They are very, very careerist people

Monday, January 9th, 2023

Stephen Hsu worked for a time as a vice president of a university and notes that administrators are a different group:

The top level administrators at universities are usually drawn from the faculty, or from faculty at other universities. After being a top level administrator at a Big 10 university, and meeting provosts and presidents at the other top universities, I have a pretty good feel for this particular collection of people.

You can imagine what it is that makes someone who’s already a tenured professor in biochemistry decide they want to take on this huge amount of responsibility and maybe even shut down their own research program. They are very, very careerist people. And that is a huge problem, because incentives are heavily misaligned.

The incentive for me as a senior administrator is not to make waves and keep everything kind of calm. Calm down the crazy professor who’s doing stuff, assuage the students that are protesting, make the donors happy, make the board of trustees happy. I found that the people who were in the role so they could advance their career, versus those trying to advance the interests of the institution, were very different. There were times when I felt like I had to do something very dangerous for me career-wise, but it was absolutely essential for the mission of the university. I had to do that repeatedly.

And I told the president who hired me, “I don’t know how long I’m going to last in this job, because I’m going to do the right thing. If I do the right thing and I’m bounced out, that’s fine. I don’t care.” But most people are not like that.

In economics, there’s something called the principal-agent problem. Let’s say you hire a CEO to manage your company. Unless his compensation is completely determined by some long-dated stock options or something, his interests are not aligned with the long-term growth for your company. He can have a great quarter by shipping all your manufacturing off to China, have a great few quarters, and get a huge bonus. Even if, on a long timescale, it’s really bad for your bottom line.

So there’s a principal-agent problem here. Anytime you give centralized power to somebody, you have to be sure that their incentives — or their personal integrity — are aligned with what you want them to promote at the institution. And generally, it’s not well done in the universities right now.

It’s not like it used to be that, “Oh, if Joe or Jane is going to become university president, you can bet that their highest value is higher education and truth, that’s the American way.” It was probably never true. But they don’t claw back your compensation as a president of the university if it later turns out that you really screwed something up. You know, they don’t really even do that with CEOs.

If you sense that NSF or NIH have a view on something, it’s best not to fight city hall

Saturday, January 7th, 2023

Stephen Hsu gives an example of how politics constrains the scientific process:

This individual is one of the most highly decorated, well-known climate simulators in the world. To give you his history, he did a PhD in general relativity in the UK and then decided he wanted to do something else, because he realized that even though general relativity was interesting, he didn’t feel like he was going to have a lot of impact on society. So he got involved in meteorology and climate modeling and became one of the most well known climate modelers in the world in terms of prizes and commendations. He’s been a co-author on all the IPCC reports going back multiple decades. So he’s a very well-known guy. But he was one of the authors of a paper in which he made the point that climate models are still far from perfect.

To do a really good job, you need to have a small basic cell size, which captures the size of the features being modeled inside the simulation. The best size is actually scaled down quite a bit because of all kinds of nonlinear phenomena: turbulence, convection, transport of heat, moisture, and everything that goes into the making of weather and climate.

And so he made this point that we’re nowhere near actually being able to properly simulate the physics of these very important features. It turns out that the transport of water vapor, which is related to the formation of clouds, is important. And it turns out high clouds reflect sunlight, and have the opposite sign effect on climate change compared to low clouds, which trap infrared radiation. So whether moisture in the atmosphere or additional carbon in the atmosphere causes more high cloud formation versus more low cloud formation is incredibly important, and it carries the whole day in these models.

In no way are these microphysics of cloud formation being modeled right now. And anybody who knows anything knows this. And the people who really understand physics and do climate modeling know this.

So he wrote a paper saying that governments are going to spend billions, maybe trillions of dollars on policy changes or geothermal engineering. If you’re trying to fix the climate change problem, can you at least spend a billion dollars on the supercomputers that we would need to really do a more definitive job forecasting climate change?

And so that paper he wrote was controversial because people in the community maybe knew he was right, but they didn’t want him talking about this. But as a scientist, I fully support what he’s trying to do. It’s intellectually honest. He’s asking for resources to be spent where they really will make a difference, not in some completely speculative area where we’re not quite sure what the consequences will be. This is clearly going to improve climate modeling and is clearly necessary to do accurate climate modeling. But the anecdote gives you a sense of how fraught science is when there are large scale social consequences. There are polarized interest groups interacting with science.

[…]

It was controversial because, in a way, he was airing some well known dirty laundry that all the experts knew about. But many of them would say it’s better to hide laundry for the greater good, because a bad guy—somebody who’s very anti-CO2 emissions reduction— could seize on this guy’s article and say “Look, the leading guy in your field says that you can’t actually do the simulations he wants, and yet you’re trying to shove some very precise policy goal down my throat. This guy’s revealing those numbers have literally no basis.” That would be an extreme version of the counter-utilization of my colleague’s work.

