Smart people never tire of swinging their di- their smarts around

Eliezer Yudkowsky retweeted Geoffrey Miller’s notion that if people can’t tell a thing about permafrost melting or methane clathrate melting, they’re not concerned enough to learn much about climate change.

This is used to imply that people shouldn’t claim to care about issues they don’t bother learning much about. Miller elaborates to point out – quite fairly – that the issue has been a partisan divide along the political spectrum for decades, yet the people who fight about the issue don’t often understand it very well.

People began immediately pointing out that there are obvious benefits of cognitive labor division with examples such as one’s mother having cancer. If my mom has cancer, I’m going to look for the best doctors for her instead of opening a book on cancer biology and treatments. Others pointed out one should then do both.

But we do not live in a world where my mom gets cancer and then I look into cancer biology and the methods for choosing the best doctors. We live in a world with climate change, existential AI risk, environmental disasters, pandemics, wars, nuclear wars, peak-whatever, politicians lying, the economy of my country failing, the safety of my neighborhood collapsing, my mom getting cancer, my mom also having several complications of diabetes and asthma, my sister having epilepsy and an autistic kid, myself having inexplicable headaches and a job I’m not quite qualified enough to ace but which I’m really, really trying to do well, while also trying to take care of my car which is falling apart, while being relatively interested in my not-so-critical hobbies – and worst of all, where people like mr. Miller go about asking “Are you telling me you don’t have a model of reality taking these things into account?”.

It’s very, very obvious most people can’t ace all those things. Perhaps some can – although I doubt that’s the case as much as smart people overestimating their capabilities to understand complicated stuff just due to them outsmarting their peers. However, let’s say they can.

At which point it becomes a matter of Yudkowsky signal-boosting Geoffrey Miller not sincerely asking people to look into matters they care about. It becomes Yudkowsky signal-boosting Miller swinging his dick around, telling people “Oh I’m smarter than you, and you should in fact feel ashamed about it.”

Which Yudkowsky then acknowledges to be the case.

I really gotta say: we’re so lucky we have these smart people around to solve complex problems for us. I just wish they wouldn’t be asses about it. But I guess perhaps my utility function just doesn’t take into account the immense nonlinear difference between the joy such a highly developed mind gets from bullying less smart people, and the relatively insignificant matter of people feeling bad when they feel Yudkowsky’s or Miller’s big dicks swinging at their face. It’s a real damn shame that these people are so full of themselves they make it really hard to read anything they write, because they really in fact do have good insights for us to learn from – if you are willing to take all the douchebaggery and bullying.

Also: if you don’t smoke because you heard it causes lung cancer: are you more worried about squamous cell carcinoma or adenocarcinoma? If you don’t have an answer ready, why the heck are you claiming not to smoke because of cancer? Same measure, of course, also can be applied for whether one loves their child or not.

What next?

Several things are going on simultaneously. Probability estimates off the top of my hat.

  1. Markets are crashing despite the regulators’ best efforts to prevent that from happening. Worries of European banks’ survival are surfacing.
  2. Coronavirus is spreading at a rate which is bound to strain the limits of public healthcare in European countries. Italy is already in deep.
  3. Coronavirus is beginning to affect the global production chain, possibly causing short-term supply shortages globally.
  4. Saudi Arabia is engaging in price warfare to secure a steady income from fossil fuels during the years to come (that is, oil prices will bounce back heavily after crashing, assuming a steady demand).
  5. A climate of FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt) has developed. Laypeople are scared of coronavirus, whereas investors are scared of the market crash.
  6. USA keeps pressuring Iran and continues warfare against insurgents in Iraq.
  7. Turkey pressures EU with threats of immigrant crisis, to which EU reacts by closing its borders.
  8. Nationalist, national conservatist and national socialist politics and regimes are resurging in Europe over the long term.

It is extremely difficult if not impossible to predict what will happen next. Short-term survival is of course paramount. I estimate, off the top of my ass, the risk of a quickly escalating financial catastrophe as low (<10%). That includes the risk of food running out of grocery stores and people not being able to draw cash form ATM:s.

