Heuristics that have worked in the past

Sunday, June 24th, 2018

Gore Burnelli explains how Nassim Taleb changed his mind about religion;

I used to unquestioningly accept the atheistic framing of the theism vs atheism debate, which presents religion as a collection of factual statements aimed at “explaining” what the world is and how it got that way, providing made up answers before we had science to find out the truth.

[...]

What Taleb brought to the table were the following ideas:

  • The quality of your decisions isn’t a function of the amount of articulated knowledge you posses. Having more factual information doesn’t automatically make you a better decision maker.
  • The utility of religion doesn’t come from believing the stories literally, so whatever it does, it doesn’t make sense to judge it on the basis of treating it as if it were trying to be an explanatory science.

I find Taleb’s framing much more convincing, because it provides actual reasons as to why you can’t simply say “religion is obsolete, we will use science to guide our decision making from now on”.

Life constantly makes us take decisions under conditions of uncertainty. We can’t simply compute every possible outcome, and decide with perfect accuracy what the path forward is. We have to use heuristics. Religion is seen as a record of heuristics that have worked in the past.

[...]

It’s telling that while Christianity has been around for 2000 years, every modern revolutionary ideology (from international communism to national socialism) has failed to produce a self-sustaining community.

These smug pilots have lost touch with regular passengers like us

Wednesday, June 20th, 2018

What’s the best thing to do on an airplane? Twitter fight, Nassim Nicholas Taleb says:

I tried to get in a fight with an Indian fellow who’s repeating that story that we’re refusing expertise at all. Remember that cartoon? They’re imitating that cartoon in The New Yorker that shows people with the sign that they don’t need the expertise of the pilot.

“These smug pilots have lost touch with regular passengers like us. Who thinks I should fly the plane?”

“These smug pilots have lost touch with regular passengers like us. Who thinks I should fly the plane?”

You cannot compare a macroeconomist to a pilot. There are two classes of experts. Belly dancers are experts at belly dancing. The people who steal radios from cars are experts at stealing radios from cars. Dentists are experts at dentistry. I’m not sure macroeconomists know anything about anything.

Because there’s no feedback, so we don’t know. Maybe they know. Policymakers or people in the State Department, I’m not sure they know anything because there’s no feedback. We definitely know that a carpenter is an expert at carpentry, you see?

Look at both sides of the scissors

Tuesday, June 19th, 2018

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is housing six Syrian refugees:

Let me tell you, the Ba’aths have indoctrinated people to the point of maybe no return. People understand that Assad is not a god, but I bet you a lot of Iraqis would like Saddam to come back after what they saw.

The idea that they all have regarded as saying — if you were on the ground, you don’t have this theoretical thing. “This guy is an asshole.” OK, fine. You’ve got to realize what scissors. You got to look at both sides of the scissors.

That when you have civil war you have two groups fighting, so you take the least asshole becomes someone good in your eyes, but you’re only analyzing one portion.

Assad, his father blew up my house. My grandfather was a member of parliament, and voted for pro-Israeli candidate Gemayel, and he came in and blew up our house. So I have a hatred for Assad’s family, but at the same time I just realize I have a bigger hatred for the jihadis and for the clients of Obama.

This is how we can analyze it, comparatively, not naively like one-sided.

You get all the things that you want done for 2 percent

Monday, June 18th, 2018

Is Singapore antifragile?

Singapore has size going for it. You see that we’re talking about a city-state.

Who’s gonna invade it? One thing I’ve learned from history, particularly the Phoenicians. The Phoenicians don’t really have an army or an empire. At some point they had some army, but you might say it’s not economically viable. Why? When you come to invade them, unless you’re Nebuchadnezzar, and supposedly the history books say that he was very nasty, but then fact-checking take place. The genetics don’t actually show what really may have happened.

A guy comes in, very bloodthirsty, comes to you, and you tell him, “Listen, what do you want? You kill us all, you get nothing. Land is not interesting. What are you going to get? We’ll give you 5 percent. What do you want, 5 percent of something or 100 percent of nothing?”

That’s how the Phoenicians operated. Someone would come in. They had a hiccup with Alexander, one pound higher than a hiccup with Alexander.

They had an ego problem on both sides, but other than that, it worked very well as a system.

[The Seleucids did conquer the Phoenicians, right?]

The Phoenicians? No, the Seleucids came in, they said, “OK.” The system, at the time, was patronage. You come in, you’re a vassal state.

You guys here, you don’t understand. I live in New York City, so I have two options. One, pay the state — with all of this now, it’s going to go 50-some percent taxes — and you almost get nothing. Or, you can go to mafia now and give them 2 percent, and you get protection.

You get all the things that you want done for 2 percent. That’s exactly what happened. Think about the defense budget if it were run by the mafia.

The guy would come in, and the system at the time was the system of — when you say “conquer,” the imperial methods everywhere, including the Ottomans, before them the Romans, before them the Seleucids and the Ptolemies. The Ptolemies had more integration.

The whole technique was, you come in… And remember that government role, the GDP was, at the turn of the century in France, 5 percent, OK, last century. So having been, you’re not part of anything, you’re just paying taxes to someone you’ll never see — that was the thing. The integration usually was through commerce, not through military conquest.

The idea of Singapore, someone invaded — let’s say Malaysia decides to take over Singapore. What are they going to do with that? They’ve got nothing. It’s much better for you to go to Singapore, tell them, “We want 2 percent.” Or “We want 10 percent.” And then they will break it down to 3 percent.

