Month: January 2017

Godzilla Trudges Back and Forth

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When we last left off I was concerned about civil discord, and I wondered how far things would go. This subject is one where it’s hard to be objective. When speaking of the sort of protests we saw over the inauguration weekend it’s difficult to know if we’re seeing a peaceful protest with completely admirable goals or if we’re seeing the beginnings of some sort of lawless revolution. When you look back through previous examples of things getting out of hand, it quickly becomes apparent how gradual everything is. For example, during the French Revolution, it was four years between the calling of the Estates General and the Reign of Terror. Looking back that seems quick, but four years is forever when you’re living through it, as we may be about to discover. As another example, Hitler was Chancellor of Germany for five years before he started World War II, and was Time Magazine’s Man of the Year in 1938. In other words each step towards calamity may seem innocuous by itself, but you still end up with a boiled frog.  

All of this is to say that it would be super convenient if Trump turned into a demon on his first day in office or if the protests on inauguration day had immediately exploded in an orgy of violence. If any of those things happened, sensible people would immediately know who the bad guys are, and it would be easy to take sides and decide what to do, but as it was, just looking at the protests (I’ll leave other people to decide if Trump turned into a demon) we had some violence over the weekend, but not much. 217 people were arrested, a car or two got burned, some police officers were injured, etc. But I think most people probably feel like that’s fairly mild. And in fact, historically, we have had lots of interesting inauguration days though I imagine that this latest one had to set a record for something, maybe number of arrests?

All of this is to say, harkening back to an earlier episode, I don’t know if everything is going to be okay. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know if the protests and violence and arrests are just the tip of the iceberg that is the Second Civil War or if they’re a marvelous expression of a healthy democracy. I don’t know if Trump is going to be the worst president ever, and I don’t know where the country is headed. There are some things (as I already mentioned) including the arrests over the weekend, that make me feel like this election might be different, but that doesn’t mean I’m predicting anything specific, just that it feels different. And I’m still not 100% sure why that is, but I have some theories and going forward we’ll have to see whether the data supports those theories or ends up disproving them.

Thus, in the absence of a desire or even an ability to say what’s going to happen I want to take this opportunity to remind you of how bad it is if certain things do happen, and point out some things that while not unambiguous, nevertheless cause me concern. Further I think we aren’t sufficiently afraid of violence and chaos. We often fool ourselves into thinking change of any sort will be easy and straightforward, when generally it is anything but.

As you can imagine I’m not the only one to worry about civil discord and the possibility that the current divisiveness will lead to something really bad. There have been several articles on the subject recently, some more alarming than others. I don’t agree with everything in these articles (as I’ve already said, I don’t know what’s going to happen) but there was an observation in one article in particular which encapsulated much of my concern. The author, David Hines, was not someone I was familiar with, but he kind of nailed it.

Political violence is like war, like violence in general: people have a fantasy about how it works.

This is the fantasy of how violence works: you smite your enemies in a grand and glorious cleansing because of course you’re better.

Grand and glorious smiting isn’t actually how violence works…

I think this is an important point. Regardless of what you think will happen, regardless of your preferred outcome, you generally have an overly optimistic view of how well your plan is going to work. And this isn’t just an issue with violence. Republican’s have an optimistic view of how easy it will be to replace Obamacare. Democrats had a rosy view of how effective Obamacare was going to be. The guy I mentioned in my last episode who thought Obama was a Lightworker had a seriously exaggerated view of what Obama would be able to do, and there are going to be a lot of disappointed Trump voters in the very near future. But of course as bad as it is to be wrong about Obamacare or the effectiveness of a given president, being wrong about violence is a thousands times worse. Hines continues:

I’ve worked a few places that have had serious political violence. And I’m not sure how to really describe it so people get it.

This is a stupid comparison, but here: imagine that one day Godzilla walks through your town.

The next day, he does it again.

And he keeps doing it. Some days he steps on more people than others. That’s it. That’s all he does: trudging through your town, back and forth. Your town’s not your town now; it’s The Godzilla Trudging Zone.

That’s kind of what it’s like.

I’m reasonably sure that the people who were protesting last weekend do not want Godzilla to trudge back and forth through their town. I’m sure most of them think that if they can just educate people about how bad Trump is that the nation will come to its senses and he’ll be run out of town by February. And when that blessed day occurs everyone, old and young, Republican and Democrat, Clinton Supporter and Trump Voter will all dance in the street in celebration. Okay maybe that’s all an exaggeration, but in starting their protests so early and so violently, I’m not sure what they do expect to happen. In other words however minimal the violence was over the weekend, if this is the sort of protest caused by Trump’s mere existence, where else is there to go when Trump actually starts doing something objectionable?

Of course, as I’ve already mentioned there are only two paths available in this situation. You can attempt to legally remove Trump or you can use some manner of violence. Let’s look at the “legal means” option. Within that option there are a further two options for removing Trump legally: the 2020 election, and impeachment. I assume based on the enormous number of articles on the subject, that impeachment is the preferred option. The problem with that is the Republicans control both the House and Senate. To even get impeachment started you would need to have 24 Republican Representatives defect (and of course you’d still need 100% of the Democrats). Once you’ve done that, then to actually remove him from office you’d need to have 21 Republican Senators defect as well (that’s 40% of all the Republican Senators). Which is to say that while a lot of people might be mad right out of the gate, it’s unlikely that Republican members of congress are going to impeach their guy right after he’s sworn in, particularly after having the other side in control of the executive branch for the last eight years.

It is this extreme desire to get rid of Trump and the colossal gap between it and the extreme unlikelihood of it being done legally that makes me think that we are particularly vulnerable to the other option of removing Trump: the violent one. In other words I think a lot of people are getting ready to summon Godzilla.

Of course there is a third option, which is to accept that Trump won the election and to do the best you can to help him be successful or at least don’t actively attempt to remove him. Of course this means “normalizing” him which is something none of these protesters want to do, and is one more reason why I’m on the lookout for a giant atomic monster on the horizon.

Look, I don’t like Trump, given the choice I would have chosen someone else to be president. (Though as long as I have the ability to choose whomever I want, I wouldn’t choose Clinton either.) But this sort of what-if thinking is pointless, because I don’t have the option to magically decide that someone else is going to be president. I had one vote. I used it, and as expected it didn’t make much of a difference, which while unfortunate, was exactly the outcome I expected. And just like the protesters and everyone else in the country I can try to impeach him, I can try to overthrow the government violently, or I can normalize him. That’s the reality.

This is not to say that people who are protesting or marching aren’t dealing with reality. To be clear I am fine with peaceful demonstrations. It’s in the first amendment and, frankly, if Trump does certain things (in particular censorship) I’ll be right out there with them. Also, it’s possible that some or even most of the people out there just want to exercise influence on how Trump behaves, they don’t want to get rid of him, but insofar as they do want to get rid of him they are engaging in Godzilla blindness. The unwillingness to understand that if they really won’t compromise, and if they really want get rid of Trump before 2020, it may be that their only path is a violent one.

Of course as Hines points out, when the protestors (and other Trump opponents) imagine violence, they imagine that it will be quick, painless, and that if there is any smiting it will only involve their opponents. In this fantasy the vast majority of the Trump supporters will be converted to this righteous vision and those who don’t will be dealt with speedily. Of course additionally the protestors are convinced they’re on the right side of history, and perhaps they are, but that doesn’t mean the Trump supporters are just going to roll over and play dead, particularly, since, on this occasion, they have the law on their side. They followed the rules and got their guy elected.