However, the long term financial risks and the political effects involved are huge, even if governments and banks managed to keep things under control. The risk of at least a European and even a global recession is high (>80%). Amplified by the psychological effects of a  pandemic infectious disease, this will very likely (say, >90%) lead to more conservative, traditionalist policies, severe restrictions on immigration over the long term, and a transition towards the Right in voting patterns. Very likely people will at some point demand that production be returned to Western countries to ensure safety of critical supplies (food, medicine, etc).

This will further exacerbate the ongoing European political developments towards nationalist if not downright fascist structures. The modern global economic patterns have during the last few decades depended upon more globalism, less localism, less power for people, less restrictions on movement. That means that those patterns will likely not thrive during opposite developments, which will in turn make the world’s economics less predictable.

Interesting times, say.

Book review: Who rules the world? (2016)

After Imperial Ambitions, this is the second work of Chomsky I’ve read. It paints a very dark picture of both the state of the world and specifically US and Israeli foreign policy throughout the 20th century and well over into the 21st, founding its analysis in facts accompanied by hundreds of citations. Chomsky aims to completely dismantle the idea of the United States as a well-intentioned giant, succeeding to a devastating extent. To replace such an interpretation, he offers an idea of the US government as a dynamic, Machiavellian group of economic and political elites who aim to upkeep a global military and economic US hegemony for as long as possible – using any means deemed necessary.

 

Noam Chomsky is perhaps the most prominent critic of United States of America’s imperialism and its politics in general. As a linguist, I’ve understood, time has much driven by his findings and theories, but his contributions to contemporary and historical political analysis and discussion are highly valued – depending on whether you agree with him about politics. People in general have this tendency – if someone agrees with them, it doesn’t matter much if they spout incorrect nonsense, and if they don’t, every single bit a person says comes under strict scrutiny (also known as motivated skepticism).

The thing about Chomsky is that it is very, very hard to simply disagree with his writing. You may disagree with his proposed solutions for issues, with which facts count as meaningful, or with the way he interprets many events, but you cannot simply disagree with everything Chomsky says. That is just because Chomsky talks mostly about facts. Unlike many others, who present a single fact and then extrapolate from that to lengthy, interpretative storytelling, Chomsky typically presents maybe a dozen or so facts, discusses them to a varying degree of detail, and perhaps finishes with a couple of sour comments and carries on to the next subject.

Chomsky’s attention to facts is astounding. The number of citations in this book alone counts over five hundred, with few references to a single work. He cites books, journals, declassified CIA reports, public official statements and many, many other sources to provide flesh to his claims which might otherwise appear egregious. He has been accused of cherry-picking facts, most notably in Anti-Chomsky reader. I cannot comment on that book, because I haven’t read it. I most likely will, seeing as I’ll eventually read most if not all of Chomsky’s books, too. For those interested in what actual historians have to say about Chomsky, I recommend the Askhistorians subreddit FAQ section devoted to him. Long story short, Reddit historians disagree on the extent to which Chomsky lets his biases affect his analyses, most of them think he does not exercise the same kind of intellectual rigor on leftist failures and crimes as he does on the failures and crimes of USA, and no examples are given of him being completely wrong about the US or Israel. I did find a single example, but it is mostly a question of wording, where Chomsky could have chosen his words better, but where he isn’t wrong, either. I won’t delve further into that here, but I’m willing to discuss it in comments.

That is, most if not all criticism of Chomsky seems to revolve around his leftist ideas and claims of him whitewashing leftist dictators, him overstating the indifferent or downright malicious attitudes of US leaders towards the victims of US imperialism, and around his interpretations of the US government’s attitudes towards their actions (for instance, see the short Harris & Chomsky email correspondence). From such a superficial glance it seems that few are able or willing to dispute the accuracy of his sources or the events he claims have happened, instead directing their criticism towards Chomsky’s interpretations on what counts as meaningful in the context of global politics. The fact remains that Chomsky supports his claims by offering a fact after another, and in many cases, they are devastating facts. His rhetoric is captivating and persuasive, and the main reason for that is in his use of facts. No wonder the contemporary Right hates his guts.