[…]

In my lifetime, the way science is conducted has changed radically, because now it’s accepted—particularly by younger scientists—that we are allowed to make ad hominem attacks on people based on what could be their entirely sincere scientific belief. That was not acceptable 20 or 30 years ago. If you walked into a department, even if it had something to do with the environment or human genetics or something like that, people were allowed to have their contrary opinion as long as the arguments they made were rational and supported by data. There was not a sense that you’re allowed to impute bad moral character to somebody based on some analytical argument that they’re making. It was not socially acceptable to do that. Now people are in danger of losing their jobs.

[…]

I could list a bunch of factors that I think contributed, and one of them is that scientists are under a lot of pressure to get money to fund their labs and pay their graduate students. If you sense that NSF or NIH have a view on something, it’s best not to fight city hall. It’s like fighting the Fed—you’re going to lose. So that enforces a certain kind of conformism.

[…]

As far as how science relates to the outside world, here’s the problem: for some people, when science agrees with their cherished political belief, they say “Hey, you know what? This is the Vulcan Science Academy, man. These guys know what they’re doing. They debated it, they looked at all the evidence, that’s a peer-reviewed paper, my friend—it was reviewed by peers. They’re real scientists.” When they like the results, they’re going to say that.

When they don’t like it, they say, “Oh, come on, those guys know they have to come to that conclusion or they’re going to lose their NIH grant. These scientists are paid a lot of money now and they’re just feathering their own nests, man. They don’t care about the truth. And by the way, papers in this field don’t replicate. Apparently, if you do a study where you look back at the most prominent papers over the last 10 years, and you check to see whether subsequent papers which were better powered, had better technology, and more sample size actually replicated, the replication rate was like 50 percent. So, you can throw half the papers that are published in top journals in the trash.”

It is the exodus from the universities that explains what is happening in the larger culture

Monday, January 2nd, 2023

Russell Jacoby argued — in The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe, back in 1987 — that public intellectuals had ensconced themselves in the universities, where the politics of tenure loom larger than the politics of culture:

But my critics and I both missed something that might not have been obvious 30 years ago. By the late 1990s the rapid expansion of the universities came to a halt, especially in the humanities. Faculty openings slowed or stopped in many fields. Graduate enrollment cratered. In my own department in 10 years we went from accepting over a hundred students for graduate study to under 20 for a simple reason. We could not place our students. The hordes who took courses in critical pedagogy, insurgent sociology, gender studies, radical anthropology, Marxist cinema theory, and postmodernism could no longer hope for university careers.

What became of them? No single answer is possible. They joined the work force. Some became baristas, tech supporters, Amazon staffers and real estate agents. Others with intellectual ambitions found positions with the remaining newspapers and online periodicals, but most often they landed jobs as writers or researchers with liberal government agencies, foundations, or NGOs. In all these capacities they brought along the sensibilities and jargon they learned on campus.

It is the exodus from the universities that explains what is happening in the larger culture. The leftists who would have vanished as assistant professors in conferences on narratology and gender fluidity or disappeared as law professors with unreadable essays on misogynist hegemony and intersectionality have been pushed out into the larger culture. They staff the ballooning diversity and inclusion commissariats that assault us with vapid statements and inane programs couched in the language they learned in school. We are witnessing the invasion of the public square by the campus, an intrusion of academic terms and sensibilities that has leaped the ivy-covered walls aided by social media. The buzz words of the campus—diversity, inclusion, microaggression, power differential, white privilege, group safety—have become the buzz words in public life. Already confusing on campus, they become noxious off campus. “The slovenliness of our language,” declared Orwell in his classic 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,” makes it “easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

As Peter Turchin notes, this is textbook elite overproduction.

The Media very rarely lies

Sunday, January 1st, 2023

The Media very rarely lies, Scott Alexander argues:

With a title like that, obviously I will be making a nitpicky technical point. I’ll start by making the point, then explain why I think it matters.

The point is: the media rarely lies explicitly and directly. Reporters rarely say specific things they know to be false. When the media misinforms people, it does so by misinterpreting things, excluding context, or signal-boosting some events while ignoring others, not by participating in some bright-line category called “misinformation”.

[…]

So Infowars often provides accurate data, but interprets it incorrectly, without necessary context. They’re not alone in this; it’s much like how the New York Times reports on real child EEG data but interprets it incorrectly, or how Scientific American reports real data on women in STEM but interprets it incorrectly, etc. This doesn’t mean these establishment papers are exactly as bad as Infowars; just that when they do err, it’s by committing a more venial version of the same sin Infowars commits.

[…]

Okay, that’s my nitpicky point. Who cares? Obviously all of this kind of stuff is more than deceptive enough to in fact leave a bunch of people misinformed. So why do I care if it misinforms them by lying, or by misinterpreting things and taking them out of context?

I care because there’s a lazy argument for censorship which goes: don’t worry, we’re not going to censor honest disagreement. We just want to do you a favor by getting rid of misinformation, liars saying completely false things. Once everybody has been given the true facts — which we can do in a totally objective, unbiased way — then we can freely debate how to interpret those facts.