I know that to many people this is going to appear alarmist. “People are just protesting. That’s completely legal. Read the First Amendment. Any talk of a Second Civil War is ridiculous.” I hope they’re right. And if I were betting, I certainly wouldn’t bet on civil war. In order of probability here’s how I would rank it:

  1. Trump serves out his entire four years, it’s chaotic, but nothing crazy happens.
  2. Trump is removed from office, in some way that may look like impeachment if you squint, but is fundamentally outside of the law.
  3. Trump does something genuinely worthy of impeachment and gets removed.
  4. Outbreak of serious violence (100+ dead) or some manner of secession crisis.

You may wonder why I am so worried about possibility number four if I also think it’s the least likely to happen. Once again, as I’ve said over and over, some things are so bad that if you’re wrong about them, it doesn’t matter what you were right about, and having Godzilla trudge through your town is one of those things. But I’ve already covered that possibility at some length. I think we need to look at possibility number two, Trump is removed from office by some process of vague legality. You may not be 100% clear what I mean by this. I have talked about their only being two options (if you reject normalization) law and violence. But of course there’s a continuum in between those two ends. Which is to say there’s violence and then there’s VIOLENCE!

As an example imagine if there were riotous demonstrations in every major city for months. And by riotous I mean some people get arrested, some windows are broken, people frequently receive minor injuries, but no one dies. First off, does this scenario seem impossible? Not to me, in fact in some respects I’m surprised it isn’t already happening (and it did happen in the immediate aftermath of the election). Second is it possible that if it went on long enough that Trump might resign? That I’m not so clear about, he is pretty stubborn. But if he did, would it be legal? Technically, perhaps, but legal how? Yes, a president can resign, we saw that with Nixon. But this is different. This is someone resigning not because it’s obvious he’s going to be impeached this is someone resigning because of pressure. Pressure of what? The pressure of violence.

Now perhaps this veiled threat of violence is fine, certainly it’s better than actual violence, but I would opine that the rule of law is not nearly as elastic as most people want to believe. When people abuse the law, it weakens its perceived fairness and makes people less likely buy into the entire system. And without this implied social contract it’s difficult for the rule of law to continue. Which means that possibility number two, the pseudo-legal removal of Trump, is better than violence, but it’s still bad. You’ve still fundamentally rewritten the rules of the game in a way that makes future violence far more likely. If all the Trump supporters suddenly feel like their vote was valueless because six months into Trump’s term he’s forced out by the continual protests, how does that affect their desire to vote and participate in the future? Does this scenario make violence more or less likely? Does it make the secession of Texas more or less likely? To repeat my point, there’s violence or the rule of law, there’s not some better, secret third option. Any conceivable scenario for getting rid of Trump which doesn’t involve actually following the rules and standards for an impeachment would have to rely on violence. It may only be the threat of violence, it may be only implied violence, but it still involves violence.

Perhaps you remain unconvinced. Perhaps you think that Trump is bad enough that it doesn’t matter what you end up resorting to to get rid of him, it was worth it. First I would caution you against Godzilla blindness, and thinking that it’s going to be easy. Second I think you may be underestimating the fragility of our institutions. I have talked before about how fragile the US system of government seemed when it was first created, up to as late as the Civil War. I would say that it is still fragile and getting more fragile with each year. You can blame it all on Trump if you want, but it’s actually been growing more divisive and consequently more fragile, for a long time now and Trump is only the latest victim, or perhaps America is the victim, it’s hard to say, If you’re conservative you might point to the resignation of Nixon as starting the whole thing off. Or perhaps the Clarence Thomas or Robert Bork hearings. If you’re a liberal you’d probably point to the impeachment of Bill Clinton, or maybe you want to go all the way back to McCarthyism. In all of these cases the rule of law was weakened, perhaps imperceptibly, but it all accumulates, and someday it will break. I don’t know that this is when it will break, but I do know that the trend is accelerating.

To pull everything together, I think there are three reasons to be concerned about escalating violence. The first is the strength of the reaction against Trump right from the start. If it’s already this bad on day one, how bad is it going to be on day 50 or day 500? The second is the gap between how strongly people want to get rid of Trump and how difficult it will be to accomplish legally. The third is the general increase in divisiveness, which has been going on in the background over the last several decades.  To these three I’d like to add one final point. The increased acceptance of violence, particularly if it’s committed by people on the left.

Over the inauguration weekend Richard Spencer was sucker punched. If you don’t know who Richard Spencer is, he’s variously described as a white nationalist, a white supremacist, even a literal Nazi. In the wake of that punch columnist, Alex Griswold decided to tweet:

I wonder how many people cheering the Nazi Punch realize that a punch to the head can kill or permanently disable a man.

The reaction to this tweet was overwhelming. And I’ll let him describe it:

The tweet took off, and not in a good way. Literally hundreds of people responded, all saying that they would have loved if the attacker had killed Spencer. Some went further, calling for the extrajudicial killing of all Nazis.

It was an eye-opening reaction. The reason I penned the tweet was because I thought the liberal consensus that serves as the bedrock of the American society was intact. I had this whole spiel planned about how if we as a society endorse violence against one Nazi, we’re responsible if it leads to worse violence, maybe even murder, where do you draw the line, blah blah blah. I thought it was more or less self-evident that you don’t murder people on the street for expressing views you don’t like. I thought we were all the same page, and I was wrong.

You may disagree that this represents an increase in the acceptance of violence from just the left. You may argue that this just represents an increase in the acceptance of violence period. Perhaps, but if so that’s almost as bad, and maybe even worse. Still I’m of the opinion that this acceptance is far more pronounced when violence is practiced by the left.

I actually try to avoid just talking about the left (or the right) as this giant monolith. Though it’s more difficult than you might imagine, and I can’t always devote an entire episode to explaining in detail what I mean by a specific term. For now let’s just say that I am using left in a fairly narrow sense. I am not claiming that any person who ever voted for a democrat is a violence obsessed fiend. But as to why I think it’s more a feature of the left…

Imagine if someone had walked up to a prominent female black activist (Sherri Shepard? Leslie Jones? Michelle Obama? Obviously I’m out of my wheelhouse here) and sucker punched them in the head? Imagine the response in the media, and ask yourself whether that response would have been more negative, more positive or about the same? Ideally it would have been about the same, but I’m 100% confident that it would not have been. Specifically I’m 100% sure that the New York Times would not have run an article the next day asking if it was okay to punch black female activists.

In the end while it would be nice if you agreed with all four of my reasons for expecting, or rather fearing an increase in violence, that’s really not the central goal of this episode. Rather my central goal is illustrate that if you decide to do things outside of the law, that you are implicitly choosing violence and that the choice of violence is much worse than you imagine. In the end Godzilla doesn’t care about the righteousness of your cause or the awfulness of Trump. He just keeps trudging back and forth… back and forth…


The Religion of Progress

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Last week I recorded the Freedom of Religion Episode and wrote the post about How to Save Humanity, and in both cases I mentioned the religion of progress. This made me realize that outside of a mention here and there I’d never really done a complete post on the subject, which it certainly deserves. In other words this post is long overdue.

