They are incredible manifestations of God

Thursday, May 31st, 2018

Haaretz tells the rather sensationalistic story of Adnan Oktar, “a combination of the type of evangelical preachers one sees on American television and the head of a sex cult that objects in principle to bringing children into the world”:

The cover for all this is a singular interpretation of Islam.

Oktar, 62, who started to preach his version of the Muslim faith in Istanbul in the 1980s, has since then collected 300 “good friends,” as he terms them, who follow his path, despite accusations that they are being brainwashed and also exploited sexually and economically.

Since 2011, when his television station, A9, started broadcasting globally (with English subtitles), his religious tenets have been getting more attention in Turkey and also worldwide. Oktar focuses on activity geared to interfaith dialogue, which has put him in contact with politicians and rabbis in Israel, but in recent years he’s been talked about mostly because of his interpretation of the “covering” women should wear according to Islam – namely, anything, including the most revealing bikini. The only requirement is that it cover the nipples and the groin area.

“Women are amazing manifestations of God,” Oktar explained to me, when I met him in Istanbul in early February. “They are the most beautiful beings in the world. They are incredible works of art, created by God. They are glorious beings that should be respected, admired, loved, cherished and protected all their lives as blessings.”

Adnan Oktar with his Kittens

The best-known part of his cult are his “kittens,” as he calls them – a group of young women, heavily made up and attired in body-hugging, revealing designer outfits, who appear on his television programs listening with a somewhat glazed expression to his religious exhortations on current issues. In the breaks between his remarks, they will dance robot-like in front of the cameras. Oktar: “Cats are very cute animals, and kittens are even cuter. They are incredible manifestations of God.”

This attitude toward women has generated profiles of Oktar in the international media, with references to the “feminist” cult or the “Muslim sex cult.” Other investigative reports focused on what they described as his modus operandi. These were based on lawsuits filed against him, and included testimonies to the effect that cult members lured young women into taking part in filmed orgies, and then used the recordings to blackmail the participants into obeying Oktar’s demands.

The “Esteban Colberto” look goes well beyond Colberto Reporto Gigante.

Human action is not the only relevant parameter in human history

Wednesday, May 30th, 2018

Human action is not the only relevant parameter in human history, Razib Khan reminds us, as he reviews Kyle Harper’s The Fate of Rome:

The Fate of Rome is fundamentally a work of history, but it also takes ecology and evolution seriously. In fact, it foregrounds them. Kyle Harper makes the argument that the expansionary phase of the Roman Empire was not necessarily coincidental, or at least it was lucky indeed because there was a climatic optimum, similar to the one which preceded the demographic expansion of medieval Europe. In contrast, in the 6th century, the world went through some of the coldest years in the Holocene because of a combination of fluctuations in solar radiation and volcanic explosions. I assume that the likelihood of the latter is Poisson distributed, so the combination of decreased radiation and several successive volcanic events can be chalked up to randomness. But its consequences were not random at all.

The climatic changes can have demographic and social consequences obviously. Desperate armed pastoralists can overwhelm states, and change the course of history, just as peasants can rebel from taxes and subordination. And, pastoralists can also bring Yerisina pestis, the plague. Climate is an abiotic pressure which is to some extent an exogeneous shock which occurs randomly, and does not react to human feedback. [This is not totally true, but over the time-scales we’re talking about probably mostly true.] Disease though is a biotic pressure, and though it may relate to abiotic forces, human interaction and agency matter quite a bit.

The Fate of Rome clearly hinges on abiotic factors as initial drivers: a good harvest is good for the state. But the biotic factors, disease, are partly under the control of the state. The Romans did not have germ theory, and were under constant stress due to the high pathogen load, especially of the cities. Harper presents the evidence of high mortality within Roman society well. Because of the endemic ubiquity of disease even elites were impacted by it. But Rome was not just affected by endemic ailments, it was subject to pandemics and plagues.


One of the major insights that Kyle Harper reiterates is that these plagues, these pandemics, are a feature/bug of the Roman imperial system. They are not just the consequence of simply settled agricultural society. As described in books such as Pandora’s Seed, agriculture and settled society transformed the lifestyles of human groups, and many diseases which were rare in hunter-gatherer populations probably became common among farmers. But The Fate of Rome the author argues that pandemics were a novel outcome of complex imperial state-systems with long-distance trade-networks. Small-scale pre-state Neolithic chiefdoms did not have the scale and interconnections to foster plague.

Mass pandemics of smallpox, plague, and influenza are then aspects of civilized life, not, settled agricultural life. This puts the argument of Charles C. Mann in 1493 into greater focus. It wasn’t just more extensive and intensive agriculture in the Old World which left Amerindians vulnerable, it was also that the Old World had thrown up several massive imperial systems which had incubated pandemic producing pathogens (smallpox and influenza epidemics were a major issue in New World societies). These were unleashed at once upon New World societies.

It also suggests to us why adaptation seems to be occurring in the last few thousand years. Bouts of plague which persisted for generations may have driven immunological responses.