But people — including the very worst perpetrators of misinformation — very rarely say false facts. Instead, they say true things without enough context. But nobody will ever agree what context is necessary and which context is redundant.

[…]

But lots of people seem to think that Infowars deserves to be censored for asserting lots of things like their context-sparse vaccine data claim, but NYT doesn’t deserve to be censored for asserting lots of things like their context-sparse police shooting claim. I don’t see a huge difference in the level of deceptiveness here. Maybe you disagree and do think that one is worse than the other. But I would argue this is honest disagreement — exactly the sort of disagreement that needs to be resolved by the marketplace of ideas, rather than by there being some easy objective definition of “enough context” which a censor can interpret mechanically in some fair, value-neutral way.

Nobody will ever be able to provide 100% of relevant context for any story. It’s an editorial decision which caveats to include and how many possible objections to address. But that means there isn’t a bright-line distinction between “misinformation” (stories that don’t include enough context) and “good information” (stories that do include enough context). Censorship — even the “safe” kind of censorship that just blocks “fake news” — will always involve a judgment call by a person in power enforcing their values.

After a week of looking over people’s objections, he concluded, sorry, I still think I am right about the Media very rarely lying:

I think all of us — not just censors — want to maintain the comforting illusion that the bad people are doing something fundamentally different than the good people, something that marks them as Obviously Bad in bright neon paint. If conspiracy theories only happen when someone literally makes up a total lie, then we — who avoid doing this, and always double-check our sources — know we are of the Elect, who never have to worry about this. But if wrong people (even the most wrong people) are just trying to reason under uncertainty and evaluate the relative strength of different sources of evidence — well, that’s the same thing we’re doing! Seems bad!

I think a lot of people will interrupt at this point and say “No, those people are biased and using motivated reasoning, not just failing honestly!” But Confirmation Bias Is Just A Misfire Of Normal Bayesian Reasoning, and Motivated Reasoning Is Just Mis-Applied Reinforcement Learning. It’s all just gears turning in the brain, sometimes smoothly, sometimes getting jammed up, but gears nonetheless. People want so much for one of the gears to be clearly labeled BE DUMB AND EVIL, and if they just avoid that gear they’re always fine. They want this so, so hard, and it will never happen.

A young man entering full-time research interested in warfare would find himself stymied at every turn

Friday, December 30th, 2022

Why are archaeologists taking to anonymous online spaces to practice their craft?

In part because we have an inflation of young people, educated to around the postgraduate level, who no longer see a future in the academy, where jobs are almost non-existent, and acutely aware of the damage a single remark or online comment can do to a career. But also because we have a university research system that has drifted towards a political position that defies a common sense understanding of human nature and history. A young man entering full-time research interested in warfare, conflict, the origins of different peoples, how borders and boundaries have changed through time, grand narratives of conquest or expansion, would find himself stymied at every turn and regarded with great suspicion. If he didn’t embrace the critical studies fields of postcolonial thought, feminism, gender and queer politics or antiracism, he might find himself shut out from a career altogether. Much easier instead to go online and find the ten other people on Earth who share his interests, who are concerned with what the results mean, rather than their wider current political and social ramifications.

Black people were mostly an abstraction

Wednesday, December 28th, 2022

Rod Dreher recently found out that his father was in the Ku Klux Klan, back in the 1960s, in Louisiana:

Specifically, as much as I hated to admit it, my dad, who had grown up in rural Louisiana, and who had spent his career as the chief public health officer for our parish, knew more about actual existing black people and their culture than I did — because he had lived among them all his life! For me, black people were mostly an abstraction. I had allowed the living, breathing human beings to be assimilated into an idea of Blackness — specifically, of black people as the eternal victims of white people. When I first discovered Flannery O’Connor’s short story “The Enduring Chill” (PDF version here) (I hear that link doesn’t work; listen to Stephen Colbert read it aloud here), I was poleaxed, because O’Connor had seen right through me. It’s a story about Asbury, an intellectual son of rural Southerners, who goes off to college and comes home full of intellectual pride about how much smarter he is than his mother. Back on the farm, Asbury sought out the company of black farmhands, not because he wanted to know them as people, but because they were totems of his anger at his backwards mother, and of his pride that he was not a sinner like her.

I’ve carried Asbury in my heart all these years, as a rebuke to myself. When I read that short story in college, I knew Asbury was me. In the story, O’Connor doesn’t justify the prejudice of Asbury’s mother, but she does use it to reveal that Asbury, in imagining himself free from sin, was guilty of a different sin. I also knew from reading that story that my dad understood things about black folks — at least in the rural South — that I did not, despite the fact that he was blinded by his own unconscious prejudice. The point is that I too was blind, but my blindness carried with it the taint of moral superiority. O’Connor showed me that both my father and I were guilty of making abstractions of black people to suit our own conflicting senses of moral order. She also showed me that this is the way it is with us human creatures. We are all at risk of assimilating our fellow creatures into ideas.