In discussing this subject I’m indebted to John Michael Greer, the Archdruid, and I’ll start off by borrowing/stealing from his own writing on the topic. In addition to the two blog posts of my own I just mentioned, one of Greer’s recent posts, which made reference to the religion of progress, was also a factor in selecting the subject for this post. In particular he clarified something which I had also noticed, though not to the same degree that he had. Recently there’s been something of a spiritual cast to certain elements of the left. With one of the recurring terms being the evolution of consciousness. He and I both were somewhat confused by what that was supposed to mean, but Greer actually did the legwork:

Among a good-sized fraction of American leftist circles these days, it turns out it’s become a standard credo that what drives the kind of social changes supported by the left—the abolition of slavery and segregation, the extension of equal (or more than equal) rights to an assortment of disadvantaged groups, and so on—is an ongoing evolution of consciousness, in which people wake up to the fact that things they’ve considered normal and harmless are actually intolerable injustices, and so decide to stop.

Those of my readers who followed the late US presidential election may remember Hillary Clinton’s furious response to a heckler at one of her few speaking gigs:  “We aren’t going back. We’re going forward.” Underlying that outburst is the belief system I’ve just sketched out: the claim that history has a direction, that it moves in a linear fashion from worse to better, and that any given political choice—for example, which of the two most detested people in American public life is going to become the nominal head of a nation in freefall ten days from now—not only can but must be flattened out into a rigidly binary decision between “forward” and “back.”

As he points out, when people speak of consciousness evolving they’re not talking about evolution in the normal scientific sense of being subject to pressure from natural selection, or of certain organisms being better adapted to survival than others. They’re talking about the process of evolution making things better period. This is just one example of the theology of the religion of progress. Of course in using the word theology I’m jumping right past what many people might consider to be the most important question. Why should we consider it a religion? And perhaps I should deal with that first.

For the purposes of this discussion I’ll be focusing on the most extreme adherents to the religion of progress, and while I understand that this is like using ISIS to define Islam, there’s a reason for that. People use ISIS when they want to illustrate the worst case scenario, I am similarly interested in the worst case scenario. So who are these extreme adherents to the religion of progress? Their enemies call them Social Justice Warriors or SJWs, and while I understand that it’s annoying to end up with the label your enemies chose for you, it does seem to be the simplest way of identifying the group I’m talking about. Also while I am not trying to fall into the enemy camp myself, I think it’s only fair to say that I am probably not their ally either. Finally, they’re not the only adherents (we’ll be talking about others), but they are the most visible.

Having identified our subjects, how does this group of people compare to a traditional religion? Well to begin with they are a group, which is a bigger part of what makes a religion than I think most people want to admit. Beyond that one of the big factors in defining a religion is the presence of things both sacred and profane, with commandments built to encourage the sacred and punish the profane. Obviously much of what they put into these categories has to be unique to the group, different than the traditional commandments and beliefs of the culture from which they spring. In other words this is not just Christianity-lite, these are not just lapsed believers in another religion, this is a new religion. Should you doubt the existence of commandments and the categorization of certain things as sacred, and certain things profane, try walking around your local university campus in a Nazi Uniform or a KKK robe (or even just try waving an Isreali flag). And what is a safe space other than a sacred site? In fact given the intolerance for certain speakers and opinions you might make the case that entire campuses are considered sacred spaces by SJWs.

Another element, important to classifying something as a religion, is belief in the supernatural. This is where the idea of an evolving consciousness comes in. Though it takes several other forms as well. You might have heard the term the right side of history (along with the inverse wrong side of history) or the arc of history. These terms are beloved of former president Obama, who may actually be something of a prophet for the religion of progress. Perhaps you feel that describing him as a prophet is over the top, but there are certainly people who feel or at least felt that way. One of my favorite articles from just before the 2008 election describes how Obama is a “Lightworker” who will usher in in a new way of being on this planet.

In Better Angels of Our Nature, which I keep coming back to, Pinker was trying to describe the same arc of history, though as a declared atheist he tried to rob it of its supernatural overtones by ascribing it to game theory (specifically what he calls the pacifist’s dilemma). Of course it’s also present in a group I talk about often, the transhumanists, who add in another common religious element, eternal rewards. Which in their case takes the form of uploading themselves into a computer or something similar.

At this point we have everyone from SJWs, to Obama, to Pinker, to Leftist, to transhumanists believing in the inevitability of progress and the arc of history, and, in the end, it’s probably not important if you’re 100% on board with describing it as a religion as opposed to a movement, or a memeplex, or what have you, at this point it’s mostly just important that we’re on the same page in agreeing that the ideology exists and it’s pervasive. From there the next step would be to ask if it’s a useful ideology. And here, my answer may surprise you. In the short term it might in fact be useful for certain people and for certain things. But, as always, we’re not interested in the next few years, we’re interested in the next few centuries. And in my experience the longer your time horizon the more the utility of something converges with the truth of something. There are useful lies, and convenient delusions, but their utility and convenience are always short term. All of this is a roundabout way of getting to the real question I want to ask. Is the religion of progress true?

Of course, you already know that I’m going to say that it’s not true, but how do you convince its believers of this fact? Assuming they would listen. At this point it’s useful to divide those believers up into two camps: those who favor a supernatural basis, like those who believe that Obama is a Lightworker or in the evolution of consciousness, and those who eschew any kind of supernatural explanation like Pinker and most of the transhumanists. I’ll address the non-supernatural contingent first.

If you look back through the history of the Earth, and the even more recent history of humanity you will see several external cataclysms which almost wiped out any potential for progress or intelligence. Whether it was the two times that the Earth was basically completely encased in ice, any of the 190 times (that we know about) when a large asteroid or comet has hit the earth, or the various super volcanos, one of which, the Toba Supervolcano, took humanity down to around 5,000 individuals (with some people saying there were only 40 breeding pairs.) There have been plenty of occasions where the inevitable march of progress was anything but, and a stiff breeze one way or the other could have ended it all.

Obviously if you’re an atheist like Pinker you may quibble with the impact of some of the items above, but you’re not going to deny that catastrophes take place. The question only becomes at what point did we become immune to catastrophes? What was the innovation that protected us from unrecoverable setbacks and made progress inevitable? As I pointed out in my Review of Better Angels, a lot depends on when the inflection point was, and to be fair Pinker is probably on the conservative end of this. I doubt he thinks that progress is irreversible, he probably just thinks it’s tenacious. But let’s turn to the transhumanists, who would also probably grant that all or most of the disasters I mentioned did in fact happen, but that they, personally, expect to live forever. Which takes us back to the question when, exactly, did we go from being susceptible to being wiped out by global catastrophes to not?

Did it happen with the dawn of modern man and the creation of human-level intelligence 200,000 years ago? I don’t think so, particularly since we had Neanderthals alive around the same time and by all accounts they were at least as smart if not smarter, and look at what happened to them. Did it happen with the creation of writing? I assume that was important, but I don’t think it would have saved the Sumerians there had been another supervolcano, or if a comet had smacked into the Earth. What about the enlightenment, was that the inflection point? Well I renew my point about the Sumerians, but let’s assume that at some point you’re close enough to the finish line to not have to worry about supervolcanoes and comets. The period since the enlightenment has been pretty incredible, but it also brought us a lot closer to nuclear annihilation than it did to a permanent extraterrestrial colony, which, as I argued in the last post might be the first credible point to start arguing that progress is unstoppable. Which is to say that if there is an inflection point we haven’t even reached it and it’s not clear that we will.