Some religions are religions

Sunday, June 17th, 2018

Some religions are religions, Nassim Nicholas Taleb explains, while some religions are just bodies of laws:

Judaism and Islam are not religions like Christianity is a religion, the exact opposite. Let me explain.

The foundation of Judaism was law, but it was minuscule, it was for a tribe. It was law: “you should not go and do this or that.” Then in Islam, the same word, din, in Arabic means law in Hebrew, but not in Syriac, which is a Semitic language used by Christians, where they use two different words, one nomos, law, and one, din, for religion. Why is it so?

Islam and Judaism are laws. It’s law — there’s no distinction between holy and profane — whereas Christianity is not law. Why isn’t it law? A simple reason — you remember the Christ said what is for Caesar and is not for Caesar? It’s because the Romans had the laws. You’re not going to bring the law because they already have the law, and very sophisticated law at that, the Romans.

With Christianity was born the separation of church and state. It’s secular, so it’s effectively a secular religion that says that when you go home, you do whatever you want. Of course, Christianity, they got to have theocracies, a few, but it was all cosmetic.

For example, when you have the codes, whether Theodosius or Justinian Code — you take Justinian’s code, you look at it. You see, just cosmetically, he said you were blessed by the grace of God , et cetera — two pages.

The rest is intact, the Roman law. When you talk about religion, when people are talking about Salafi Islam — it’s not a religion in the sense that Mormon Christianity is a religion. It is a body of laws. It’s a legal system. It’s a political system. It’s a legal system.

So people are very confused when they talk about religion. They’re comparing things that are not the same. Effectively, when I say that I’m Christian, it’s very different from saying I am something else.

The same weakness that I see sometimes describe ethnicity. Being Greek Orthodox is more ethnicity than something else, or being Serbian versus Croatian. Sometimes religion becomes an identity, sometimes law, sometimes very universal.

And sometimes you have pagan tendencies hidden under some kind of Taqiya that you see in the north, you have the monastic religions. Comparing religions naively is silly, it’s heuristic and leads to things like saying, “Well, he has a right to exercise his faith.”

Some faiths should not have the right to be exercised, like Salafis or extreme jihadism because they’re not religions. They’re a legal system. They’re like a political party that wants to ban all other political parties. If you go with that, you’re repeating certain mistakes.

You should try practice, then theory

Thursday, June 14th, 2018

Nassim Nicholas Taleb had plenty to say to Bryan Caplan about what’s missing in education:

You know the Romans despised theory, and the Greeks despised practice, which is why The Black Swan is dedicated to Mandelbrot, a Greek among Romans, and the next one is dedicated to Ron Paul, a Roman among Greeks.

[...]

The route I was suggesting, education, is you send people, you make people work as nurses and then they go to medical school. Effectively, I spoke to a lot of doctors, and they think it’s a good idea because they’re afraid of medicine being now too theorized, becoming too theorized.

You make people run a local racketeering shop or a casino or something like that, for seven-eight years and then you go study economics.

We’re living longer, so this idea of front-loading education makes no sense.

[...]

I started trading and then discovered math. I said, “Oh, this is interesting.” I started discovering math, so I got immersed into math, and 15 years later, I went back to school. I went back to try to do math and effectively doing those classes. I did my thesis and that was it. But the idea — I started writing papers — the idea of having to start by theory and ending up with practice doesn’t work.

You should try practice, then theory.

[...]

Then, the root of that, my feeling, in the Anglo-Saxon world is the desire — this is why they call it liberal arts education — to aristocratic ties to themselves.

Again, let’s talk about the Greco-Roman world. You had the trivium or quadrivium, absolutely nothing practical about them, the rhetoric, the grammar, some things. The liberal education was what people learned in order to become aristocrat and idle upper class.

Then you had the real professions of becoming a baker, how to do something with wood. And the English, the upper class — of course they didn’t want to be working class, so they sent their kids to learn that stuff. And this is what came to America.

Education is split in two. You have technical education like law — not technical, but professional education — law, medicine, what else? Engineering and all these things, and then you have mathematics. If you look at it historically, the engineers didn’t really connect to the other ones because the Roman engineers did not use Greek geometry.

We only started using Greek geometry late in life after the educational system started including mathematics for these people. Engineers built cathedrals without clear geometry. It was actually more robust.

Geometry will give you these ugly corners. Before, we didn’t even know what the right angle is. Before, it was more involved, it was rule of thumb, and it was different. They had the separation, segregation.

So what you want to do? Is this liberal education that’s contaminating the rest? Or is it the technical that’s contaminating the expectation of what education should be like?

You say, “OK, this is the kind of thing you do like piano lessons on the weekends.” You read Homer and stuff like that. It’s important, and you become civilized. Stuff you do to be civilized and be able to have dinner with the vice president of the World Bank, these are the things you do. And these are the things you do to get you ahead in life.

[...]

You end up with a lot of people, in fact, today, this generation — because of the competitive environment and the closed circuit in the humanities — that basically don’t know anything about humanities. All they know is the theories du jour about this and this, and the postcolonial approach to this or that.

For example, when you start arguing with people who studied about something called Middle Eastern studies — which shouldn’t exist as a discipline — they start talking about colonialism of the French.

The French spent 21-and-a-half years in the Levant as a United Nation mandate. Explain to me the colonialism.