Kyle Harper also seems to agree with the general thesis in The Fall of Rome that this period in European civilization was in some ways proto-modern, with economic specialization resulting in a modicum of affluence in ways unimaginable in times before, or after. Trade and some level of mass production allowed British peasants to eat off tableware that was standardized, and not homemade. In contrast after Britain’s post-Roman regression a more local economy had to step in. The most curious fact from The Fall of Rome is that pollution in British ponds did not attain Roman levels until the early modern period, with the rise of industrialization. Again and again The Fate of Rome emphasizes that social and economic complexity achieved in the Roman Empire was not attained in Europe again to the same scale as the early modern period.

Roman wealth was fundamentally due to the returns on scale and specialization that are the hallmark of Smithian growth. Though the Romans did invent a few things, Roman prosperity was not fundamentally driven by innovation. Rather, the Roman peace was a framework for trade and exchange that took advantage of abiotic clement conditions (the Roman climatic optimum highlighted in The Fate of Rome).

But this political system had biotic costs, as well as being subject to biotic shocks. Though Romans may have been wealthier than their Iron Age predecessors in things, and also wealthier than their early medieval successors, they were also a smaller people. Using isotope data Harper suggests that this is not due to Malthusian immiseration as the imperial population pushed up against food supply. Apparently Romans did not subsist on gruel alone, but ate a fair amount of meat, especially pork. Rather it was the high pathogen load enabled by the advancement of Roman urban life and its scale. Rome was a world of intense morbidity.

The most common findings are thought to require special explanation

Tuesday, May 29th, 2018

An undergraduate philosophy major at Columbia has written a piece about the racism treadmill. How many minds will it change?

But the premise built into the thinking of Coates and Kendi is false. I call it the disparity fallacy. The disparity fallacy holds that unequal outcomes between two groups must be caused primarily by discrimination, whether overt or systemic. What’s puzzling about believers in the disparity fallacy is not that they apply the belief too broadly, but that they apply it too narrowly. Any instance of whites outperforming blacks is adduced as evidence of discrimination. But when a disparity runs the other way — that is, blacks outperforming whites — discrimination is never invoked as a causal factor.

Here’s a clear example of the disparity fallacy: a recent study by researchers at Stanford, Harvard, and the Census Bureau found that, “[a]mong those who grow up in families with comparable incomes, black men grow up to earn substantially less than the white men.” A New York Times article attributed this disparity to “the punishing reach of racism for black boys.” But the study also found that black women have higher college attendance rates than white men, and higher incomes than white women, conditional on parental income. The fact that black women outperformed their white counterparts on these measures, however, was not attributed to the punishing reach of racism against whites.

Economic disparities that favor blacks have been reported for decades, yet they have rarely if ever been attributed to anti-white systemic bias. A 1994 New York Times article reported that, among college graduates, black women earned slightly more money than white women did. In addition, the economist Thomas Sowell has pointed out that, as early as 1980, U.S. census data show black college-educated couples out-earning their white counterparts.3

The black/white unemployment gap provides an even older illustration of the disparity fallacy. Many commentators have reflexively attributed the modern unemployment gap to systemic racism. But in historical eras with far more racism, the gap was reversed. According to Sowell, “[b]lack unemployment rates were lower than that of whites in 1890 and, for the last time, in 1930.”4 Facts like these, however, are never explained in terms of discrimination in favor of blacks. Indeed, why progressives only commit the disparity fallacy in one direction is never explained. What the writer Shelby Steele has said about progressives and racist events is equally true of statistical disparities that disadvantage blacks: When they learn of one, “they rent a jet plane and fly to it!”

It’s a sign of the poverty of our discourse on racial progress and inequality that the rarest findings are thought to be normal, and the most common findings are thought to require special explanation.

Indeed, it is rare to find any two ethnic groups achieving identical outcomes, even when they belong to the same race. A cursory glance at the mean incomes of census-tracked ethnic groups shows Americans of Russian descent out-earning those of Swiss descent, who out-earn those of British descent, who out-earn those of Polish descent, who out-earn those of French descent in turn. If the disparity fallacy were true, then we ought to posit an elaborate system that is biased towards ethnic Russians, then the Swiss, followed by the Brits, the Poles and the French. Yet one never hears progressives make such claims. Moreover, one never hears progressives say, “French-Americans make 79 cents for every Russian-American dollar,” although the facts could easily be framed that way. Similar disparities between blacks and whites are regularly presented in such invidious terms. Rather than defaulting to systemic bias to explain disparities, we should understand that, even in the absence of discrimination, groups still differ in innumerable ways that affect their respective outcomes.

You’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with

Monday, May 28th, 2018

Arnold Kling shares his thoughts on the saying that you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with:

Right now, I don’t have five close friends.


My social friends and my intellectual friends would not get along with one another.


Typically, someone matters to me very intensely for a few years, but hardly at all apart from that. In the late 1990s, I talked with my main business partner several times a day. Now we communicate about once a year.


If I were to say that my intellectual life is an average of other people, I would list my father (a political science professor), Bernie Saffran (who was an economics professor at Swarthmore), and Russ Roberts. All three rank much higher in wisdom than their place in the academic hierarchy would indicate. All I would describe as much more open-minded, capable of lifelong learning, and able to change their mind more than typical academics. In general, I have found that people in business (such as Collison) are much more oriented toward learning than are academics. Many professors by age 30 have narrowed their intellectual world to a few peers that operate within their narrow sub-field. In business, you fail if you do that.


