with increased spending, which is already locked in by law, the tax increases would be pretty staggering. In the near term 50% is not out of the question, and in the long term, if trends continue as they have, you could be looking at having to double tax revenue. If you thought it was hard to get elected by promising to cut the deficit, imagine how hard it would be if you promised to double taxes.
  4. Inflate the debt away: From 2008 to 2009 Zimbabwe entered a period of hyperinflation. The numbers are astonishing, and almost hard to grasp (how often do you hear someone use the term  “sextillion percent”?) But one illustrative example is that at the beginning of things they were printing 10 dollar Zimbabwean Bills, and by the end they were printing 100 billion dollar Zimbabwean Bills. Meaning, if the same thing happened to the US, you might be able to pay the entire debt off with the equivalent of 2,000 pre-hyperinflation dollars (presumably in gold or something like that). This is a particularly extreme example, and I’m not suggesting that’s what will happen in the US, if it did the cure would be much worse than the disease. The question is, is there some less extreme version of this? There might be, but I’ve never seen a good explanation of how it might work. But at a minimum if the gap between debt growth and GDP growth continues at 5.8% (see figures in option 1) then inflation would have to be at least that much, and that assumes that the debt doesn’t start growing faster, but it almost certainly would since much of spending is indexed to inflation, and even the stuff that isn’t indexed to inflation would still be influenced by it.
  5. Default on the debt: Given that this is precisely the cataclysm we want to avoid, I don’t think it’s an option anyone would choose voluntarily. But it is an option, and definitely the option that is mostly likely to happen without warning and without any planning, and perhaps without even much advance warning. Needless to say while most people acknowledge this it’s a possibility, no one wants to discuss it. And to use a quote from Douglas Adams: “The major difference between a thing that might go wrong and a thing that cannot possibly go wrong is that when a thing that cannot possibly go wrong goes wrong it usually turns out to be impossible to get at or repair.” I’ve already linked to people who say we can’t possible default on our debt. I hope they’re right, but consider that there have been all manner of things which cannot possibly go wrong, but have gone wrong despite this.
  6. A singularity: Long time readers of this blog were probably wondering when this was coming. And for those that are just joining us. Here I refer to something that changes the rules in such a way that none of the previous assumptions are valid. In this case it would probably have to be something big enough that it eliminated the need for money all together. A nanotechnology manufacturing revolution which creates a post-scarcity society. Brain digitization into a virtual world where nothing costs anything because it’s digital. Something of that nature. Of course, what this amounts to in essence, is hoping for a miracle. Or at the very least they’re hoping that something will come along in the future and fix it. A more accurate name for this is kicking the can down the road.

I don’t think most of the people telling us not to worry about the debt will actually come out and say they’re advocating kicking the can down the road, but if they’re not, which of the other solutions I listed above are they proposing?

I honestly don’t know. There are people who argue that we don’t need to worry about the debt, but they mostly seem to be arguing that we don’t need to worry about it right now. Primarily because the US can still borrow very cheaply and there’s no sign of that anyone is losing trust in our ability to repay the debt. That does appear to be true, for now. The question no one knows the answer to, regardless of what they claim, is how long that will last.

The national debt is a giant source of fragility. And the best plan for dealing with it seems to be “ignore it and hope something comes along later to solve it.” Which takes us back to a theme I’ve been emphasizing since the beginning, we’re in a race between singularity and catastrophe. And as far as the national debt goes, I think catastrophe has a sizable lead.

The Federal Government needs an enormous amount of money to run, you know who doesn’t need an enormous amount of money? Me. In fact I’d be happy with a buck a month. If you enjoy this blog and can spare it, consider donating.