They say, “Well…” They don’t even know the basic facts because the more you have a ratio of theories and way more -isms, and stuff like that and the Marxism, so someone that’s good at Marxist interpretation of this and this in the postgender world. And they don’t know the facts.

This is why we can’t rely on these instructors to teach you the humanities — because you don’t get tenure from knowing the facts. You get tenure from inventing some full structural theory of baking beans and mint in Sassanid Persia. That’s how you get your tenure. These guys are ignorant.

[...]

The problem is, as society got rich, everybody wanted to reach education by imitating the aristocrats, with the illusion that it’s going to help them get rich.

When in fact, it’s the kind of thing you do when you’re already rich. This is where Alison Wolf and Pritchett come in to discover that these educational things are effectively the product of societies that are rich and definitely not causative to wealth.

It is a one-way conduit to bring another society into their living rooms

Wednesday, June 13th, 2018

The Amish have negotiated a pact with modernity:

It’s interesting that the Amish have different districts, and each district has different rules about what’s allowed and what’s not allowed. Yet it’s very clear there are two technologies that, as soon as the community accepts them, they are no longer Amish. Those technologies are the television and the automobile.

They particularly see those two as having a fundamental impact on their society and daily lives.

I think a huge part is that they shape our relationships with other people. The reason the Amish rejected television is because it is a one-way conduit to bring another society into their living rooms. And they want to maintain the society as they have created it. And the automobile as well. As soon as you have a car, your ability to leave your local community becomes significantly easier.

You no longer have to rely on your neighbor for eggs when you run out. You can literally take half an hour and run to the store. In a horse and buggy, when you don’t have your own chickens, that’s a half-day process.

[...]

The Amish use us as an experiment. They watch what happens when we adopt new technology, and then decide whether that’s something they want to adopt themselves. I asked one Amish person why they didn’t use automobiles. He simply smiled and turned to me and said, “Look what they did to your society.” And I asked what do you mean? “Well, do you know your neighbor? Do you know the names of your neighbors?” And, at the time, I had to admit to the fact that I didn’t.

And he pointed out that my ability to simply bypass them with the windows closed meant I didn’t have to talk to them. And as a result, I didn’t.

His argument was that they were looking at us to decide whether or not this was something they wanted to do or not. I think that happens in our society as well. We certainly have this idea of alpha and beta testing. There are people very, very excited to play that role. I don’t know if they always frame themselves as guinea pigs, but that’s what they are.

Strategists had planned for one set of crises, but got another

Tuesday, June 12th, 2018

In 1914 few people expected great power conflict:

If there were to be a crisis, most Europeans expected it to come either on the Rhine River between Germany and France, or in the North Sea between the British and German fleets. But the French and Germans had resumed normal, even productive, relations after the 1911 Morocco crisis, and the Germans had largely ended their attempt to challenge the Royal Navy. In late June 1914, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife arrived in Sarajevo, sailors from the two fleets were getting drunk together at Fleet Week in Kiel. Winston Churchill, who was there, later observed that no one in Kiel could have imagined that they would be at war within a few short weeks.

The shooting of an obscure archduke ought not to have changed this placid picture; indeed, for most Europeans, it did not. Within a few days, the story of a supposedly deranged teenager’s act in a faraway city had largely disappeared from the front pages of newspapers in London, Paris, Berlin, and even Vienna. When European newspapers did discuss their fears of an impending war, they most commonly referred to the possibility of civil war in Ireland after the passage of a controversial Home Rule act in Parliament. If anything were to come out of the latest crisis in the Balkans, it would involve Austria-Hungary and Serbia only, and even then only if the Austrians could prove their allegations that Serbian officials had been behind the plot.

But the Austrian higher leadership read something different into the assassination. They believed that Franz Ferdinand’s assassination amounted to what we would today call state-sponsored terrorism. In their eyes, this meant that Austria found itself in a strangely advantageous strategic situation. All European governments and most European peoples sympathized with the murdered archduke and his wife. If Europeans knew anything about the couple, they knew that Franz Ferdinand had married the woman he loved, despite the fact that she was not a Habsburg. As a result, they had made a modern marriage for love instead of power, even though the emperor’s disapproval led them to be snubbed at court and their children excluded from the line of succession.

To the senior leaders of the empire, the sympathy pouring into Vienna meant that, for the first time in decades, Austria-Hungary appeared as an aggrieved party in a Balkan crisis. They therefore believed that European public opinion would permit them to push matters with Serbia a bit further than they had been able to do during past crises. Moreover, the absolutist regime in Russia might hesitate to support a state that backed regicide, even if the Russians publicly posed as Serbia’s nominal protector. Britain, meanwhile, was distracted by events in Ireland, and the French were enraptured by the final days of the trial of Henriette Caillaux, the wife of a prominent politician who had shot a newspaper editor. (Her lawyer claimed, for the first time in French legal history, that she was not guilty by reason of mental defect because, her husband having refused to challenge the editor to a duel, her female brain could not adjust to playing the male role of having to defend the family’s honor.) In any case, both Britain and France had shown themselves reluctant to get directly involved in past Balkan crises. Austria-Hungary’s leaders had every reason to believe that officials in London and Paris would move slowly during this one.