At all points in my life, the key people in my life have been very high in conscientiousness. Compared with others around them, they have been far more averse to recreational drugs or sexual adventures. You might accuse them of being inhibited. They are very conservative with personal finances and could live on much less than what they have. They would never allow career ambition to jeopardize family cohesion. They have a strong sense of agency – they would never celebrate victimhood. (In new-age jargon, they are “at cause” as opposed to “at effect.”)

No one else was familiar with both fields at the same time

Sunday, May 27th, 2018

The history of computers is best understood as a history of ideas:

The history of computers is often told as a history of objects, from the abacus to the Babbage engine up through the code-breaking machines of World War II. In fact, it is better understood as a history of ideas, mainly ideas that emerged from mathematical logic, an obscure and cult-like discipline that first developed in the 19th century. Mathematical logic was pioneered by philosopher-mathematicians, most notably George Boole and Gottlob Frege, who were themselves inspired by Leibniz’s dream of a universal “concept language,” and the ancient logical system of Aristotle.

Mathematical logic was initially considered a hopelessly abstract subject with no conceivable applications. As one computer scientist commented: “If, in 1901, a talented and sympathetic outsider had been called upon to survey the sciences and name the branch which would be least fruitful in [the] century ahead, his choice might well have settled upon mathematical logic.” And yet, it would provide the foundation for a field that would have more impact on the modern world than any other.

The evolution of computer science from mathematical logic culminated in the 1930s, with two landmark papers: Claude Shannon’s “A Symbolic Analysis of Switching and Relay Circuits,” and Alan Turing’s “On Computable Numbers, With an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem.” In the history of computer science, Shannon and Turing are towering figures, but the importance of the philosophers and logicians who preceded them is frequently overlooked.

A well-known history of computer science describes Shannon’s paper as “possibly the most important, and also the most noted, master’s thesis of the century.” Shannon wrote it as an electrical engineering student at MIT. His adviser, Vannevar Bush, built a prototype computer known as the Differential Analyzer that could rapidly calculate differential equations. The device was mostly mechanical, with subsystems controlled by electrical relays, which were organized in an ad hoc manner as there was not yet a systematic theory underlying circuit design. Shannon’s thesis topic came about when Bush recommended he try to discover such a theory.

Shannon’s paper is in many ways a typical electrical-engineering paper, filled with equations and diagrams of electrical circuits. What is unusual is that the primary reference was a 90-year-old work of mathematical philosophy, George Boole’s The Laws of Thought.

Today, Boole’s name is well known to computer scientists (many programming languages have a basic data type called a Boolean), but in 1938 he was rarely read outside of philosophy departments. Shannon himself encountered Boole’s work in an undergraduate philosophy class. “It just happened that no one else was familiar with both fields at the same time,” he commented later.

I don’t think most computer science students learn even a fraction of this intellectual history.

Man’s age-old belief in serial immortality

Saturday, May 26th, 2018

The Third Great Awakening dispensed with man’s age-old belief in serial immortality:

Whatever the Third Great Awakening amounts to, for better or for worse, will have to do with this unprecedented post-World War II American development: the luxury, enjoyed by so many millions of middling folk, of dwelling upon the self. At first glance, Shirley Polykoff’s slogan — “If I’ve only one life, let me live it as a blonde!” — seems like merely another example of a superficial and irritating rhetorical trope (antanaclasis) that now happens to be fashionable among advertising copywriters. But in fact the notion of “If I’ve only one life” challenges one of those assumptions of society that are so deep-rooted and ancient, they have no name — they are simply lived by. In this case: man’s age-old belief in serial immortality.

The husband and wife who sacrifice their own ambitions and their material assets in order to provide “a better future” for their children… the soldier who risks his life, or perhaps consciously sacrifices it, in battle… the man who devotes his life to some struggle for “his people” that cannot possibly be won in his lifetime… people (or most of them) who buy life insurance or leave wills… and, for that matter, most women upon becoming pregnant for the first time… are people who conceive of themselves, however unconsciously, as part of a great biological stream. Just as something of their ancestors lives on in them, so will something of them live on in their children… or in their people, their race, their community — for childless people, too, conduct their lives and try to arrange their postmortem affairs with concern for how the great stream is going to flow on. Most people, historically, have not lived their lives as if thinking, “I have only one life to live.” Instead they have lived as if they are living their ancestors’ lives and their offspring’s lives and perhaps their neighbors’ lives as well. They have seen themselves as inseparable from the great tide of chromosomes of which they are created and which they pass on. The mere fact that you were only going to be here a short time and would be dead soon enough did not give you the license to try to climb out of the stream and change the natural order of things. The Chinese, in ancestor worship, have literally worshiped the great tide itself, and not any god or gods. For anyone to renounce the notion of serial immortality, in the West or the East, has been to defy what seems like a law of Nature. Hence the wicked feeling — the excitement! — of “If I’ve only one life, let me live it as a ———!” Fill in the blank, if you dare.