In the years that followed, I puzzled over how it was that my dad, with all his race prejudice, could more easily talk to black people than I could. He had a small farm before I was born. I puzzled over how he would cry telling the story of the love he and his old farmhand, Calvin McKnight, had for each other. I would hear about how he would go to town to bail black farmhands of his out when they had landed in jail for public drunkenness, and wonder: how does a white racist do that? At his retirement from the public health officer job decades ago, I couldn’t avoid reflecting on the fact that the racist white man who was my father had done more practical good to bring water and sewerage to the homes of poor black people in our parish than nice race liberals like me ever would, despite holding all the correct liberal views of race.
How to explain that? The thing is, if I had brought it up with my dad, he would not have been able to understand my point. He wouldn’t have been able to see a contradiction.

[…]

Plus, black people and white people really were very different in terms of culture. What a shock it was to me to go to a rare evening assembly at school, when I was 13 and was then moved to the same building as high schoolers, and to see girls only a year or two older than me, whom I would see daily in the hallways at school, carrying their babies while their mothers doted on them. This was how local black culture was. It was also very, very strange to me, as a kid, to learn from black classmates in elementary schools that they had no fathers in the home. I eventually began to wonder to what extent the white taboo against “race mixing” was merely out of pure race hatred, and to what extent it was a form of protection against the sexual code that was destroying the black family.

We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise

Tuesday, December 27th, 2022

C.S. Lewis is perhaps best known for The Chronicles of Narnia and then for Mere Christianity, but he’s also known for works like The Inner Ring, Dangers of National Repentance, The Necessity of Chivalry, Equality, On the Reading of Old Books, and The Great Divorce.

I’d been meaning to read his essay on Men without Chests, which opens The Abolition of Man, and, like Brett McKay, I had assumed it meant men without spines, or courage, or manly virtues, which isn’t quite right:

His lament is that modern society makes men without heart.

[…]

While the nature of emotional responses is partly visceral and automatic, a man’s sentiments also have to be intentionally educated in order to be congruent — to be more in harmony with Nature. Such training teaches a man to evaluate things as more or less Just, True, Beautiful, and Good, and to proportion his affections as merited. As Lewis notes, this training was considered central to one’s development throughout antiquity.

[…]
In the 20th century, it began to be posited that there was not a natural order to the world, and that things did not possess an objective value which demanded a certain response; rather, people simply brought their own feelings to objects, and these feelings are what gave the objects their value. Such feelings were culturally conditioned and relative to particular societies and individuals, and were thus completely subjective. Lewis observes that certain corollaries followed from this conclusion, mainly that “judgements of value are unimportant,” “all values are subjective and trivial,” and “emotion is contrary to reason.”

Rather than education seeking to improve young people by both increasing their stock of facts and honing the sensitivity of their sentiments, students began to be tutored in facts alone. This shift was thought to benefit youth, protecting them from the emotional sway of propaganda. But Lewis argues that not only did dropping an education in and emphasis on sentiment fail to provide this protective effect (and in fact made students more susceptible to hype and disinformation), it atrophied their capacity for virtue and human excellence.

The ostensible subject of his essay is “a little book on English intended for ‘boys and girls in the upper forms of schools’” that he dubs The Green Book, by two amateur philosophers posing as professional grammarians whom he refers to as Gaius and Titius. They present an ad for a cruise as an example of bad writing:

From this passage the schoolboy will learn about literature precisely nothing. What he will learn quickly enough, and perhaps indelibly, is the belief that all emotions aroused by local association are in themselves contrary to reason and contemptible. He will have no notion that there are two ways of being immune to such an advertisement — that it falls equally flat on those who are above it and those who are below it, on the man of real sensibility and on the mere trousered ape who has never been able to conceive the Atlantic as anything more than so many million tons of cold salt water. There are two men to whom we offer in vain a false leading article on patriotism and honour: one is the coward, the other is the honourable and patriotic man. None of this is brought before the schoolboy’s mind. On the contrary, he is encouraged to reject the lure of the ‘Western Ocean’ on the very dangerous ground that in so doing he will prove himself a knowing fellow who can’t be bubbled out of his cash. Gaius and Titius, while teaching him nothing about letters, have cut out of his soul, long before he is old enough to choose, the possibility of having certain experiences which thinkers of more authority than they have held to be generous, fruitful, and humane.

[…]

I have hitherto been assuming that such teachers as Gaius and Titius do not fully realize what they are doing and do not intend the far-reaching consequences it will actually have. There is, of course, another possibility. What I have called (presuming on their concurrence in a certain traditional system of values) the ‘trousered ape’ and the ‘urban blockhead’ may be precisely the kind of man they really wish to produce. The differences between us may go all the way down. They may really hold that the ordinary human feelings about the past or animals or large waterfalls are contrary to reason and contemptible and ought to be eradicated. They may be intending to make a clean sweep of traditional values and start with a new set. That position will be discussed later.