For senior Austro-Hungarian officials, the military situation created by the assassination was almost ideal. They guessed that no regime in Europe would jump to Serbia’s defense, not even Russia. The British, French, and Italians would likely stay neutral or, in any event, not intervene while Austro-Hungarian forces moved south. If those forces moved quickly and crushed the Serbians, they might present Europe with a fait accompli before the great powers could stop them.

Their German allies read the situation in much the same way. Senior military leaders in Berlin worried about Russian military and industrial growth. Within a few years that growth would render most German military planning obsolete, confronting the Germans with a two-front war that most assumed they could not win. Although only a few people knew it, the German war plan tried to get out of that dilemma by sending seven of its eight field armies against France no matter what diplomatic crisis triggered war. In this particular one, therefore, France might be caught sleeping, Britain might declare neutrality, and, for once, the Austrian ally in whom they had so little faith might have a motivation to fight well. The stars would likely never line up so favorably again.

Thus did Germany issue a “blank check” of support to Austria. If, as expected, Russia remained neutral, then Austria could inflict a devastating blow onto Serbia and Germany would gain by association without having to do anything. If Russia mobilized, then Germany could enact its war plan under extremely favorable circumstances, most notably by quickly attacking a distracted France, most of whose people saw no link whatsoever between themselves and an assassination in Sarajevo. Perhaps most crucially, the German regime could defend its efforts to the German people as a purely defensive response to Russian provocation.

Having drawn these conclusions, the Austro-Hungarians delivered their now infamous ultimatum to Serbia on July 23. It gave Serbia just 48 hours to reply, meaning that the long, slow diplomacy that had taken months to resolve and defuse recent crises in Morocco and Sudan had no time to work. Serbia tried to be conciliatory, but the Austrians, with German backing, wanted war on terms that they assumed were as favorable to them as they could ever hope to get.

Europe was stunned by the ultimatum, not the assassination; for this reason we call the crisis leading to war the July Crisis, not the June Crisis. Soldiers, including many senior leaders on leave in countries soon to be their enemies, hurried home to their units. Statesmen canceled vacations, and many foresaw that Europe was about to go to war over an issue that did not actually affect the vital interests of any of them except Austria-Hungary. They did not so much sleepwalk as awaken from a deep and pleasant slumber by a terrible fire that they could neither extinguish nor escape.

This is why the war that began in 1914 became the First World War instead of the Third Balkan War. The crisis hit too quickly and did not conform to the intellectual idea Europeans had of future war. It had not begun over a German-French confrontation as expected, yet the Germans were sending hundreds of thousands of soldiers to invade France and neutral Belgium. Perhaps more importantly, because Russia had mobilized first, every nation in Europe could defend its actions as essentially defensive in nature, and therefore just.

Europe, and by extension much of the world, was now at war for reasons no one could quite explain, except to say that they were fighting to protect themselves from an enemy immoral and inhuman enough to break the peace. Thus even socialists and most pacifists initially supported what they saw as a just war. Within a few dizzingly short weeks, the initial premise of Austria-Hungary’s demands on Serbia had fallen aside and the war had become a total war, fought for national survival and the complete destruction of the enemy. Unlike many past wars, there were no limited war aims to compromise over or to stop the fighting once attained. Thus were future mediation efforts by the Vatican, the Socialist International, and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson doomed to fail.

The causes of the First World War do not belong to a dead past of ancient ethnic grievances or governments ruled by incompetent aristocrats. Instead, the war began because of fatal miscalculations and unexpected contingencies. Put bluntly, strategists had planned for one set of crises, but got another. Their world, much like our own, had changed far too quickly for their plans or their intellectual preconceptions to adjust. In effect, they fought the wrong war, but all of the great powers could plausibly claim (at least in August 1914) that they had fought for the right reason, self-defense.

(Hat tip to Jonathan Jeckell.)

If you want to profit from expertise, you must first tame it

Monday, June 11th, 2018

If you want to profit from expertise, you must first tame it:

To draw a line between when high expertise helps and when it potentially hinders, we first need to acknowledge that this anti-elitist trend did not emerge from nothing. ‘Experts’ as a group (if such a thing can be held to exist) have not exactly covered themselves in glory in the last few years, so the cynicism they now face is to some degree justifiable.

We need not get into the weeds here about the specific issues. But, suffice it to say, the complex manoeuvring of some extremely bright and learned people unwittingly triggered the financial crisis. Apocalyptic deadlines for climate change devastation came and went without fireworks. Election predictions on both sides of the Atlantic have been appalling, as have the predictions on the immediate consequences of those elections. Silicon Valley ‘geniuses’ plunge from one self- inflicted crisis to another. And, meanwhile, we have watched as what many people consider lunacy leaks out of the credentialed halls of academia and into the world at large.

In other words, smart people keep getting it wrong and scepticism about their competence has grown as a result. This seems to be a fairly straightforward story at first glance, and yet the public will only take their antipathy so far. Nobody says, “I want someone unqualified to be my president, therefore I also want someone unqualified to be my surgeon.” Nobody doubts the value of the expertise of an engineer or a pilot. This apparent inconsistency is what frustrates the anti-anti-elitists so much, not least because it seems to be unjustifiable.

However, it is worth drawing a distinction between these two types of expertise — the kind people question, and the kind people don’t. In short, people value expertise in closed systems, but are distrustful of expertise in open systems. A typical example of a closed system would be a car engine or a knee joint. These are semi-complex systems with ‘walls’ — that is to say, they are self-contained and are relatively incubated from the chaos of the outside world. As such, human beings are generally capable of wrapping their heads around the possible variables within them, and can therefore control them to a largely predictable degree. Engineers, surgeons, pilots, all these kinds of ‘trusted’ experts operate in closed systems.