And now many dare it! In Democracy in America, Tocqueville (the inevitable and ubiquitous Tocqueville) saw the American sense of equality itself as disrupting the stream, which he called “time’s pattern”: “Not only does democracy make each man forget his ancestors, it hides his descendants from him, and divides him from his contemporaries; it continually turns him back into himself, and threatens, at last, to enclose him entirely in the solitude of his own heart.” A grim prospect to the good Alexis de T. — but what did he know about… Let’s talk about Me!

Tocqueville’s idea of modern man lost “in the solitude of his own heart” has been brought forward into our time in such terminology as alienation (Marx), anomie (Durkheim), the mass man (Ortega y Gasset), and the lonely crowd (Riesman). The picture is always of a creature uprooted by industrialism, packed together in cities with people he doesn’t know, helpless against massive economic and political shifts — in short, a creature like Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times, a helpless, bewildered, and dispirited slave to the machinery. This victim of modern times has always been a most appealing figure to intellectuals, artists, and architects. The poor devil so obviously needs us to be his Engineers of the Soul, to use a term popular in the Soviet Union in the 1920s. We will pygmalionize this sad lump of clay into a homo novus, a New Man, with a new philosophy, a new aesthetics, not to mention new Bauhaus housing and furniture.

But once the dreary little bastards started getting money in the 1940s, they did an astonishing thing — they took their money and ran. They did something only aristocrats (and intellectuals and artists) were supposed to do — they discovered and started doting on Me! They’ve created the greatest age of individualism in American history! All rules are broken! The prophets are out of business! Where the Third Great Awakening will lead — who can presume to say? One only knows that the great religious waves have a momentum all their own. Neither arguments nor policies nor acts of the legislature have been any match for them in the past. And this one has the mightiest, holiest roll of all, the beat that goes… Me… Me… . Me… Me

Making movies for the audience Hollywood has ignored

Saturday, May 26th, 2018

Someone is finally pursuing the obvious strategy of making movies for the audience Hollywood has ignored:

Since fleeing Los Angeles in 2015 for Texas, where he grew up, Mr. Sonnier has cast himself as the producer willing to do features that others in Hollywood consider politically radioactive. In the past year, he has wrapped production on “Dragged Across Concrete,” starring Mel Gibson as a cop accused of beating a suspect, filmed a drama about militia members, and bought a script about a school shooting in which a female student wrests control of a gun and fights back.

Mr. Sonnier’s revenues from a film are a tiny fraction of those from a major studio release, but he is making money off his strategy by keeping production costs low and relying on word-of-mouth to turn his movies into sleeper hits. With a budget of $3.8 million, “Brawl” has turned a profit, says Mr. Sonnier. He says Cinestate did it by selling distribution rights to overseas markets on the strength of Mr. Vaughn’s “Wedding Crashers” fame, pocketing nearly $2 million for streaming rights from one online service and selling more than 40,000 DVDs in the first two weeks of release at big-box stores — a healthy performance in an age when few buy DVDs anymore.

Hollywood has occasionally targeted conservative moviegoers, releasing faith-based movies in specific neighborhoods or producing patriotic blockbusters such as “American Sniper.” The difference is that Mr. Sonnier is betting a whole company on a strategy of finding consumers he says are “outside the coasts,” marrying ideology with opportunism.

“The political climate brings a spotlight to these kinds of movies. We’re not shying away from that,” Mr. Sonnier says. “It’s funny that, in this moment in time, the movies we’re making are almost counterculture.”

Other studios don’t appear to be mimicking his approach, but some recent Hollywood moves seem to affirm Mr. Sonnier’s conviction that he’s tapping an underserved audience. The revival of the “Roseanne” TV series, starring the comedian Roseanne Barr as a Trump voter navigating various social issues, was part of a strategy at ABC discussed by executives at a meeting held the day after the election about how to entertain a broader swath of the nation.

The premiere episode’s top market was Tulsa, Okla., according to ABC, where it outperformed the national average by 60%.


“Sparrow Creek,” filmed in under three weeks for less than $1 million, Mr. Sonnier says, is part of a microbudget strategy he has used to profitable effect on previous movies “Brawl” and his 2015 Western, “Bone Tomahawk.”

When “Brawl” appeared on iTunes, the prison revenge movie shot to the top 10. The other titles in the iTunes top 10 at the time, “Spider Man: Homecoming” and “Wonder Woman” among them, had wide theatrical releases.


To pay the bills, he made direct-to-video shoot-’em-up films with Steve Austin, the wrestling champion.

One day, he dropped off Ms. Gerwig at an audition for Noah Baumbach’s art-house film “Greenberg,” he says, and met Mr. Austin for lunch on Sunset Boulevard. A fan approached the wrestler, had him autograph her arm and returned to show she’d had it tattooed. “Talk about walking in two universes,” he says.

The Austin features, with titles such as “Hunt to Kill,” taught Mr. Sonnier a simple formula: budgets under $1 million and foreign-rights deals that put the project in the black before cameras roll. He deployed what he calls a “Mad Libs” plot:

“A guy named Jim/John/Jack gets out of prison/wakes up from the dead/survives and comes back to his hometown/scene of the crime/where the bad guys are and kills everyone to save his family/save himself/save someone who can’t save themselves.”