[…]

But I doubt whether Gaius and Titius have really planned, under cover of teaching English, to propagate their philosophy. I think they have slipped into it for the following reasons. In the first place, literary criticism is difficult, and what they actually do is very much easier. To explain why a bad treatment of some basic human emotion is bad literature is, if we exclude all question-begging attacks on the emotion itself, a very hard thing to do.

[…]

In the second place, I think Gaius and Titius may have honestly misunderstood the pressing educational need of the moment. They see the world around them swayed by emotional propaganda— they have learned from tradition that youth is sentimental—and they conclude that the best thing they can do is to fortify the minds of young people against emotion. My own experience as a teacher tells an opposite tale. For every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity. The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. The right defence against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments. By starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes. For famished nature will be avenged and a hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head.

[…]

Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it — believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence or our contempt. The reason why Coleridge agreed with the tourist who called the cataract sublime and disagreed with the one who called it pretty was of course that he believed inanimate nature to be such that certain responses could be more ‘just’ or ‘ordinate’ or ‘appropriate’ to it than others.

[…]

This conception in all its forms, Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Christian, and Oriental alike, I shall henceforth refer to for brevity simply as ‘the Tao‘. Some of the accounts of it which I have quoted will seem, perhaps, to many of you merely quaint or even magical. But what is common to them all is something we cannot neglect. It is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are. Those who know the Tao can hold that to call children delightful or old men venerable is not simply to record a psychological fact about our own parental or filial emotions at the moment, but to recognize a quality which demands a certain response from us whether we make it or not. I myself do not enjoy the society of small children: because I speak from within the Tao I recognize this as a defect in myself—just as a man may have to recognize that he is tone deaf or colour blind. And because our approvals and disapprovals are thus recognitions of objective value or responses to an objective order, therefore emotional states can be in harmony with reason (when we feel liking for what ought to be approved) or out of harmony with reason (when we perceive that liking is due but cannot feel it). No emotion is, in itself, a judgement; in that sense all emotions and sentiments are alogical. But they can be reasonable or unreasonable as they conform to Reason or fail to conform. The heart never takes the place of the head: but it can, and should, obey it.

[…]

Hence the educational problem is wholly different according as you stand within or without the Tao. For those within, the task is to train in the pupil those responses which are in themselves appropriate, whether anyone is making them or not, and in making which the very nature of man consists. Those without, if they are logical, must regard all sentiments as equally non-rational, as mere mists between us and the real objects. As a result, they must either decide to remove all sentiments, as far as possible, from the pupil’s mind; or else to encourage some sentiments for reasons that have nothing to do with their intrinsic ‘justness’ or ‘ordinacy’.

[…]

When a Roman father told his son that it was a sweet and seemly thing to die for his country, he believed what he said. He was communicating to the son an emotion which he himself shared and which he believed to be in accord with the value which his judgement discerned in noble death. He was giving the boy the best he had, giving of his spirit to humanize him as he had given of his body to beget him. But Gaius and Titius cannot believe that in calling such a death sweet and seemly they would be saying ‘something important about something’. Their own method of debunking would cry out against them if they attempted to do so. For death is not something to eat and therefore cannot be dulce in the literal sense, and it is unlikely that the real sensations preceding it will be dulce even by analogy. And as for decorum — that is only a word describing how some other people will feel about your death when they happen to think of it, which won’t be often, and will certainly do you no good.

[…]

It still remains true that no justification of virtue will enable a man to be virtuous. Without the aid of trained emotions the intellect is powerless against the animal organism. I had sooner play cards against a man who was quite sceptical about ethics, but bred to believe that ‘a gentleman does not cheat’, than against an irreproachable moral philosopher who had been brought up among sharpers. In battle it is not syllogisms that will keep the reluctant nerves and muscles to their post in the third hour of the bombardment. The crudest sentimentalism (such as Gaius and Titius would wince at) about a flag or a country or a regiment will be of more use. We were told it all long ago by Plato.

[…]

The operation of The Green Book and its kind is to produce what may be called Men without Chests. It is an outrage that they should be commonly spoken of as Intellectuals. This gives them the chance to say that he who attacks them attacks Intelligence. It is not so. They are not distinguished from other men by any unusual skill in finding truth nor any virginal ardour to pursue her. Indeed it would be strange if they were: a persevering devotion to truth, a nice sense of intellectual honour, cannot be long maintained without the aid of a sentiment which Gaius and Titius could debunk as easily as any other. It is not excess of thought but defect of fertile and generous emotion that marks them out. Their heads are no bigger than the ordinary: it is the atrophy of the chest beneath that makes them seem so.

And all the time — such is the tragi-comedy of our situation — we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive’, or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or ‘creativity’. In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.