Open systems, on the other hand, are those that are ‘exposed to the elements,’ so to speak. They have no walls and are therefore essentially chaotic, with far more variables than any person could ever hope to grasp. The economy is an open system. So is climate. So are politics. No matter how much you know about these things, there is not only always more to know, but there is also an utterly unpredictable slide towards chaos as these things interact.

The erosion of trust in expertise has arisen exclusively from experts in open systems mistakenly believing that they know enough to either predict those systems or — worse — control them. This is an almost perfect definition of hubris, an idea as old as consciousness itself. Man cannot control nature, and open systems are by definition natural systems. No master of open systems has ever succeeded — they have only failed less catastrophically than their counterparts.

Every king, queen, pharaoh, emperor, president, prime minister, and dictator-for-life in history has tried to master statecraft, and every one of them has failed. If they had not, their formula would have calcified into knowledge and rumbled on successfully indefinitely. And wasn’t such a legacy the goal of every single one of them? The better ones only failed more gradually, less bloodily, than the rest. But slowly their ideas, too, unravelled in the face of chaos. Ultimately, history has shown this to be axiomatic: the more you seek to control nature, to control an open system, the more disastrous the results.

Knowing this, it’s a wonder that humility in the face of open systems is still such a rare commodity amongst those who know them. Perhaps it’s because the Enlightenment granted us so much mastery over closed systems that we forgot the distinction existed. One could argue that we have earned our arrogance when it comes to technological progress, for instance. But just because we invented smartphones, it does not follow that we can predict the future.

This is what charisma is like in action

Saturday, June 9th, 2018

Randall Collins explains the micro-sociology of charisma:

A charismatic leader pumps up followers with emotional energy; they admire their leader and follow willingly in his or her trajectory. Emotional dominance is a different mechanism because it operates by hogging the emotional energy. Charisma includes people rather than excludes them. Durkheim would say that the charismatic leader becomes the sacred object for the group; I would say he or she is the focus of attention that sets the trajectory of the group, filling them with enthusiasm that they will accomplish something great together.

A few brief examples. Joan of Arc led French troops to assault English fortresses, not because she was a great fighter but because she carried the banner at the front, and her followers would swarm up after her because they believed she could not fail. In quieter moments, she would display her humility as an agent of God and her personal saints, by weeping in church, so expressively that everyone else would be weeping along with her. It is no exaggeration to say that she led a procession across France of crowds weeping, and rushing behind her into battle. The shared emotion of weeping — a bodily process that sweeps one out of control — was the emotional mechanism that generated the sense of religious-plus-political trajectory.

Jesus, like most charismatic leaders, was a good observer of persons; he knew who could be moved to join him, and who had something else on their mind. Jesus always seized control of the interaction by the second conversational turn: instead of replying to what someone else said, he intuited what they meant and challenged them on it. He could turn the tables even on hostile enemies by controlling the rhythm and letting embarrassing silences work against them, then seizing the moment to make his point.

Jumping to a recent example of a dominant business entrepreneur, Steve Jobs: Jobs was not an engineer or a designer, but he had excellent judgment as to who were the most creative people to hire. He recruited them, in part, by touting the revolutionary things they would invent, and offering generous shares of the profits. Above all, he challenged them to do things that they thought were impossible; his emotional domination in arguing with his technical staff was so strong that they jokingly said Steve had a reality-distortion field.

The way it worked was by an extremely intense interaction ritual in the workplace. Steve would visit the most advanced work group, look at what they had done, and start criticizing it. His comments were crude, obscene and insulting. We might think his high-tech experts wouldn’t stand for this, that they would quit or rebel. But Jobs was not the kind of boss who walks in, shouts at his workers, threatens them if they don’t do better, then slams the door and leaves. Steve would insult them until they were really angry; then he would stay and argue with them. His persistence was incredible — he would argue with them for hours. He was famous for dropping in on people and staying up all night arguing and expounding his vision. Obviously Steve has a lot of emotional energy to be able to do this: he shows the familiar pattern of the charismatic leader who doesn’t need sleep, a single-minded workaholic who never takes a break. This high level of emotional energy is the result of constantly being in the center of successful interaction rituals. But the most energizing interaction rituals are not mere emotional dominance, where everyone else’s emotional energy is crushed. Jobs wants energized workers who share his vision, technical experts who push beyond the limits of what they had thought possible.

The crucial pattern is in the time-sequence. Steve enters, and forcefully seizes the emotional center of attention. He uses negative emotions to begin with; he gets everyone seething with the same emotion, even if it is anger at himself. He gets them into an intense argument about how the thing they are inventing can or cannot be changed in ways no one has thought of before. Let us say, roughly, twenty minutes of insulting, then hours of heated argument. Over those hours, the emotions settle down; they are no longer focused on Steve and his insults, but about a vision of the piece of computer equipment in front of them, and where they can go with it. Steve did not always win these arguments; if something turned out to be genuinely impossible, he would tacitly accept that, provided they had figured out a work-around that would get them into the territory they were aiming for.