He says: “As long as we stuck to the Mad Lib, the movie sold 300,000 to 500,000 units.”

There is no ecumenical spirit within this Third Great Awakening

Friday, May 25th, 2018

There is no ecumenical spirit within the Third Great Awakening:

We are now — in the Me Decade — seeing the upward roll (and not yet the crest, by any means) of the third great religious wave in American history, one that historians will very likely term the Third Great Awakening. Like the others it has begun in a flood of ecstasy, achieved through LSD and other psychedelics, orgy, dancing (the New Sufi and the Hare Krishna), meditation, and psychic frenzy (the marathon encounter). This third wave has built up from more diverse and exotic sources than the first two, from therapeutic movements as well as overtly religious movements, from hippies and students of “psi phenomena” and Flying Saucerites as well as charismatic Christians. But other than that, what will historians say about it?

The historian Perry Miller credited the First Great Awakening with helping to pave the way for the American Revolution through its assault on the colonies’ religious establishment and, thereby, on British colonial authority generally. The sociologist Thomas O’Dea credited the Second Great Awakening with creating the atmosphere of Christian asceticism (known as “bleak” on the East Coast) that swept through the Midwest and the West during the nineteenth century and helped make it possible to build communities in the face of great hardship. And the Third Great Awakening? Journalists (historians have not yet tackled the subject) have shown a morbid tendency to regard the various movements in this wave as “fascist.” The hippie movement was often attacked as “fascist” in the late 1960s. Over the past several years a barrage of articles has attacked Scientology, the est movement, and “the Moonies” (followers of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon) along the same lines.

Frankly, this tells us nothing except that journalists bring the same conventional Grim Slide concepts to every subject. The word fascism derives from the old Roman symbol of power and authority, the fasces, a bundle of sticks bound together by thongs (with an ax head protruding from one end). One by one the sticks would be easy to break. Bound together they are invincible Fascist ideology called for binding all classes, all levels, all elements of an entire nation together into a single organization with a single will.

The various movements of the current religious wave attempt very nearly the opposite. They begin with… “Let’s talk about Me.” They begin with the most delicious look inward; with considerable narcissism, in short. When the believers bind together into religions, it is always with a sense of splitting off from the rest of society. We, the enlightened (lit by the sparks at the apexes of our souls), hereby separate ourselves from the lost souls around us. Like all religions before them, they proselytize — but always on promising the opposite of nationalism: a City of Light that is above it all. There is no ecumenical spirit within this Third Great Awakening. If anything, there is a spirit of schism. The contempt the various seers have for one another is breathtaking. One has only to ask, say, Oscar Ichazo of Arica about Carlos Castaneda or Werner Erhard of est to learn that Castaneda is a fake and Erhard is a shallow sloganeer. It’s exhilarating! — to watch the faithful split off from one another to seek ever more perfect and refined crucibles in which to fan the Divine spark… and to talk about Me.

The hippie movement was often attacked as “fascist” in the late 1960s?

It’s boring, and who cares?

Friday, May 25th, 2018

“What are the biggest mistakes other scholars are making,” Robin Hanson asks Bryan Caplan, “from the point of view of making the kind of scholarship you wish they would make?”

Type III error, getting the right answer to the wrong question — that is my main view. Most work that I read that I don’t like, I don’t so much think it’s wrong. It’s that it’s boring, and who cares?

That’s honestly my reaction when I flip through a journal is, suppose you’re completely right. Who cares? Suppose you’re completely right. Who cares? That’s what I say for 80, 90 percent of pieces that I read.

This does not mean that I think that you can’t write a good piece on a narrow topic. But it’s got to be because you convincingly argue that it really reflects something bigger than just the topic itself.

I can really enjoy reading a book about the French Wars of Religion because it’s not just about the French Wars of Religion. It’s about the nature of human religiosity, and about the way that dogmatics try to tear society apart, and about, is religion primarily social, or doctrinal, or what’s the interrelation between them? That kind of thing.

To me, that’s the main thing, is just that it’s boring and who cares?

The second biggest thing is the focus on disciplinary boundaries, where people usually, if they’re going to read, they only read within their field. Economists read economics. Even that is optimistic. You usually read within your subfield of economics or your sub-subfield.

What I always say is, “Look, if you really want to understand something, don’t read what other people in your niche are doing or have read. Read what anyone who has thought about the issue has read, and it’s quite likely you’ll learn something.”

Now, ultimately, I will say this: I think it does come down to academic incentives because those people in the fields that people aren’t reading don’t help you. They don’t do stuff for you. Honestly, I think most scholars are primarily about career advancement. I don’t think there is that much curiosity.

I remember, this is actually one of the things that disturbed me most when I became an assistant professor. When Tyler started telling me all about these backstories about professors. Finally I get to get behind the curtain — not anybody in our department, but other departments, others.

Finding out… the thought of someone who started off really curious and, in the end, they’re just consumed with this pettiness over someone not citing them. Why do they care? Every citation translates into a statistical $100 a year.