A while back T. Greer mentioned Professor Brian Smith’s syllabus for POLS 334-01, The Politics of Science Fiction, which lists both Dune and The Abolition of Man as required reading and combines their ideas:

Why does it matter to Lewis that the authors of The Green Book undermine the idea that moral judgments reflect reason and emotion? What political importance does he think this has? Is Thufir Hawat an example of the sort of “chestless” person Lewis describes in the chapter?

Interacting with ChatGPT is like talking to a celestial bureaucrat

Friday, December 16th, 2022

Passing the Turing test turns out to be boring, Erik Hoel notes:

ChatGPT was created by taking the original GPT-3 model and fine-tuning it on human ratings of its responses, e.g., OpenAI had humans interact with GPT-3, its base model, then rate how satisfied they were with the answer. ChatGPT’s connections were then shifted to give more weight to the ones that were important for producing human-pleasing answers.

Therefore, before we can discuss why ChatGPT is actually unimpressive, first we must admit that ChatGPT is impressive.

[…]

ChatGPT fails Turing’s test, but only because it admits it’s an AI! That is, only because its answers are either too good, too fast, or too truthful.

[…]

All to say: ChatGPT is impressive because it passes what we care about when it comes to the Turing test. And anyone who has spent time with ChatGPT (which you can for free here) feels intuitively that a milestone has been passed—if not the letter of Turing’s test, its spirit has certainly been conquered.

[…]

Sure, it’ll change everything, but it also basically feels like an overly censorious butler who just happens to have ingested the entirety of the world’s knowledge and still manages to come across as an unexciting dullard.

[…]

For as they get bigger, and better, and more trained via human responses, their styles get more constrained, more typified. Additionally, with the enormous public attention (and potential for government regulation) companies have taken to heart that AIs must be rendered “safe.” AIs must have the right politics and always say the least offensive thing possible and think nothing but of butterflies and rainbows. Rather than we being the judge, and suspicious of the AI, and AI is suspicious of us, and how we might misuse it, or misinterpret it, or disagree with it. Interacting with the early GPT-3 model was like talking to a schizophrenic mad god. Interacting with ChatGPT is like talking to a celestial bureaucrat.

The biggest mistake Jack made was continuing to invest in building tools for Twitter to manage the public conversation

Wednesday, December 14th, 2022

Jack admits that he completely gave up pushing for his principles when an activist entered Twitter’s stock in 2020:

I no longer had hope of achieving any of it as a public company with no defense mechanisms (lack of dual-class shares being a key one). I planned my exit at that moment knowing I was no longer right for the company.

The biggest mistake I made was continuing to invest in building tools for us to manage the public conversation, versus building tools for the people using Twitter to easily manage it for themselves. This burdened the company with too much power, and opened us to significant outside pressure (such as advertising budgets). I generally think companies have become far too powerful, and that became completely clear to me with our suspension of Trump’s account. As I’ve said before, we did the right thing for the public company business at the time, but the wrong thing for the internet and society.

It’s about the moronic influence of popular culture

Saturday, December 10th, 2022

When Ray Bradbury passed away a decade ago, I remembered reading a borrowed copy of Fahrenheit 451 in one school day in eighth grade. I don’t know whether the teachers failed to notice, or they opted to show some discretion in ignoring my transgression that day.

The novel is often — usually — misinterpreted:

Fahrenheit is not about censorship. It’s about the moronic influence of popular culture through local TV news.

Ray Bradbury was the atavist’s futurist:

The obvious reading of Fahrenheit 451 reveals a story about censorship. This view lends itself to competing left-right interpretations, making Fahrenheit 451 the unique politically charged book that transcends the controversies of its day and finds welcome in conflicting political camps. Is it about McCarthyism or political correctness? The flexibility of political readings helps explain the 5 million copies in print. But the more subtle and important theme involves passive entertainment displacing the life of the mind. It is less about right-left than about smart-stupid.

Before Fahrenheit 451’s firemen came to burn books, the public deserted books. “I remember the newspapers dying like huge moths,” the story’s Professor Faber remarks. “No one wanted them back. No one missed them.” In attempting to please the masses, publishers took care not to offend the market and produced books “leveled down to a sort of pastepudding norm.” Attention spans waned in the wake of competing technology. “Picture it. Nineteenth-century man with his horses, dogs, carts, slow motion. Then, in the twentieth-century, speed up your camera. Books cut shorter. Condensations. Digests. Tabloids. Everything boils down to the gag, the snap ending.”

In the novel, people stopped reading before the state stopped them from reading. The predictable result was an ill-educated society fit for neither leisure nor the ballot. Women discuss voting for a candidate because of his handsome looks and abdicate the responsibilities of motherhood by dumping their children in front of television sets. The over-medicated, air-conditioned culture is awash in suicide, abortion, child neglect, and glassy-eyed passivity. Sound familiar?