He begins the book by exploring the role of an intellectual in the modern world, continuing to list actions of US special forces, intelligence agencies and US-funded military and paramilitary groups around the globe, especially in Southern and Latin America (Haiti, Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador and Brazil are all mentioned). The actions presented are not flattering; assassinations, coups, attacks or threats to sovereign states and international terror form the bulk of Chomsky’s presentation. During this part he dismantles a modern conspiracy theorist image of JFK as a sincere man of peace who was against a US military hegemony, while in fact Kennedy during the 60s set in motion plans and patterns of foreign policy resulting in significant violence and oppression in several Latin and South American countries. One example is Kennedy’s 1962 decision to send special forces to Colombia to begin “paramilitary, sabotage and terror operations against known proponents of Communism” (my translation).

On a side note, I can remember even seeing a conspiracy theory (as a teenage kid), which stated that JFK was against the Vietnam war, which led to his assassination – whereas Kennedy in fact acted a key role in escalating the Vietnam war.

As the book consists of small essays instead of a coherent, logical story told from beginning to end, he relies heavily on repetition of certain key elements, including the ghastly difference between a nation’s professed intentions and their actual behavior. In this sense he takes on a kind of a realist outlook on international relations, although his realism differs much from that of Henry Kissinger’s World Order. Chomsky discusses several matters simultaneously, resulting in discussions of certain phenomena or characters – say, the future of US imperialism, Obama as a president, Israel’s foreign policy, the future of Palestinians, nuclear weapons, and so on – being resolved only little by little, layer by layer. This makes for a very dense book, but also rewards the reader by a more thorough understanding of Chomskys point of view towards the end.

During the first chapter Chomsky also lists domestic and foreign comments on such events to explore the government’s and the public attitude towards them, comparing them with imaginary examples of similar crimes done by USA:s enemies or rivals, or crimes done to US citizens, concluding that the US pretty much reserves the right to violence and breaking the international law, whereas laws are for non-US countries. Specifically in this context he mentions the 2011 assassination of Obama bin Laden without trial or autopsy, whereas even Nazi criminals were given the right to trial. He concludes by referring to Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation of 1863, condemning assassinations. This reflects well upon the recent 2020 assassination of Iranian general Soleimani. This example also begins the task, carried out throughout the book, of dismantling the image of Obama as a peaceful (or as those on the Right might say, weak) leader aiming to redeem America’s crimes and rebuild it towards a less hostile and frightening direction – using one example after the other.

The examples mentioned above are not exhaustive, but they give an idea of the matters discussed in the first chapter of the book. As there are 23 chapters in the book, I will settle at saying that Chomsky offers a devastating critique of many modern myths of international politics and especially those concerning actions of USA. Among the most interesting to me were the seemingly neverending examples of Israeli violence and terror against the Palestinians and the much repeated fact that Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory are illegal and almost universally condemned globally – with the exception of USA. Also Chomsky’s discussions of nuclear weapons and particularly the US nuclear strategy (to paraphrase: “We need to seem needlessly vengeful and unpredictable in order for the threat of nuclear attack to loom over each and every conflict”) deserves a tip of hat. Besides those his discussion of USA:s internal politics and the war its elites have waged against the working classes were an eye-opening read.

Chomsky’s writing is very dense with references to global and loval events and themes occurring several times a page. However, he also rewards the reader with one kind of a storyline of how the world has come to look the way it did in 2016. Every story has its flaws and every storyteller has their biases, but it suffices to say that Chomsky absolutely does not fail to take reality into account when writing out his interpretations. Highly recommended for the layperson – perhaps even for the historian.

The next book I’ll review is Christopher Norris’ Epistemology, followed by Why the West Rules (for now).

This blog’s aim for 2020 and the 20s

Having written over 50 blog posts with enough words to create a small book, I’ve slowly realized several things.

Most importantly I lack consistency as a writer. That much is to be expected, as much of the stuff about ‘finding one’s voice’ has to do with experience. I’m also writing in a non-native language (Finnish is my mother tongue), which makes things a lot slower and more cumbersome. I didn’t expect it to, as my English is by far among the best of non-native English speakers who aren’t particularly talented, but it absolutely does.

The consistency mentioned has to do with the rate at which I publish texts. I often don’t have much to say of this or that, and when I do, I often find it difficult to put my thoughts into words. This often leads to me not publishing for a while, especially if I’m otherwise busy.