This kind of mentality, it did horrify me at the time. I’ve gotten over it, but still this is the kind of thing when I step back… I think you become a scholar to go and advance human knowledge on important questions. I just don’t see many people doing it or even using the methods that you would want to use, which is, step one, go and read what anyone who has really thought hard about the question already knows.

Only afterward did they try to interpret the experience in the form of theologies

Thursday, May 24th, 2018

Divine ecstasy runs throughout the religious history of the past 2,500 years:

As Max Weber and Joachim Wach have illustrated in detail, every major modern religion, as well as countless long-gone minor ones, has originated not with a theology or a set of values or a social goal or even a vague hope of a life hereafter. They have all originated, instead, with a small circle of people who have shared some over-whelming ecstasy or seizure, a “vision,” a “trance,” a hallucination — an actual neurological event, in fact, a dramatic change in metabolism, something that has seemed to light up the entire central nervous system. The Mohammedan movement (Islam) originated in hallucinations, apparently the result of fasting, meditation, and isolation in the darkness of caves, which can induce sensory deprivation. Some of the same practices were common with many types of Buddhists. The early Hindus and Zoroastrians seem to have been animated by a hallucinogenic drug known as soma in India and haoma in Persia. The origins of Christianity are replete with “visions.” The early Christians used wine for ecstatic purposes, to the point where the Apostle Paul (whose conversion on the road to Damascus began with a “vision”) complained that it was degenerating into sheer drunkenness at the services. These great drafts of wine survive in minute quantities in the ritual of Communion. The Bacchic orders, the Sufi, Voodooists, Shakers, and many others used feasts (the bacchanals), ecstatic dancing (“the whirling dervishes”), and other forms of frenzy to achieve the kairos… the moment… here and now!… the feeling!… In every case the believers took the feeling of ecstasy to be the sensation of the light of God flooding into their souls. They felt like vessels of the Divine, of the All-in-One. Only afterward did they try to interpret the experience in the form of theologies, earthly reforms, moral codes, liturgies.

Nor have these been merely the strange practices of the Orient and the Middle East. Every major religious wave that has developed in America has started out the same way: with a flood of ecstatic experiences. The First Great Awakening, as it is known to historians, came in the 1740s and was led by preachers of “the New Light” such as Jonathan Edwards, Gilbert Tennent, and George Whitefield. They and their followers were known as “enthusiasts” and “come-outers,” terms of derision that referred to the frenzied, holy-rolling, pentecostal shout tempo of their services and to their visions, trances, shrieks, and agonies, which are preserved in great Rabelaisian detail in the writings of their detractors.

The Second Great Awakening came in the period from 1825 to 1850 and took the form of a still wilder hoe-down camp-meeting revivalism, of ceremonies in which people barked, bayed, fell down in fits and swoons, rolled on the ground, talked in tongues, and even added a touch of orgy. The Second Awakening originated in western New York State, where so many evangelical movements caught fire it became known as “the Burned-Over District.” Many new seets, such as Oneida and the Shakers, were involved. But so were older ones, such as the evangelical Baptists. The fervor spread throughout the American frontier (and elsewhere) before the Civil War. The most famous sect of the Second Great Awakening was the Mormon movement, founded by a 24-year-old. Joseph Smith, and a small group of youthful comrades. This bunch was regarded as wilder, crazier, more obscene, more of a threat, than the entire lot of hippie communes of the 1960s put together. Smith was shot to death by a lynch mob in Carthage, Illinois, in 1844, which was why the Mormons, now with Brigham Young at the helm, emigrated to Utah. A sect, incidentally, is a religion with no political power. Once the Mormons settled, built, and ruled Utah, Mormonism became a religion sure enough… and eventually wound down to the slow, firm beat of respectability….

It’s almost hard for anybody who isn’t a Marxist-Leninist to really realize it

Thursday, May 24th, 2018

What is it that you understand about Stalin, at least possibly, that maybe most other economists would not?” Tyler Cowen asks Bryan Caplan:

Wow. I think that probably the single best thing is that Stalin was, in his own way, a sincere Marxist-Leninist. The ideology is not just a rationalization for totalitarianism. It’s not just a rationalization for him to loot the country or anything like that.

All the historians who know the details of Stalin’s life will say he lived very modestly. He slept on a cot. He wasn’t like a tin-pot despot, going and building palaces for himself. I think a lot of economists would just assume that the guy is living high.

Instead, it seems very much like it’s the power, and not any kind of conventional luxury, that he cares about, and that not just the general goal but even very small policy details seem to be heavily influenced by Marxist-Leninist ideology.

Caplan did find one counterexample, where Stalin dumped his ideology:

Stalin sent Beria to go and talk to one of the leading Soviet nuclear physicists. I think it was Kurchatov. He said, “So, is it true that relativity theory and quantum mechanics are idealist?” Which is something where you have to know a bunch of Marxist-Leninist philosophy to even understand the question.

The Soviet scientist says, “Well, if they’re idealist, if that’s bourgeois science, then nuclear weapons are bourgeois science, too.” “All right, fine. Then forget philosophical objections to relativity theory and quantum mechanics. If this, the science, lets us build a nuclear bomb, I don’t care what the philosophy says. We’re just going to believe the science.”