Turning to those who believe that progress is being powered by something supernatural, all of the above arguments still apply. Where was the mystical force of progress, and the evolving consciousness during the Great Permian Extinction, or the aforementioned Toba Supervolcano or the various near misses with World War III? And even if those were somehow “ordained” or otherwise all part of the plan, why did this force, which seems specific to humanity by the way (just ask the dodo and the Neanderthal) spend tens of thousands of years not acting while modern humans, as hunter gatherers, engaged in an unending cycle of insane violence (if Pinker is to be believed) before finally swooping in sometime in the recent past and deciding that enough was enough, it would be onward and upward from here on out.

You might argue that all of the above arguments could be applied with equal force to traditional religions. But in traditional religions God has a plan, one which we may not even understand, but if suffering is part of the plan (as it is with most traditional religions) then I see no reason that the Toba Supervolcano is not also part of the plan. This is not to say that the supernatural branch of the religion of progress doesn’t also have a plan. It’s just kind of childish. Their plan is that a tiny percent of the hundred (plus) billion people who have ever lived will get to play World of Warcraft (or perhaps the Sims) for the rest of eternity. Yes, this is a caricature, but not as much of one as they might claim.

This illustrates one of the problems. Even under the most draconian of traditional theologies, uncivilized pagans from the Fifth Century are still part of the plan. They may be participating in the plan through eternal torment, but at least they’re considered. If Ray Kurzweil, a futurist, and one of the greatest prophets of the religion of progress dies tomorrow then he is almost certainly not going to be one of those saved by the religion of progress. Which is to say that the religion of progress is a religion which mostly offers salvation to those who haven’t even been born yet. In fact the entire thing, to borrow again from Greer, is remarkably chronocentric, i.e. biased towards a specific time. In this case the chronocentrism does not claim that the current era is best, or that there is some edenic past, two claims which you can actually marshall evidence for. Their chronocentrism claims that 50 years into the unknown future is obviously the best time of all.

As part of this bias the religion of progress pays very little attention to the past. And certainly they seem blind to, or at least dismissive of, ancient history and prehistory, but beyond that even the recent past is largely opaque to them. To once more draw upon Greer, and a subject he’s more familiar with than me. Much of the current progressive agenda is very recent, and only a few decades ago the progressive viewpoint was the exact opposite. The example Greer gives is gay rights. As it turns out gays had it pretty good for the first few decades of the 19th century with their, “own bars, restaurants, periodicals, entertainment venues, and social events, right out there in public.” The vast majority (including myself) upon hearing this would assume that if this was the case then surely some furious attack by the right wing must have ended it. I’ll let Greer answer:

No, and that’s one of the more elegant ironies of this entire chapter of American cultural history. The crusade against the “lavender menace” (I’m not making that phrase up, by the way) was one of the pet causes of the same Progressive movement responsible for winning women the right to vote and breaking up the fabulously corrupt machine politics of late nineteenth century America. Unpalatable as that fact is in today’s political terms, gay men and lesbians weren’t forced into the closet in the 1930s by the right.  They were driven there by the left.

The picture that emerges is not that of an unstoppable set of truths forever in the background of human affairs, but rather an ideology of very recent origin, which changes into whatever form makes people feel the best.  Returning back to our original question, is the religion of progress true? I think we have assembled ample evidence that it’s not. Rather it seems more to be an ideology which captures the attitudes and events of a specific moment, and with the inauguration yesterday of the religion of progress’ antichrist, we could easily be seeing the end of that moment.

Having gotten this far you may be thinking, so what? Perhaps the religion of progress isn’t true, perhaps it’s just about reached the end of its useful life, perhaps it’s even silly and childish. Where’s the harm? This is another time where the biases brought on by chronocentrism once again manifest themselves. This is not the first time a progressive utopian vision of ever escalating progress has taken the stage, and if the adherents of the religion of progress were more aware of what had come before then perhaps they would be more worried. Also we’re not even talking about going that far back. This is all stuff that happened in the 20th century.

Our first example is eugenics. The full history of the early 20th century eugenics movement is beyond the scope of this post, but, trust me, it was a progressive issue. The mere mention of eugenics is horrible enough in most people’s estimation that you hardly have to go beyond the initial mention. But it was also responsible for lobotomies, forced sterilizations, and by some accounts much of what people find most appaling about the Nazis. Could I have written a similar post in 1932 talking about the religion of eugenics? Probably. And I assume that the people who now defend or excuse the religion of progress would be using the same arguments to excuse and defend the practice of eugenics.

The other example I want to draw to your attention is the example of communism. Communism may have been the first great example of a secular religion with things designated as sacred (the proletariat) and profane (capitalism), commandments (the Communist Manifesto) and of course the promise of secular salvation resulting in an unending paradise (The Worker’s Paradise). And of course even today you don’t have to look very deep to find communist ideology buried in the religion of progress, despite it being responsible for the deaths of 94 million people.

None of this means the religion of progress will fail as spectacularly, or even fail in a similar fashion as these first two examples. But unless you’re going to make the argument that something has changed dramatically in the last few decades, and I admit there is some evidence for that assertion, just not nearly as much as its supporters imagine, the religion of progress will be another utopian vision which will ultimately fail. And it’s reasonable to ask what if any damage it will cause on it’s way out. And is there anyway to limit that damage?

Of course as the dominant religion it’s very easy to point out the benefits progressive ideology is alleged to provide and much harder to point out it’s flaws. And in fact, perversely, flaws can be seen as benefits. In the early 20th centuries lobotomies and forced sterilizations were seen as good things. Just as some people now think that performing gender reassignment surgery on four year olds is a good thing. Pointing out the potential harms of the religion of progress can easily get you labeled as a hateful or racist. Despite that, in closing, I’ll take a stab at pointing out a couple:

Eugenics and communism are both blamed for a lot of deaths. Where are the deaths from the religion of progress? Well as I said it’s not necessarily going to fail as spectacularly or in the same way, but if you’re looking for a lot of deaths it’s hard to ignore abortion. Obviously there is a lot of disagreement about whether abortion is murder. Also to do any sort of real analysis you’d want to compare abortion rates before the “progress” of legalizing abortion, to rates after it was legalized. I spent a bit of time looking for this and honestly the subject is so heated it’s impossible get any unbiased numbers on the subject. That said, I have a very hard time believing that legalizing abortion did not increase the number of abortions by a significant amount. And even increasing it by a small amount yields a pretty big number. From 1970 (when legalization got going) through 2013 there were just shy of 52 million abortions. If we assume that legalization only increased things by 20% (which seems incredibly conservative) then that’s still 10 million additional abortions. Maybe that doesn’t bother you at all, but I suspect that it’s something we’ll eventually look back on with horror.

Finally, one of the things that is most alarming to me and carries with it the most potential for harm is the ideological intransigence of the religion of progress, which we have seen sprinkled all throughout this post, and on vivid and constant display since the election of Trump. Does this intransigence turn to violence? If so how violent? Will there just be scattered riots? Or are we looking at an eventual second Civil War? Obviously it takes more than just one violent faction to have a war, but as I said in a previous post, in the end there are only two ways to decide anything, the rule of law or application of violence and as I sit here on the weekend of the inauguration I see a lot of people who seem to prefer the violent option.