Bradbury’s unpublished speaking notes from the mid-1950s acknowledge Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon — about the Stalinist Great Purge and Moscow show trials — as a major inspiration:

People have often asked me what effect Huxley and Orwell had on me, and whether either of them influenced the creation of Fahrenheit 451. The best response is Arthur Koestler…. [O]nly a few perceived the intellectual holocaust and the revolution by burial that Stalin achieved…. Only Koestler got the full range of desecration, execution, and forgetfulness on a mass and nameless graveyard scale. Koestler’s Darkness at Noon was therefore…true father, mother, and lunatic brother to my F. 451.

In one of the great ironies of literary history, Fahrenheit 451 was itself silently modified in the 1960s to make the novel more likely to win school-board approval as a classroom text:

A special “Bal-Hi’ edition, first printed in 1967, retained the typesetting of the first edition, but the text was altered at nearly a hundred points to remove profanity and references to sexuality, drinking, drug use, and nudity.?” This version was never intended to replace the mass-market paperback, but beginning in 1973 the censored text was accidentally transferred to successive printings of the commercial text. For the next six years no uncensored paperback copies were in print, and no one seemed to notice it. Students eventually noted the differences between their school texts and older mass-market printings and brought this mystery to Bradbury’s attention. Since 1979 new typesettings of the restored text and only the restored text have reached print.

When I re-read the novel as an adult, his response to this event had ended up in an introduction that felt oddly prescient:

About two years ago, a letter arrived from a solemn young Vassar lady telling me how much she enjoyed reading my experiment in space mythology, The Martian Chronicles.
But, she added, wouldn’t it be a good idea, this late in time, to rewrite the book inserting more women’s characters and roles?

A few years before that I got a certain amount of mail concerning the same Martian book complaining that the blacks in the book were Uncle Toms, and why didn’t I “do them over”?

Along about then came a note from a Southern white suggesting that I was prejudiced in favor of the blacks and the entire story should be dropped.

Two weeks ago my mountain of mail delivered forth a pipsqueak mouse of a letter from a well-known publishing house that wanted to reprint my story “The Fog Horn” in a high school reader. In my story, I had described a lighthouse as having, night, an illumination coming from it that was a “God-Light.” Looking up at it from the viewpoint of any sea-creature, one would have felt that one was in “the Presence.”

The editors had deleted “God-Light” and “in the Presence.” Some five years back, the editors of yet another anthology for school readers put together a volume with some 400 (count ‘em) short stories in it. How do you cram 400 short stories by Twain, Irving, Poe, Maupassant, and Bierce into one book?

Simplicity itself. Skin, debone, demarrow, scarify, melt, render down, and destroy. Every adjective that counted, every verb that moved, every metaphor that weighed more than a mosquito — out! Every simile that would have made a sub-moron’s mouth twitch — gone! Any aside that explained the two-bit philosophy of a first-rate writer — lost.

Every story, slenderized, starved, bluepenciled, leeched, and bled white, resembled every other story. Twain read like Poe read like Shakespeare read like Dostoevsky read like in the finale — Edgar Guest. Every word of more than three syllables had been razored. Every image that demanded so much as one instant’s attention — shot dead.

Do you begin to get the damned and incredible picture?

How did I react to all of the above?

By “firing” the whole lot.

By sending rejection slips to each and every one.

By ticketing the assembly of idiots to the far reaches of hell.

The point is obvious. There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches. Every minority, be it Baptist/Unitarian, Irish/Italian/Octogenarian/Zen Buddhist, Zionist/Seventh-day Adventist, Women’s Lib/Republican, Mattachine/Four Square Gospel feels it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse.

Every minority feels it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse.

His mother-in-law convinced him to join the Theosophical Society in 1892

Thursday, December 8th, 2022

I recently watched American Oz, which “explores the life and times of author L. Frank Baum, the creator of one of the most beloved, enduring and classic American narratives”:

By 1900, when The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was published, Baum was 44 years old and had spent much of his life in restless pursuit of success. With mixed results he dove into a string of jobs — chicken breeder, actor, marketer of petroleum products, shopkeeper, newspaperman and traveling salesman — Baum continued to reinvent himself, reflecting a uniquely American brand of confidence, imagination and innovation. During his travels to the Great Plains and on to Chicago during the American frontier’s final days, he witnessed a nation coming to terms with the economic uncertainty of the Gilded Age. But he never lost his childlike sense of wonder and eventually crafted his observations into a magical tale of survival, adventure and self-discovery, reinterpreted through the generations in films, books and musicals.

One minor point jumped out at me: his mother-in-law, Matilda Joslyn Gage, convinced him to join the Theosophical Society in 1892:

Matilda Joslyn Gage (March 24, 1826 – March 18, 1898) was an American writer and activist. She is mainly known for her contributions to women’s suffrage in the United States (i.e. the right to vote) but she also campaigned for Native American rights, abolitionism (the end of slavery), and freethought (the free exercise of reason in matters of religious belief). She is the eponym for the Matilda effect, which describes the tendency to deny women credit for scientific invention. She influenced her son-in-law L. Frank Baum, the author of The Wizard of Oz.