Occasions like that are fairly rare, and really, the more you study Stalin’s career, you do see, even bizarre doctrinal things like the farmers are kind of revolutionary. It’s like, “What are you talking about?”

It was like, “We have to go and set up a system based upon this, and that’s very important to Stalin in a way that it’s almost hard for anybody who isn’t a Marxist-Leninist to really realize it.”

Usually Westerners don’t have such a shallow understanding of the philosophy. They don’t realize how much of it is all part of this bizarre package. They think it’s just about high levels of redistribution, and that’s not the story.

The hippies were religious and incontrovertibly hip at the same time

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2018

By the early 1970s a quite surprising movement, tagged as the Jesus People, had spread throughout the country:

By the early 1970s a quite surprising movement, tagged as the Jesus People, had spread throughout the country. At the outset practically all the Jesus People were young acid heads, i.e., LSD users, who had sworn off drugs (except, occasionally, in “organic form,” meaning marijuana and peyote) but still wanted the ecstatic spiritualism of the psychedelic or hippie life. This they found in Fundamentalist evangelical holy-rolling Christianity of a sort that ten years before would have seemed utterly impossible to revive in America. The Jesus People, such as the Children of God, the Fresno God Squad, the Tony and Susan Alamo Christian Foundation, the Sun Myung Moon sect, lived communally and took an ecstatic or “charismatic” (literally: “God-imbued”) approach to Christianity, after the manner of the Oneida, Shaker, and Mormon communes of the nineteenth century… and, for the matter, after the manner of the early Christians themselves, including the Gnostics.

There was considerable irony here. Ever since the late 1950s both the Catholic Church and the leading Protestant denominations had been aware that young people, particularly in the cities, were drifting away from the faith. At every church conference and convocation and finance-committee meeting the cry went up: We must reach the urban young people. It became an obsession, this business of “the urban young people.” The key — one and all decided — was to “modernize” and “update” Christianity. So the Catholics gave the nuns outfits that made them look like World War II Wacs. The Protestants set up “beatnik coffee-houses” in church basements for poetry reading and bongo playing. They had the preacher put on a turtleneck sweater and sing “Joe Hill” and “Frankie and Johnny” during the hootenanny at the Sunday vespers. Both the priests and the preachers carried placards in civil rights marches, gay rights marches, women’s rights marches, prisoners’ rights marches, bondage lovers’ rights marches, or any other marches, so long as they might appear hip to the urban young people.

In fact, all these strenuous gestures merely made the churches look like rather awkward and senile groupies of secular movements. The much-sought-after Urban Young People found the Hip Churchman to be an embarrassment, if they noticed him at all. What finally started attracting young people to Christianity was something the churches had absolutely nothing to do with: namely, the psychedelic or hippie movement. The hippies had suddenly made religion look hip. Very few people went into the hippie life with religious intentions, but many came out of it absolutely righteous. The sheer power of the drug LSD is not to be underestimated. It was quite easy for an LSD experience to take the form of a religious vision, particularly if one were among people already so inclined. You would come across someone you had known for years, a pal, only now he was jacked up on LSD and sitting in the middle of the street saying. “I’m in the Pudding at last! I’ve met the Manager!” Without knowing it, many heads were reliving the religious fervor of their grandparents or great-grandparents… the Bible-Belting lectern-pounding amen ten-finger C-majorchord Sister-Martha-at-the-keyboard tent-meeting loblolly piny-woods share-it-brother believers of the nineteenth century. The hippies were religious and incontrovertibly hip at the same time.

Today it is precisely the most rational, intellectual, secularized, modernized, updated, relevant religions—all the brave, forward-looking Ethical Culture, Unitarian, and Swedenborgian movements of only yesterday—that are finished, gasping, breathing their last. What the Urban Young People want from religion is a little Hallelujah!… and talking in tongues!… Praise God! Precisely that! In the most prestigious divinity schools today, Catholic. Presbyterian, and Episcopal, the avant-garde movement, the leading edge, is “charismatic Christianity”… featuring talking in tongues, ululation, visions, holy rolling, and other nonrational, even antirational, practices. Some of the most respectable old-line Protestant congregations, in the most placid suburban settings, have begun to split into the Charismatics and the Easter Christians (“All they care about is being seen in church on Easter”). The Easter Christians still usually control the main Sunday-morning service—but the Charismatics take over on Sunday evening and do the holy roll.

This curious development has breathed new life into the existing Fundamentalists, theosophists, and older salvation seekers of all sorts. Ten years ago, if anyone of wealth, power, or renown had publicly “announced for Christ,” people would have looked at him as if his nose had been eaten away by weevils. Today it happens regularly… Harold Hughes resigns from the U.S. Senate to become an evangelist… Jim Irwin, the astronaut, teams up with a Baptist evangelist in an organization called High Flight… singers like Pat Boone and Anita Bryant announce for Jesus… Charles Colson, the former hardballer of the Nixon administration, announces for Jesus, and the man who is likely to be the next president of the United States, Jimmy Carter, announces for Jesus. Oh Jesus People.