How to Save Humanity

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The other day, my sons were having a debate about Genghis Khan. The older one was saying that he was a very bad dude who killed a lot of people. Perhaps not as bad as Hitler, but a bad guy. The younger son pointed out that the Mongols had done some good things in terms of encouraging trade, uniting that part of the world, ushering in 100 years of peace (after the initial bloodiness), etc. And that just labeling them as the “bad guys” ignored the complexities of history. In an attempt to clarify the terms of the debate, I pointed out that how you felt about Genghis Khan and the Mongols depended to a certain extent on what your core values are. (You may remember this idea from my post on Steven Pinker.)

When I mentioned this, my older son was quick to point out that preventing deaths was definitely among the highest of his core values. (I didn’t point out that under that standard Genghis Khan was objectively a lot worse than Hitler.) The younger son confessed he wasn’t 100% sure what his core values were. I assume if he’d given it some thought he would have come up with some. That said, preventing death is an easy core value to arrive at, and in that respect his older brother had an advantage. But as I said in the Pinker post I mentioned, it’s possible that a reduction in preventable deaths is overly simplistic. Or that focusing just on the current state of violence is too short term. It’s certainly conceivable that what you really want your core value to be, is what’s best for the most people over the longest period of time (to borrow from utilitarianism for a moment.) And using this standard the Mongols definitely look a lot better than if you just look at their initial conquest. They’re still almost certainly weren’t a net benefit to the world, but it paints them in a better light at least. Let’s call this broader and more expansive most-people-longest-period core value “The Salvation of Humanity.”

A few months back I wrote a post specifically about why the “harvest is over”, as you may have already guessed, now it’s time to write a post about why “we are not saved”. Using the word “we” to stand in for all of humanity is fairly straightforward. The meanings of the words “are” and “not” should also be clear. It’s really the word “saved” and by extension “salvation” that require deeper definitions and that’s what I intend to dive into with this post. But in order to do so we need to define some categories

When talking about people the tendency is to divide them into two groups. That may take the form of dividing them into Republicans and Democrats, or traditionals and progressives, or liberals and conservatives, or may be just good and bad, . But this is frequently, if not always, a false dichotomy. In almost all cases there are really three kinds of people. There are the people at either end of things that make all the noise, and define the terms of the debate, but there’s also the people who don’t want to take a side, who don’t care. People who are at best disengaged and at worst entirely apathetic. These are the 44% of people who don’t vote, even for president, even when the stakes are really high. These are the vast masses of people who frankly don’t really think deeply about issues like the “Salvation of Humanity”. On the one extreme they may be people who have enough to worry about already whether because of poverty or illness or something else. On the other end it includes people who are happy and comfortable and content just to enjoy things as they are. We will call this group the Disengaged Middle, and at best they’re going to need to rely on someone or something else to save them and at worst their complacency may be actively hindering attempts at salvation. In other words if humanity is going to be saved it won’t be through the efforts of the Disengaged Middle.

This leaves the task of salvation to the two groups representing the active ends of the salvation debate. Who are the two groups that make all the noise? The first group believes that religion and God are the answer and they actively work towards some degree of divine salvation. Are they perfect? No. Are they correct? It’s hard to imagine that they could all be correct. But for this to be the path to salvation it only requires that one of them be correct. Obviously the difficulty is in figuring out which. But even one set of beliefs is correct it would mean that a viable path to salvation exists. We will call this group the Actively Religious.

The second group is comprised of those who are actively working to achieve salvation on their own. For both groups the definition of “salvation” is somewhat mercurial, but with this group you’re going to hear talk of immortality, artificial intelligence, and the singularity. But in it’s most basic form it consists of avoiding a premature end to humanity, and ultimately that requires getting off the planet in a sustainable fashion. This group generally doesn’t believe in God, but they’re passionately committed to science. We’ll call them the Radical Humanists, and the bulk of this post will be dedicated to them, and specifically getting off the planet, but now that we have defined the boundaries, it’s useful to go back and fill in more details on the Disengaged Middle.

With respect to “salvation” the Disengaged Middle is the great bulk of people (at least in the US and Western Europe) who neither attend church nor are actively involved in the sort of scientific salvation practiced by the radical humanists. They probably represent around 70 to 80% of the population (in the countries I mentioned). These are individuals who may be vaguely religious and hope that if they’re a good person it will all work out. Or on the other side of the equation they may have decided that whatever the future brings that the scientists will figure something out. Perhaps a significant majority belong to the Religion of Progress, the central tenant of which is that continual progress from this point until the end of time is ordained as some sort of immutable law of the universe. (John Michael Greer’s latest post has a great explanation of this.) But even if they do believe this, the vast majority do very little to push that progress forward. Mostly being focused more on when the next season of their favorite television show is going to be released then on any kind of effort towards an actual technological salvation.

And yes, as you may have guessed from that description, despite being on the Actively Religious side of the aisle, I have more sympathy for the Radical Humanists than the Disengaged Middle. As I have repeatedly said, I think they’re wrong. But at least we both agree on the need for salvation even if we disagree on what works best to bring it about. Thus, it is the Disengaged Middle I have the most problems with, and to return to a discussion of core values, if you want to live out as many years as you can with a minimum of stress and violence then the core value of minimizing stress and violence and death is great. But, as I intend to demonstrate, it almost certainly dooms us to a future where we’re stuck on a single planet until the sun gets too bright, or far more likely until some comet smashes into us. Perhaps that’s fine if you’re in the Disengaged Middle, but I suspect that if they really thought about it, it’s not, they just don’t think about it. But maybe I’m wrong, perhaps they do think about it but their myopia and selfishness means they just don’t care.

To restate the point I made in my earlier post when I reviewed Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, I don’t fault anyone, including my son, for embracing the values of life and peace. How could I? But it also shouldn’t be overlooked that the core value of reducing deaths in the short term is not the same as preventing the ultimate extinction of humanity in the long term. Which, if the Radical Humanists are right, only happens if humanity spreads to other planets. And means that any near term sacrifice is worth it in order to get off the planet, and to make humanity (or post-humanity) a truly interstellar race. Sacrifices which a short term focus on avoiding death and violence might prevent. In other words saving lives is not the same as saving humanity.

It should by now be obvious that the core value of reducing violence and preventable death is not even close to the same as the core value of getting off the planet, it may in fact be the opposite. To offer just one example. The reason we haven’t sent people to Mars has a lot to do with the difficulty of bringing them back, any reasonable estimate puts the cost of returning people to Earth at 10x the cost of just getting them there (at a bare minimum). This combined with our squeamishness at leaving them there to die means that our value of preventing death is directly opposed to the value of getting off the planet. Of course some people think that while it might be a one way trip that we wouldn’t be necessarily leaving them there to die, and we’ll touch on that idea more in a bit.

Of course the cost and the aversion to death are not the only reasons we don’t have men on Mars. There is also the recent idea that we shouldn’t waste resources on space exploration when we have so many problems here. This is evidence of the Disengaged Middle, who while not actively seeking salvation, frequently gets in the way of it, if only through imposing opportunity costs. In fact though it may seem that the Actively Religious would be the biggest impediments to space travel and exploration I don’t think that’s the case. People expect them to be opposed and have already dismissed them. Rather it’s the Disengaged Middle who subtly create the biggest roadblocks. And if they represent 70-80% of people, as I suspect, the Radical Humanists are dealing with significant friction before we even start talking about the technical difficulties, which are huge.

As we get into a technological discussion of space travel and colonization we have to mention Elon Musk, who is definitely the poster child for this endeavor, and by all accounts an incredibly smart individual. And at this point Elon is the person with the most concrete plan to create an extraterrestrial colony, in this case on Mars. Consequently, since any discussion of creating a colony on a planet other than Earth is going to be analyzed in relationship to his plan it’s probably just best to get it out of the way. Particularly since Elon’s plan represents something of a best case scenario.