One could say that Steve Jobs was extremely egotistical, but his ego was in his products; and these were very much the products of a team, as cutting-edge as he could assemble. His core team became so convinced that Steve could do anything that they stuck with him, even in the dark days when he was forced out of Apple by the marketing and financial managers he had brought in to handle the non-technical side. It would be superficial to say that Steve Jobs achieved success by abusing his employees. He used very confrontational tactics to stir up emotions, but his secret was that he never walked away from them: but always saw the argument through to a shared resolution.  He was an expert at provoking intense interaction rituals.

This is what charisma is like in action: it energizes a group, along a trajectory that they believe will be a glorious success.

Voter issue preferences have almost nothing to do with who gets elected or what gets passed as law

Monday, June 4th, 2018

Xiaoyu Lu explores the cognitive dissonance of overseas Chinese students.

The rebellion against liberal democracy of these four individuals does not fit into prevalent narratives that portray Chinese overseas students as isolated, materialistic and politically insensitive. Their critical reflections came from genuine transnational exposure. However, does it mean that they became more nationalistic and supportive of China’s system? There is a further layer of complexity: most of the returnees I talked to insisted on their liberal values, agreeing on fundamental ideas of an open and inclusive society. In other words, they believed there was still a political gap for China to fill, but not one that followed a Western standard. This picture is perhaps troubling for both home countries and host countries, as they aligned with no particular model.

What they rebelled against was not the existence of a common value. Rather, it was the sense of superiority, the idea that there was no alternative, and the belief in liberal democracy as an orthodoxy,which they found frustrating. They became disillusioned with Western liberal democracy, because it did not live up to the promise of being a liberating force. Instead, they felt it limited democracy to a particular geography, history and set of institutions, which denied the participation of others. Their views underlined the tension between contemporary democratic values that reflect human universals, and the parochial politics that excludes so many people from claiming citizenship of a global community.

Their dilemma was how to express alternative views against liberal democracy while not being the proponents of political repression. Like me, they questioned a singular understanding of democracy, yet wanted to avoid relativism. They were hesitant to criticise the Chinese government, but also didn’t want to unquestioningly accept it. Their transnational encounters made them open to pluralism, and tolerant of multiple views and values, yet their pluralism was not always compatible with contemporary liberal democracy. Above all, they rejected that a single model or idea from another country could be the saviour for China. Rather, they are much more nuanced: double dissidents in an age of globalisation.

Hat tip to T. Greer, who has much more to say:

A few thoughts:

1) Interesting how almost every single one of these people conflates liberalism with democracy. It is quite possible to have deeply illiberal democracy. That might even be the global norm — especially for places with newly minted middle classes.

2) Democracy as practiced in the West is, in my humble opinion, better than other systems for mostly one reason: it provides a system of conflict resolution that does not require coups, civil wars, or violent suppression of the other side to manage disputes or power transitions.

3) Compare the track record of the United States (especially the northern half) and the British dominions with almost any other political regime on these grounds that has ever existed over a three-century period, and you will see the value of this quite quickly.

4) Democracy promises 3 political ideals that hold great power over the imagination. Some of these ideals are more strongly realized than the others in 21st-Century government. None, however, are guaranteed results of representative democracy.

They are: liberty, equality, and self government.

I suspect that disillusionment with democracy and liberalism writ large comes with the feeling that the gap between one of these ideals and the reality yawns to wide — or a disenchantment with the ideal itself.

Of the three, Western democracies have probably done the best at preserving liberty. This is the one I miss most while in China. My life is deeply affected by my inability to worship as I would like, to speak as I would like, and to associate with whom I will.

Libertarians will criticize Western governments for being too hostile freedom writ large, but for most people these things are protected. By and large, Westerners are also free from arbitrary detentions, torture, and have protections like habeas corpus, etc. These things matter.

You can hypothetically have all of those things in a non-democratic system. On the eve of WWI, most Europeans did have them, or something close to them, even though the amount of democratic influence differed strongly empire to empire (Russians are an exception).

You could feasibly have a non-democratic system in China that protected these things — just as you could feasibly have a democracy that did not.

This brings us to the next one. Equality.

Trouble with equality is everyone has a different definition of it. You can do complete economic equality on the one hand down to a much more restricted version of pure legal equality on the other. The definition I think is most meaningful is the one Tocqueville keyed in on.

Worth reminding ourselves that what Tocqueville found so extraordinary about America was not its freedoms — in some ways, he would claim, Americans were less free than folks who lived in aristocracies, as aristocrats have a much greater tolerance for heterodoxy than democratic politics ever allows. No, what impressed Tocqueville about America was its equality. He thought Americans were economically about equal — or at least they had equal economic opportunities. Later studies of economic inequality in the antebellum era have proven this notion wrong.

But Tocqueville made that inference from a solid observation: Americans of different classes were regarded as *social* equals. One can exaggerate that claim, of course. Class existed in the 1830s. But the difference between the USA & Europe was vast.

The reasons for this sense of shared social equality (disclaimer about white men, blah blah blah) came mainly from three sources: The first was that most Americans were functionally independent. They owned their own farms or shops. They were their own bosses.

So even if you met a millionaire, you could fool yourself into thinking you were his equal, because he did not control you — you controlled you.

This version of independence mostly disappeared by the 1920s in the USA. Populists tried to stop its leaving, but they failed.

Second reason: Americans were legally equal. One man, one vote. All shared the same liberties. This one has largely stuck around.