You have good policy, good ideas, good growth all mutually supporting each other

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2018

Bryan Caplan describes his notion of The Idea Trap:

The motivation of the idea trap is twofold.

First of all, I had these empirical results out of public opinion that said pretty strongly and surprisingly that people who have higher income do not think more like economists, but people who either have experienced or expect higher income growth do think more like economists. So the level doesn’t matter, but the change does.

Essentially, the more optimistic view seems to actually push people in this economist direction. So there is that fact in my mind.

And then there was also this big literature on non-convergence where, at least for a very long time, economists were expecting that poor countries would tend to catch up to rich countries. Then they looked at the data and weren’t seeing it happening. Further, there’s this literature saying at least a lot of the reason why this is happening is that countries that are poor just very persistently have bad policies.

So I took these three facts and said, “Let’s come up with a little model. The model will have three variables, which we’ll call growth, policy, and ideas.”

The model will have the following laws of motion: Good ideas cause good policy, which is almost a tautology. Good policy causes good growth, and that’s almost a tautology. And then the last thing is, how does growth affect ideas?

What I said is, there’s a usual view that if you have bad growth, then people realize they’re making mistakes, and then ideas get better. On the other hand, maybe if you’re having good growth, people said, “We can afford to live a bit. We don’t need to worry about this so much,” so ideas get worse.

In that model, that actually gives you growth convergence, and basically, all countries tend to be mediocre. But I said if we tweak the models in light of that public opinion finding, where supposed good growth actually gives you good ideas, bad growth gives you bad ideas, this actually gives you a model of multiple equilibria, where you can have one equilibrium where everything is good.

You have good policy, good ideas, good growth all mutually supporting each other. Or you could have bad ideas, bad growth, bad policy all mutually supporting each other.

In terms of 2018, at least the story you might tell in a lot of countries is, there are countries that are in the bad equilibrium where, say, they’ve had some bad growth, which then led to bad ideas, which I generally in the paper equate with populism, leading then to populist policies.

2018 is not that great, just because the actual growth for most countries is good right now. It made more sense during the Great Recession when there was bad growth, and then there were a lot of kooky ideas coming around.

In a way, I would think of the last few years as cutting against my model because it seems like people are getting very angry and very populist when it’s hard to even find what the supposed cause of it is.

An other order that ran the universe

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2018

The ESP or “psychic phenomena” movement began to grow very rapidly in the new religious atmosphere of the Me Decade:

ESP devotees had always believed that there was an other order that ran the universe, one that revealed itself occasionally through telepathy, déjà vu experiences, psychokinesis, dematerialization, and the like. It was but a small step from there to the assumption that all men possess a conscious energy paralleling the world of physical energy and that this mysterious energy can unite the universe (after the fashion of the light of God). A former astronaut, Edgar Mitchell, who has a doctor-of-science degree from MIT, founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences in an attempt to channel the work of all the ESP groups. “Noetic” is an adjective derived from the same root as that of “the Noosphere” — the name that Teilhard de Chardin gave his dream of a cosmic union of all souls. Even the Flying Saucer cults began to reveal their essentially religious nature at about this time. The Flying Saucer folk quite literally believed in an other order: It was under the command of superior beings from other planets or solar systems who had spaceships. A physician named Andrija Puharich wrote a book (Uri) in which he published the name of the God of the UFO’s: Hoova. He said Hoova had a herald messenger named Spectra, and Hoova’s and Spectra’s agent on earth, the human connection, as it were, was Uri Geller, the famous Israeli psychic and showman. Geller’s powers were also of great interest to people in the ESP movement, and there were many who wished that Puharich and the UFO people would keep their hands off him.

God hates a politician who takes any action without calmly and studiously studying the facts

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2018

What are the most socially valuable delusions or shared erroneous beliefs?” Bryan Caplan takes at stab at answering:

That is a good one. Hmm. I am tempted to say something along the lines of God will punish you for bad behavior. But the problem is that’s mixed in with — so many things of the bad behavior is actually good behavior and the good behavior is actually bad behavior that I’m not convinced that is all that socially useful.

Probably a better answer is the delusion that money will buy happiness. There is an enormous amount of progress that is caused by people desperately going and trying to get rich. I think the actual psychological evidence is the money won’t actually lead to all that much happiness, but the things they produce are quite a bit more likely.

Probably, in terms of the most happiness-producing stuff, I would think may be actually in the arts, where so much of the stuff was produced by people where, if they just did a reasonable ex ante calculation, would have said, “This isn’t worth it.” But the reason why we have it is because they ignored the odds or overestimated themselves, so maybe that.

“Which mistaken shared beliefs would he like to see adopted?”

Let’s see. Probably the idea that there would be some kind of eternal, horrible punishment for holding power and not having a very high degree of epistemic rationality, especially if there were a view that God hates a politician who takes any action without calmly and studiously studying the facts, and that God will punish you in a way that voters never could.

God would punish you in a way that’s far worse than the simple loss of power. If that were widely believed by people of power, I think there would be a lot more effort to actually double-check that what they’re doing really makes sense. The Spiderman Principle — with great power comes great responsibility.