In any endeavor cost can be used as a rough proxy for difficulty. To establish a sustainable colony on Mars (Elon speaks of getting millions of people there) it has to be a lot easier to get to Mars, which means it has to be a lot cheaper. Elon’s current estimate is that it would cost $10 billion per individual if you wanted to get to Mars under the current system. Obviously getting millions of people to Mars at that price is lunacy. Elon wants to reduce that down to $200,000 per person, which is a five million percent improvement. I won’t say that that’s impossible, but I can’t imagine that it’s something you can do overnight either.

Just as a brief survey, here are the challenges he has to overcome:

Initial money- The level of R&D, trial and error, and infrastructure required to pull this off is ridiculous. Most people agree that Elon can’t fund it all himself. Which means he has to get massive additional funding from somewhere else. A lot of people mention that NASA might help, but the amount of money we’re talking about is so huge that even NASA might only be able to make a small dent.

Habitation- Elon talks a lot about getting to Mars, but he doesn’t talk much about what to do once you’re there. It’s one thing to get someone to Mars it’s quite another to build him a house, a farm and a well. Elon has largely moved this question off to people other than himself. He wants to build a transcontinental railroad and let other people build the log cabins.

Fuel- For any kind of spaceflight, fuel is one of the single biggest problems. Particularly since any additional fuel adds weight which requires more fuel to lift the fuel just added, creating a non-linear curve that can quickly become vertical (i.e. you need infinite fuel). This is a particular problem, as I mentioned above, if you plan on returning from Mars. Musk has a plan to extract methane on Mars, but the details on that are VERY fuzzy.

A brief aside is necessary at this point, before we leave the subject of fuel. At this moment NASA is researching something called the EMDrive. And it has the potential to completely change this discussion. I don’t have the space to go into a detailed discussion of the EMDrive, but the first thing to note is that it’s a propellantless drive which makes everything I said before meaningless. The second thing to note is that it’s very controversial and we can’t say for sure at this point if it actually works. In particular it violates Newton’s third law. And similar to when the OPERA project thought they had detected faster than light neutrinos, you have to take any claims that overturn laws of physics with a many grains of salt, I mean like a whole shaker. In other words if the EMDrive actually works it could invalidate the majority of this post. Though all of the non-technical issues I already mentioned would still remain. End of aside.

As you can see Elon faces a number of non-trivial challenges in order for his plan to work. However despite all that let’s assume that he can do it, that he can get somehow get a ticket to Mars down to $200,000. Let’s even assume that’s the price for a round trip. Then the question still remains: Who would pay that money?

I can think of only two categories of people who might:

The Rich Tourist- I think everyone can imagine that there are certain very rich people who would pay $200,000 to go to Mars and come back just for the experience. But how many of them would stay? If you’re rich enough to afford a $200,000 trip Mars then you’re pretty rich. I can’t imagine anyone with a net worth of less than a million would go, and if you’re a millionaire would you rather live in a tiny 5’x5’ room, with decompressive death lurking around every corner for the rest of your life or would you rather live in Paris?

True Believers- Certainly there are some people who believe strongly enough in the same vision of the future that Elon does that they would go to Mars and stay there. But these people don’t only have to be true believers they have to have at least as much money as the first group and probably more. Recall that they don’t just have to pay the money to get there, they have to pay the money to stay there. Even using Elon’s widely optimistic numbers you’re still talking about $140,000 per ton to get stuff to Mars. Which means you need to spend an addition $140,000 just to make sure you don’t starve to death in the first year.

Both of these categories are prohibitively expensive, even if we grant Elon’s numbers. Recall that only 0.7% of the world’s population has a net worth of a million dollars or more, and that would appear to be the bare minimum for someone to go to Mars, either as a tourist or a resident.

Thus far, even granting that Elon reduces the price to $200,000, and further granting that there are actually millions of rich true believers who are willing to relocate to Mars, we still haven’t figured out how to make the colony sustainable. Dr. Scott Pace, the Director of Space Policy Institute had an admirable breakdown of the future of space exploration and colonization:

Such a question could be, “Does humanity have a future beyond the Earth?” Either a yes or a no answer would have profound implications. Addressing this question quickly leads to two sub-questions: can humans “live off the land” away from Earth, and is there any economic justification for human activities off the Earth? If the answer to both questions is yes, then there will be space settlements. If the answer to both questions is no, then space is akin to Mount Everest – a place where explorers and tourists might visit but of no greater significance. If humans can live off-planet, but there is nothing economically useful to do, then lunar and Martian outposts will, at best, be similar to those found in Antarctica. If humans cannot live off-planet, but there is some useful economic activity to perform, then those outposts become like remote oil platforms. Each of these scenarios represents a radically different human future in space and while individuals might have beliefs or hopes for one of them, it is unknown which answer will turn out to be true.

We can imagine that if Elon does manage to get the price down in the way he hopes, that in the initial flurry of excitement and optimism that we might have lots of people sign up to go to Mars, but at some point, after the initial excitement wears off, inevitably Pace’s categories would come to dominate the endeavor. And when that happens where does Mars end up? Is it Everest, Antarctica, a North Sea Drilling platform or America being discovered by the Europeans?

The fact that Pace mentions Antarctica is interesting, because it’s an instructive example. Antarctica is better for settlement than Mars by any conceivable measurement. It’s warmer than Mars. The air is breathable. There’s the same large supply of water trapped as ice. But most of all it’s 34 million miles closer! And yet Antarctica only has 5,000 temporary residents, and trust me, they are not living off the land. It’s also instructive to note that as a low estimate it costs $100,000/year to live there. The cost to spend a year on Mars has to be a least that high and it’s probably more like 10x that. If we can’t live off the land in our own backyard under much better conditions, how can we expect to live off the land on Mars? And yes I’m sure technology will improve, but you’re still faced with a situation where livability wise there’s no reason to have a million people on Mars until you have at least that many in Antarctica.

As far as whether it’s economically justified. I have seen very little that indicates that Mars has any special economic resources. When speaking of the Moon people talk about Helium-3 but apparently this doesn’t apply to Mars. There are some people who say that there might be precious metals and rare earth elements on Mars, but not only is the evidence for this currently lacking, but you still end up with Mars being the North Sea Drilling platform (presumably worked by robots) not the colony of millions which Elon envisions.

In the end it appears that there might only be one reason to go to Mars, and that’s the reason I initially mentioned, which is to make sure that we are not a one planet species. That when the Sun gets too hot or when the comet appears out of nowhere on a course for Earth that humanity can still be saved. But this requires that a large group of people pay a lot of money to go live in a miserably hostile environment for the rest of their lives. And it requires that the 70-80% of people (possibly more when you include the Actively Religious) who think it’s a dumb idea and a waste of money somehow go along with it.

If, despite everything, you still think the dreams of the Radical Humanists are enough to overcome all the challenges I have mentioned, I urge you to consider the fact that we haven’t even done everything we can here on Earth. There are plenty of catastrophes that might wipe out humanity, but be survivable by a group of 500-1000 people, living continuously deep underground, with lots of supplies. And yet nothing even close to that exists.

How am I supposed to take the dramatic plans of a Mars Colony seriously when the Radical Humanists can’t even do something simple and straightforward here on Earth to ensure the Salvation of Humanity.


