Month: December 2017

75 Solutions to Fermi’s Paradox but Still Missing Mine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


More on the Harrasocaust? Or is it the Pervnado?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


The Madness of the Crowds and Sexual Harassment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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