It also has to do with the quality of my posts. I might be way over my head comparing myself to truly smart and prolific writers such as Scott Alexander, Robin Hanson, JM Korhonen, JM Greer, Gwern, and several others, but such a comparison has a meaning to me. It didn’t take me long to realize I don’t write nearly as well as those bloggers I aspire to (not to say I agree with them on everything or anything). What separates these brilliant people from me as bloggers is that their thoughts are well articulated, concise (well, SSC…) and fresh, and they’ve done their homework.

One of the biggest issues I’ve had as an adult is that I’ve remained hopelessly uneducated in most matters relevant to my interests: society, history, psychology, health, science, etc. I’m of course obviously interested in much besides those things, but seeing as I find it more and more difficult to say anything about, say, the subjects mentioned, I believe I should redirect my efforts to read more and write less. That is, I hope to publish more book reviews and thoughts born of the intellectual stimulation I hope to gain by reading more.

I’ll try to direct my thoughts to less original matters – that is, original to me, painfully obvious to any educated person – and instead will endeavor to learn the vocabulary which already exists to describe the matters I’m discussing. Then I’ll try to refer to the thoughts of those greater than me and discuss my perspectives on them, hopefully providing commentary to social phenomena of the 20s.

As of now, I have several books going. I’m reading Chomsky’s Who rules the world? in Finnish, and I’ll provide short commentary on it as soon as I finish the book. Next in line I have Christopher Norris’s Key concepts in epistemology, followed by some books on modern history. Alongside these I’m trying to grasp the key ideas of Economics by Begg & al. I’ll be doing all of this while carrying on while finishing my medical degree by 2021. I read very slowly, but I hope to achieve a rate of reading a book every week by the end of year.

All in all, I hope to achieve several things during this year on this blog:

  • More facts and analysis of those facts, less opinions
  • More book reviews and less ‘original’ (uneducated) thinking
  • More developed and nuanced views on matters I’ve already discussed
  • To prove that I’m capable of improving my thinking to a level I can respect

It’s going to be a lot of fun and a lot of hard work – I aim to deliver.

Cultural stability and progress

Most people need limits, stability and clarity.

The pseudonym Hanzi Freinacht, the writer of the book The Listening Society and a proponent of a convoluted worldview or ideology called metamodernism disagrees with me; or disagrees to the extent that hierarchies do and should exist based somewhat on the differential individual ability to withstand and understand complexity. Those who can take the contradictions of ever-transforming social and scientific revolutions end up dominating. Can’t deal with the complexity of society radically transforming before your eyes in mere decades? Down the toilet you go.

A lot of people might have a problem with that, and that is pretty much exactly what is happening in great parts of the Western civilizations at the moment.

Freinacht is most likely a lot more niche than their fans would like to think, but they do represent a general switch of consensus from singular, collective values and philosophies toward moral and hierarchical pluralism. What this means in practice is that people today look back with ridicule and contempt at Francis Fukuyama’s The end of history, which declared that the human civilization had finally found its ultimate form of government – a capitalist liberal democracy – and most if not all important developments that were ever going to occur were pretty much over and done with.

I count myself among people not exactly appreciating mr. Fukuyama’s conclusions, but I find that troubling. The reason for that isn’t that we were in for a whole lot more progress than he thought, but that we have lost all sight of collective progress during the last decade or so in the midst of insane political infighting, blaming and judging. All  political ideologies blame the other for ruining the society – everybody seems to agree that the brink of ruin is imminent, at least. Idealism has been replaced by a chaotic nihilism and cynicism, which are further magnified by the insanely fast communications of contemporary technology.

Such a place is a wonderful petri dish for political ideologies promising clear values which they claim to protect. And voilá, reactionary movements are spawning across the globe, and the people who sincerely believe in what has been labeled progress are still pretty stunned by the fact that Mr. Trump is the president of the United States. The fact that the political ground that the modern reactionary movements have gained is explained by common folks’ prejudices, racism, privilege and lack of education further exacerbates such movements’ appeal.

Most people need clear values, stability and clarity. They need limits to the extent to which their lives and values should be transformed through their lives. If they are not given that, they will turn to people who will promise those things. And so we face a situation where the most developed and progressive nations of today’s world seem to implode with escalating cultural tensions while much more autocratic, more conservative and less progressive nations rise to the challenge of maintaining stability in the 21st century.

Time will tell, huh?