Predictions (Spoiler: No AI or Immortality)

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Many people use the occasion of the New Year to make predictions about the coming year. And frankly, while these sorts of predictions are amusing, and maybe even interesting, they’re not particularly useful. To begin with, historically one of the biggest problems has been that there’s no accountability after the fact. If we’re going to pay attention to someone’s predictions for 2017 it would be helpful to know how well they did in predicting 2016. In fairness, recently this trend has started to change, driven to a significant degree by the work of Philip Tetlock. Perhaps you’ve heard of Tetlock’s book Superforcasting (another book I intend to read, but haven’t yet, I’m only one man) But if you haven’t heard of the book or of Tetlock, he has made something of a career out of holding prognosticators accountable, and his influence (and that of others) is starting to make itself felt.

Scott Alexander of SlateStarCodex, makes yearly predictions and, following the example of Tetlock, scores them at the end of the year. He just released the scoring of his 2016 predictions. As part of the exercise, he not only makes predictions but provides a confidence level. In other words, is he 99% sure that X will/won’t happen, or is he only 60% sure? For those predictions where his confidence level was 90% or higher he only missed one prediction. He predicted with 90% confidence that “No country currently in Euro or EU announces plan to leave:” And of course there was the Brexit, so he missed that one. Last year he didn’t post his predictions until the 25th of January, but as I was finishing up this article he did post his 2017 predictions, and I’ll spend a few words at the end talking about them.

As an aside, speaking of posting predictions on the 25th, waiting as long as you can get away with is one way to increase your odds. For example last year Alexander made several predictions about what might happen in Asia. Taiwan held their elections on the 16th of January, and you could certainly imagine that knowing the results of that election might help you with those predictions. I’m not saying this was an intentional strategy on Alexander’s part, but I think it’s safe to say that those first 24 days of January weren’t information free, and if we wanted to get picky we’d take that into account. It is perhaps a response to this criticism for Alexander to post his predictions much earlier this year.

Returning to Alexander’s 2016 predictions, they’re reasonably mundane. In general he predicts that things will continue as they have. There’s a reason he does that. It turns out that if you want to get noticed, you predict something spectacular, but if you want to be right (at least more often than not) than you predict that things will basically look the same in a year as they look now. Alexander is definitely one of those people who wants to be right. And I am not disparaging that, we should all want to be more correct than not, but trying to maximize your correctness does have one major weakness. And that is why, despite Tetlock’s efforts, prediction is still more amusing than useful.

See, it’s not the things which stay the same that are going to cause you problems. If things continue as they have been, than it doesn’t take much foresight to reap the benefits and avoid the downside. It’s when the status quo breaks that prediction becomes both useful and ironically impossible.

In other words someone like Alexander (who by the way I respect a lot I’m just using him as an example) can have year after year of results like the results he had for 2016 and then be completely unprepared the one year when some major black swan occurs which wipes out half of his predictions.

Actually, forget about wiping out half his predictions, let’s just look at his, largely successful, world event predictions for 2016. There were 49 of them and he was wrong about only eight. I’m going to ignore one of the eight because he was only 50% confident about it (that is the equivalent of flipping a coin and he admits himself that being 50% confident is pretty meaningless). This gives us 41 correct predictions out of 48 total predictions, or 85% correct. Which seems really good. The problem is that the stuff he was wrong about is far more consequential than the stuff he was right about. He was wrong about the aforementioned Brexit, he made four wrong predictions about the election. (Alexander, like most people, was surprised by the election of Trump.) And then he was wrong about the continued existence of ISIS and oil prices. As someone living in America you may doubt the impact of oil prices, but if so I refer you to the failing nation of Venezuela.

Thus while you could say that he was 85% accurate, it’s the 15% of stuff he wasn’t accurate about that is going to be the most impactful. In other words, he was right about most things, but the consequences of his seven missed predictions will easily exceed the consequences of the 41 predictions that he got right.

That is the weakness of trying to maximize being correct. While being more right than wrong is certainly desirable. In general the few things people end up being wrong about end up being far more consequential than all things they’re right about. Obviously it’s a little bit crude to use the raw number of predictions as our standard. But I think in this case it’s nevertheless essentially accurate. You can be right 85% of the time and still end up in horrible situations because the 15% of the time you’re wrong, you’re wrong about the truly consequential stuff.

I’ve already given the example of Alexander being wrong about Brexit and Trump. But there are of course other examples. The recent financial crisis is a big one. One of the big hinges of investment boom leading up to the crisis was the idea that the US had never had a nationwide decline in housing prices. And that was a true and accurate position for decades, but the one year it wasn’t true made the dozens of years when it was true almost entirely inconsequential.

You may be thinking from all this that I have a low opinion of predictions, and that’s largely the case. Once again this goes back to the ideas of Taleb and Antifragility. One of his key principles is to reduce your exposure to negative black swans and increase your exposure to positive black swans. But none of this exposure shifting involves accurately predicting the future. And to the extent that you think you can predict the future it makes you less likely to worry about the sort of exposure shifting that Taleb advocates, and makes things more fragile. Also, in a classic cognitive bias, everything you correctly predicted you ascribe to skill while every time you’re wrong you put that down to bad luck. Which, remember, is easy trap to fall into because if you expect the status quo to continue you’re going to be right a lot more often than you’re wrong.

Finally, because of the nature of black swans and negative events, if you’re prepared for a black swan it only has to happen once, but if you’re not prepared then it has to NEVER happen. For example, imagine if I predicted a nuclear war. And I had moved to a remote place and built a fallout shelter and stocked it with a bunch of food. Every year I predict a nuclear war and every year people point me out as someone who makes outlandish predictions to get attention, because year after year I’m wrong. Until one year, I’m not. Just like with the financial crisis, it doesn’t matter how many times I was the crazy guy from Wyoming, and everyone else was the sane defender of the status quo, because from the perspective of consequences they got all the consequences of being wrong despite years and years of being right, and I got all the benefits of being right despite years and years of being wrong.

All of this is not to say that you should move to Wyoming and build a fallout shelter. Only to illustrate the asymmetry of being right most of the time, if when you’re wrong you’re wrong about something really big.

In discussing the move towards tracking the accuracy of predictions I neglected to engage in much of a discussion of why people make outrageous and ultimately inaccurate predictions. Why do predictions, in order to be noticed, need to be extreme? Many people will chalk it up to a need for novelty or a requirement brought on by a crowded media environment, but once you realize that it’s the black swans, not the status quote that cause all the problems (and if you’re lucky bring all the benefits) you begin to grasp that people pay attention to extreme predictions not out of some morbid curiosity or some faulty wiring in their brain but because if there is some chance of an extreme prediction coming true, that is what they need to prepare for. Their whole life and all of society is already prepared for the continuation of the status quo, it’s the potential black swans you need to be on the lookout for.

Consequently, while I totally agree that if someone says X will happen in 2016, that it’s useful to go back and record whether that prediction was correct. I don’t agree with the second, unstated assumption behind this tracking that extreme predictions should be done away with because they so often turn out to not be true. If someone thinks ISIS might have a nuke, I’d like to know that. I may not change what I’m doing, but then again I just might.