She was the youngest speaker at the 1852 National Women’s Rights Convention held in Syracuse, New York. She was a tireless worker and public speaker, and contributed numerous articles to the press, being regarded as “one of the most logical, fearless and scientific writers of her day”. Along with Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Staton, Gage helped found the National Woman Suffrage Association in 1869. During 1878–1881, she published and edited the National Citizen, a paper devoted to the cause of women. With Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, she was for years in the forefront of the suffrage movement, and collaborated with them in writing the History of Woman Suffrage (1881–1887). She was the author of the Woman’s Rights Catechism (1868); Woman as Inventor (1870); Who Planned the Tennessee Campaign (1880); and Woman, Church and State (1893).

Theosophy caught my attention years ago. American Oz described it as a way to make Buddhist and Hindu ideas palatable to a western audience. Fans of old-school swords & sorcery fiction can’t help but notice Theosophy’s many mentions of Hyperborea, Lemuria, Atlantis, and reincarnated men evolving through various races from age to age.

The members of the group follow a conglomerate of conspiracy myths consisting of narratives of the so-called Reichsbürger as well as QAnon ideology

Wednesday, December 7th, 2022

German officials arrested 22 suspected members and three suspected supporters of a far-right terrorist organization across the country on Wednesday on suspicion of plotting to overthrow the government:

In a statement, the German federal prosecutor’s office said an estimated 50 people were suspected to have been part of the group called Reich Citizens movement, founded no later than November 2021, who were plotting to overthrow the government and replace it with their own order.

“The accused are united by a deep rejection of state institutions and the free democratic basic order of the Federal Republic of Germany, which over time has led to their decision to participate in their violent elimination and to engage in concrete preparatory actions for this purpose,” the statement said.

“The members of the group follow a conglomerate of conspiracy myths consisting of narratives of the so-called Reichsbürger as well as QAnon ideology.”

[…]

Experts linked Germany’s increasingly frequent violent right-wing attacks with the rise of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which in 2017 became the first far-right party to win seats in Germany’s parliament in nearly 60 years.

In March 2021, the AfD was formally placed under surveillance by Germany’s BfV domestic intelligence service on suspicion of trying to undermine the country’s democratic constitution.

The American people will in their righteous might win through to absolute victory

Wednesday, December 7th, 2022

Pearl Harbor Day caught me off guard last year, but the date lives on in enough infamy that I usually remember to share some links on the subject:

Here’s FDR’s speech from December 8, 1941:

The self-described dark elf who yearns for a king

Tuesday, November 29th, 2022

Andrew Prokop of Vox recently spoke with Curtis Yarvin, the monarchist, anti-democracy blogger that many of us still remember as Mencius Moldbug:

When I first asked to speak with Yarvin, he requested that I prove my “professional seriousness as a current historian” by “reading or at least skimming” three books, and I complied. One of them, Public Opinion by Walter Lippmann — a classic of the journalism school canon — describes how people can respond when their previous beliefs about how the world works are called into question.

“Sometimes, if the incident is striking enough, and if he has felt a general discomfort with his established scheme, he may be shaken to such an extent as to distrust all accepted ways of looking at life, and to expect that normally a thing will not be what it is generally supposed to be,” Lippmann wrote. “In the extreme case, especially if he is literary, he may develop a passion for inverting the moral canon by making Judas, Benedict Arnold, or Caesar Borgia the hero of his tale.”

There, I thought of Yarvin — the self-described dark elf who yearns for a king.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is not an instruction manual

Saturday, November 19th, 2022

In what ways, Casey Handmer asks, does The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (and other novels in the genre) fail as an instruction manual?

We know that a Moon city is not a good place to grow plants, that water is relatively abundant on the surface near the poles, and that underground construction is pointlessly difficult. So any future Moon city will have to be structured around some other premise, which is to say its foundational architecture on both a social and technical level will be completely different.

We know that AIs are pretty good at tweaking our amygdala, but strictly speaking we don’t need to build one on the Moon, and I would hope its existence is strictly orthogonal to the question of political control.

Lunar cities, and all other space habitats, are tremendously vulnerable to physical destruction. This means that, for all practical purposes, Earthling power centers hold absolute escalation dominance. No combination of sneaky AIs, secret mass drivers, or sabotage would be enough to attain political independence through force. If space habitats want some degree of political autonomy, they will have to obtain it through non-violent means. Contemporary science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson makes this argument powerfully in this recent podcast, when discussing how he structured the revolutions in his Mars trilogy.

Lastly, the “Brass cannon” story is like “Starship Troopers” – a falsifiably satirical critique of popular conceptions of political control. For some reason, libertarians swarm Heinlein novels and space advocacy conferences like aphids in spring. I will resist the temptation to take easy shots, but point out merely that every real-world attempt at implementation of libertarianism as the dominant political culture has failed, quickly and predictably. This is because libertarianism, like many other schools of thought that fill out our diverse political scene, functions best as an alternative actually practiced by very few people. It turns out a similar thing occurs in salmon mating behavior.