Third reason: Americans were possessed with this ideology of social equality. This ideology originally proposed that any white man was the social equal of any white man simply by merit of being a white man. Voting rates were so high in the late 1800s partially because they were strongly associated with manhood.

Well, women got the vote & the ideology changed a bit, but mostly stuck around. In America you could see that by the polls asking folks if they considered themselves middle class — both the poor and rich insisted on it, even when, statistically speaking, it wasn’t true. America wasn’t that much more economically mobile in earlier ages — people just really believed it was, and in many locales, especially rural ones, tried hard to downplay local differences.

But I suppose that’s mostly gone now in America, and I’d suggest, France. Amy Chua’s “market dominant minority” model is helpful here.

So whether you measure it in social terms or economic terms, mod democracy doesn’t really deliver on the equality thing.

Which leaves us with self-government. Back in the 19th c and early 20th c this was the center of the pro-democracy propaganda. Inasmuch as you say things like “we will follow the will of the people” I suppose you are still spreading it yourself.

Poli scientists Christopher Achen & Larry Bartels have a good book that shows how this a complete myth in any large scale polity, Democracy for Realists. Basically, voter issue preferences have almost nothing to do with who gets elected or what gets passed as law.

But that really isn’t what self government should be about. Self government is about communities making decisions for themselves — communities that are small enough for individual voices to be heard, and for a sense of communal identity to be formed.

Which basically means local government and civic societies. These, in my humble opinion, are where the brilliance of democracy is supposed to be — the place where democracy can make good on its 19th-Century claim to make better people out of its citizens than other regimes. But the 21st Century has done poorly here.

Civic society has been in a decline in the USA for a good six decades, and few other countries ever matched the USA at its height. And no one cares about local government anymore. Most are consolidated till they are not local anymore (story of school boards) or are subject to control from above.

Political activism is the opiate of the masses

Monday, June 4th, 2018

Jordan Peterson turns Marx on his head and claims that political activism is the opiate of the masses:

That is, it’s something people use to make themselves feel sort of vaguely good and self-satisfied, but which prevents them from engaging in the actually important work of spiritual struggle.

My interpretation of him (can’t be sure it’s right) says that he is worried that there are problems with society, and all else being equal he would like people to solve them. But he has the psychoanalyst’s usual worry that anything which is not the Work will be a defense mechanism that people use to avoid the Work. Here again I find a comparison with Lewis helpful (this is from his demon character Screwtape’s advice on how to tempt humans):

“I had not forgotten my promise to consider whether we should make the patient an extreme patriot or an extreme pacifist. All extremes, except extreme devotion to the Enemy [God], are to be encouraged. Not always, of course, but at this period. Some ages are lukewarm and complacent, and then it is our business to soothe them yet faster asleep. Other ages, of which the present is one, are unbalanced and prone to faction, and it is our business to inflame them. Any small coterie, bound together by some interest which other men dislike or ignore, tends to develop inside itself a hothouse mutual admiration, and towards the outer world, a great deal of pride and hatred which is entertained without shame because the “Cause” is its sponsor and it is thought to be impersonal.”

I think Peterson assumes that a psychologically undeveloped person starting to dabble in politics will be eaten alive by various virulent memes, chewed up, and spit out as a Hofferian True Believer in about five minutes. At best they will end up as an never-shutting-up slacktivist who calls people out for not changing their profile picture on Facebook quickly enough, and at worst as some kind of totalitarian. I think he would argue there’s a vicious cycle here — the less psychologically developed you are, the more political activism will destroy you, and the more political activism destroys you, the less likely you are to ever psychologically develop further.

One of his twelve rules, “Set Your House In Perfect Order Before Criticizing The World”, is about this, and doesn’t preclude the possibility of getting involved in politics after you’ve sorted out your own life. I don’t know what this is supposed to mean, since presumably this is an eternal project that is never completed. Clearly Peterson himself thinks he’s at the point where he can participate in politics, so I don’t know.

Do I agree with him here? From a consequentialist point of view, what would it mean to get the least psychologically developed 50% of people out of political activism? If you’re a mistake theorist, it might be great — it takes an equal number of people away from both sides, but raises the quality of discourse. If you’re a conflict theorist, it might be awful — it decreases the number of troops available to the People in their struggle to overcome inertia and fight the Elites.

Rather than try to resolve that, I would just note that “Jordan Peterson saying psychologically underdeveloped people shouldn’t get involved in politics” does not remove the least psychologically developed people from politics. It removes from politics some group of people weighted towards reading Jordan Peterson, being psychologically underdeveloped, and having enough humility to realize that they might be psychologically underdeveloped (which is itself possibly a sign of not being underdeveloped). Whether or not you think this is worth it depends on your opinion of the average Peterson reader.

We want to feel and act as if our lives have meaning

Sunday, June 3rd, 2018

When we say we want our lives to be meaningful, are we saying we want our lives to actually have meaning, or that we want to feel and act as if our lives have meaning?

Before virtuous people like ourselves slam our fists on the table and insist on actual meaning, keep in mind — don’t we have actual meaning already? Most of us would endorse something like helping others as being inherently meaningful — we might add things like creating great art, discovering new scientific truths, and the like. If we could reprogram ourselves like robots, a lot of us would just program ourselves to do whatever helps others or achieves some conception of human values most efficiently, then say “problem solved”. If there’s something left after realizing we can do that, it’s not wondering what the meaning of life is, it’s having some kind of vague emotional will to go on.