To put it in more concrete terms, let’s assume that you heard rumblings in February of 2000 that tech stocks were horribly overvalued, and so you took the $100,000 you had invested in the NASDAQ and turned it into bonds, or cash. If so when the bottom rolled around in September of 2002 you would still have your $100k, whereas if you didn’t take it out you would have lost around 75% of your money. But let’s assume that you were wrong, and that nothing happened and that the while the NASDAQ didn’t continue its meteoric rise that it continued to grow at the long term stock market average of 7% then you would have made around $20,000 dollars.

For the sake of convenience let’s say that you didn’t quite time it perfectly and you only prevented the loss of $60k. Which means that the $20k you might have made if your instincts had proven false was one third of the $60k you actually might have lost. Consequently you could be in a situation where you were less than 50% sure that the market was going to crash (in other words you viewed it as improbable) and still have a positive expected value from taking all of your money out of the NASDAQ. In other words depending on the severity of the unlikely event it may not matter if it’s unlikely or improbable, because it can still make sense to act as if it were going to happen, or at a minimum to hedge against it. Because in the long run you’ll still be better off.

Having said all this you may think that the last thing I would do is offer up some predictions, but that is precisely what I’m going to do. These predictions will differ in format from Alexander’s. First, as you may have guessed already I am not going to limit myself to predicting what will happen in 2017. Second I’m going to make predictions which, while they will be considered improbable, will have a significant enough impact if true that you should hedge against them anyway. This significant impact means that it won’t really matter if I’m right this year or if I’m right in 50 years, it will amount to much the same regardless. Third, a lot of my predictions will be about things not happening. And with these predictions I will have to be right for all time not just 2017. Finally with several of these predictions I hope I am wrong.

Here are my list of predictions, there are 15, which means I won’t be able to give a lot of explanation about any individual prediction. If you see one that you’re particularly interested in a deeper explanation of, then let me know and I’ll see what I can do to flesh it out. Also as I mentioned I’m not going to put any kind of a deadline on these predictions, saying merely that they will happen at some point, but for those of you who think that this is cheating I will say that if 100 years have passed and a prediction hasn’t come true then you can consider it to be false. However as many of my predictions are about things that will never happen I am, in effect, saying that they won’t happen in the next 100 years, which is probably as long as anyone could be expected to see. Despite this caveat I expect those predictions to hold true for even longer than that. With all of those caveats here are the predictions. I have split them into five categories

Artificial Intelligence

  1. General artificial intelligence, duplicating the abilities of an average human (or better), will never be developed.

If there was a single AI able to do everything on this list, I would consider this a failed prediction. For a recent examination of some of the difficulties see this recent presentation.

  1. A complete functional reconstruction of the brain will turn out to be impossible.

This includes slicing and scanning a brain, or constructing an artificial brain.

  1. Artificial consciousness will never be created.

This of course is tough to quantify, but I will offer up my own definition for a test of artificial consciousness: We will never have an AI who makes a credible argument for it’s own free will.

Transhumanism

  1. Immortality will never be achieved.

Here I am talking about the ability to suspend or reverse aging. I’m not assuming some new technology that lets me get hit by a bus and survive.

  1. We will never be able to upload our consciousness into a computer.

If I’m wrong about this I’m basically wrong about everything. And the part of me that enviously looks on as my son plays World of Warcraft hopes that I am wrong, it would be pretty cool.

  1. No one will ever successfully be returned from the dead using cryonics.

Obviously weaselly definitions which include someone being brought back from extreme cold after three hours don’t count. I’m talking about someone who’s been dead for at least a year.

Outer Space

  1. We will never establish a viable human colony outside the solar system.

Whether this is through robots constructing humans using DNA, or a ship full of 160 space pioneers, it’s not going to happen.

  1. We will never have an extraterrestrial colony (Mars or Europa or the Moon) of greater than 35,000 people.

I think I’m being generous here to think it would even get close to this number but if it did it would still be smaller than the top 900 US cities and Lichtenstein.

  1. We will never make contact with an intelligent extraterrestrial species.

I have already offered my own explanation for Fermi’s Paradox, so anything that fits into that explanation would not falsify this prediction.

War (I hope I’m wrong about all of these)

  1. Two or more nukes will be exploded in anger within 30 days of one another.

This means a single terrorist nuke that didn’t receive retaliation in kind would not count.

  1. There will be a war with more deaths than World War II (in absolute terms, not as a percentage of population.)

Either an external or internal conflict would count, for example a Chinese Civil War.

  1. The number of nations with nuclear weapons will never be less than it is right now.

The current number is nine. (US, Russia, Britain, France, China, North Korea, India, Pakistan and Israel.)

Miscellaneous

  1. There will be a natural disaster somewhere in the world that kills at least a million people

This is actually a pretty safe bet, though one that people pay surprisingly little attention to as demonstrated by the complete ignorance of the 1976 Chinese Earthquake.

  1. The US government’s debt will eventually be the source of a gigantic global meltdown.

I realize that this one isn’t very specific as stated so let’s just say that the meltdown has to be objectively worse on all (or nearly all) counts than the 2007-2008 Financial Crisis. And it has to be widely accepted that US government debt was the biggest cause of the meltdown.

  1. Five or more of the current OECD countries will cease to exist in their current form.

This one relies more on the implicit 100 year time horizon then the rest of the predictions. And I would count any foreign occupation, civil war, major dismemberment or change in government (say from democracy to a dictatorship) as fulfilling the criteria.

A few additional clarifications on the predictions:

  • I expect to revisit these predictions every year, I’m not sure I’ll have much to say about them, but I won’t forget about them. And if you feel that one of the predictions has been proven incorrect feel free to let me know.
  • None of these predictions is designed to be a restriction on what God can do. I believe that we will achieve many of these things through divine help. I just don’t think we can do it ourselves. The theme of this blog is not that we can’t be saved, rather that we can’t save ourselves with technology and progress. A theme you may have noticed in my predictions.
  • I have no problem with people who are attempting any of the above or are worried about the dangers of any of the above (in particular AI) I’m a firm believer in the prudent application of the precautionary principle. I think a general artificial intelligence is not going to happen, but for those that do like Eliezer Yudowsky and Nick Bostrom it would be foolish to not take precautions. In fact insofar as some of the transhumanists emphasize the elimination of existential risks I think they’re doing a useful and worthwhile service, since it’s an area that’s definitely underserved. I have more problems with people who attempt to combine transhumanism with religion, as a bizarre turbo-charged millennialism, but I understand where they’re coming from.

Finally, as I mentioned above Alexander has published his predictions for 2017. As in past years he keeps all or most of the applicable predictions from the previous year (while updating the confidence level) and then incrementally expands his scope. I don’t have the space to comment on all of his predictions, but here are a few that jumped out:

  1. Last year he had a specific prediction about Greece leaving the Euro (95% chance it wouldn’t) now he just has a general prediction that no one new will leave the EU or Euro and gives that an 80% chance. That’s probably smart, but less helpful if you live in Greece.
  2. He has three predictions about the EMDrive. That could be a big black swan. And I admire the fact that he’s willing to jump into that.
  3. He carried over a prediction from 2016 of no earthquakes in the US with greater than 100 deaths (99% chance) I think he’s overconfident on that one, but the prediction itself is probably sound.
  4. He predicts that Trump will still be president at the end of 2017 (90% sure) and that no serious impeachment proceedings will have been initiated (80% sure). These predictions seem to have generated the most comments, and they are definitely areas where I fear to make any predictions myself, so my hat’s off to him here. I would only say that the Trump Presidency is going to be tumultuous.

And I guess with that prediction we’ll end.