This is one reason I respect Jordan Peterson’s pragmatism on a pragmatic level, even as I think it’s a crappy theory of truth. I can imagine a version of him saying (I don’t know if the real one does) “Look, I’m giving you all of these inspirational slogans. You can pick my science and philosophy and mythography apart if you really want, but are you sure you want to do that? You’ll just ruin my attempt to inspire you, and go back to lying on the couch all day wishing you had a reason to get up in the morning.”

Maybe aliens would view it as a tragic quirk of the human psyche that we have to conflate inspiration and truth. Maybe to them, inspiration is just another genre, closer to art or poetry than to an attempt to describe the world as it is. Maybe to them, if there’s an intuitively satisfying explanation of the meaning of life, asking “Is that really the meaning?” or “Is that really true?” would be just as stupid and annoying as nitpicking the lyrics of Ode To Joy. “Ode to Joy says ‘all creatures drink of joy’, but some creatures are unhappy, and joy is not a liquid! Politifact rates your symphony FALSE.”

It’s disappointing that nobody frames it this way: “Inspiring things should be taken as a work of art and not judged on their truth value”. Instead, it’s always some formulation like “Inspiring things are true in a way different from the way factual claims are true”, at which point I have to interject that truth is a useful word and insist on defending its “factually correct” meaning.

[...]

If we can waffle between factual truth and inspirational things in a way that lets us blur the distinction, so that we feel suitably inspired without necessarily believing false stuff in a way that could ever be pinned down, is this good or bad? Should we interpret this as an intellectual failure, or a cool skill that lets you do more than rationality alone? What about the claim that “rationalists should win”?

My own position is to question whether anyone is really good enough at this not to let their inspirational beliefs bleed over into the factual world. I discuss this a little bit here.

And my position on the larger problem of meaning is to notice that my life always seems really meaningful and great when I have coffee. If I’m going to try to figure out what the actual meaning of life is, in some sort of deep principled way, I’m going to do it with as much attention to Truth as possible. And if I’m going to give myself some emotional hack that lets myself go on and continue finding life worth living, I think caffeine probably has fewer side effects than falsehood, and is just as effective.

And if you don’t respond to caffeine as well as I do, then I think the overall lesson is that the emotional problem of meaning is a basically biological one, that doesn’t connect with the philosophical problem of meaning nearly as much as you think. Get a good psychiatrist and you’ll solve the emotional problem. The philosophical problem might not be solvable, but “helping others” or “creating a positive singularity” or “[your ingroup’s political goals here]” are, though not Perfectly Objectively Grounded, grounded enough that most people don’t really want to question them once the emotional problem is solved.

I find some of Peterson’s non-truth-value-having writing effective in the same sense as caffeine; it makes me more emotionally willing to follow the truths I know I should be following. Since, jokes aside, I can’t literally be drugged 100% of the time, I appreciate that. And maybe the drug would be stronger if I were to swallow his truth-value-having claims too. But that’s not a risk-benefit profile I’m okay with right now.

We fight for status, and we fight for belonging

Friday, June 1st, 2018

Former British Army officer Mike Martin’s Why We Fight explores the evolutionary psychology of warfare:

When you dig into it and you look at the data, there’s only two things that are worth risking yourself in war for, as an individual. The first thing is an increase in social status. And the reason why that’s worth risking yourself for is as you rise up the status hierarchy, particularly as a man, and men do most of the fighting, you get more mates, more sexual mates. When you have more mates, you have more children. That’s a reason to risk fighting in war.

But there’s another reason why people fight in war. That’s to ensure that they have membership of an in-group. This in-group could be a tribe or a nation-state. It’s the same mechanism, it’s the thing that causes us as humans to feel belonging. It’s the thing that makes you feel homesick. It’s the thing that sends shivers down your spine when you’re at a political rally, or a football match, or you’re singing in a choir in church. These are the mechanisms in your brain causing you to seek to belong.

In evolutionary terms, we need to belong to groups because they’re safe. The main reason that groups exist in evolutionary terms is because they protect us from other humans who are trying to kill us. We fight for status and we fight for belonging. We’ve got these ideas that these two things, status and belonging, and humans seeking those things are what cause individuals to fight in wars.

Actually, this makes sense. Look around the world. We’ve got two global level politicians and the idea of them seeking status and having status disputes with each other is very obvious in their behaviour. Leaders seek to dominate their own groups and that’s what they do. Running for the presidency of the United States is a massive status contest, it’s gruelling.

These people are driven to succeed and they’re driven to achieve high status. The mechanism that guides this seeking status is basically testosterone. The way it works is that the more testosterone you get, the more you seek status, but it’s a feedback loop. It’s a positive feedback loop.

When you get to the top of your group, i.e. you become the leader of your country or perhaps you become the head of your tribe, it depends what scale we’re looking at, you then seek to dominate other leaders who are the leaders of other groups. This is where we see wars at a product of a status disputes between leaders playing out.

Belonging comes into play when those who aren’t leaders seek to take part in wars. We can see this played out and the rise of identity politics at the moment, particularly in the States, but also across Europe. If Why We Fight is correct and war is driven by status and belonging, we’re entering a very dangerous period of history.”

Martin has much more to say on his own site. You may recognize him from his appearance in Adam Curtis’s Bitter Lake:

(Hat tip to Scott Adams.)

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.