My Mistakes

Things I have changed my mind about.
personal, philosophy, predictions, Bitcoin, survey, Bayes
2011-09-152018-02-08 in progress certainty: unlikely importance: 7

“One does not care to acknowl­edge the mis­takes of one’s youth.”

, 1

It is salu­tary for the soul to review past events and per­haps keep a list of things one no longer believes, since such crises are rare2 and so eas­ily pass from mem­ory (there is no feel­ing of being wrong, only of hav­ing been wrong3). One does not need an elab­o­rate rit­ual (fun as they are to read about) to change one’s mind, but the changes must hap­pen. If you are not chang­ing, you are not grow­ing4; no one has won the belief lot­tery and has a monop­oly on truth5. To the hon­est inquir­er, all sur­prises are pleas­ant ones6.


Only the most clever and the most stu­pid can­not change.7

This list is not for spe­cific facts of which there are too many to record, nor is it for fal­si­fied pre­dic­tions like my belief that George W. Bush would not be elected (for those see or my Pre­dic­tion­Book.­com page), nor mis­takes in my pri­vate life (which go into a pri­vate file), nor things I never had an ini­tial strong posi­tion on (Win­dows vs Lin­ux, Java vs Haskel­l). The fol­low­ing are some major ideas or sets of ideas that I have changed my mind about:


For I count being refuted a greater good, inso­far as it is a greater good to be rid of the great­est evil from one­self than to rid some­one else of it. I don’t sup­pose that any evil for a man is as great as false belief about the things we’re dis­cussing right now…8

I think reli­gion was the first sub­ject in my life that I took seri­ous­ly. As best as I can recall at this point, I have no “decon­ver­sion story” or tale to tell, since I don’t remem­ber ever seri­ously believ­ing9 - the sto­ries in the Bible or at my Catholic church were inter­est­ing, but they were obvi­ously fic­tion to some degree. I was­n’t going to reject reli­gion out of hand because some of the sto­ries were made-up (any more than I believed George Wash­ing­ton did­n’t exist because the story of him chop­ping down an apple tree was made-up), but the big claims did­n’t seem to be pan­ning out either:

  1. My prayers received no answers of any kind, not even a voice in my head
  2. I did­n’t see any mir­a­cles or inter­ces­sions like I expected from a omnipo­tent lov­ing god

The lat­ter was prob­a­bly due to the car­toons I watched on TV, which seemed quite sen­si­ble to me: a pow­er­ful fig­ure like a god would act in all sorts of ways. If there really was a god, that was some­thing that ought to be quite obvi­ous to any­one who ‘had eyes to see’. I had more evi­dence that Santa or China existed than did God, which seemed back­wards. Expla­na­tions for the absence of divine action ranged from the strained to so ludi­crously bad that they cor­roded what lit­tle faith I pos­sessed10. I would later rec­og­nize my own doubts in pas­sages of skep­ti­cal authors like Edward Gib­bon and his Decline:

…From the first of the fathers to the last of the popes, a suc­ces­sion of bish­ops, of saints, of mar­tyrs, and of mir­a­cles, is con­tin­ued with­out inter­rup­tion; and the progress of super­sti­tion was so grad­u­al, and almost imper­cep­ti­ble, that we know not in what par­tic­u­lar link we should break the chain of tra­di­tion. Every age bears tes­ti­mony to the won­der­ful events by which it was dis­tin­guished, and its tes­ti­mony appears no less weighty and respectable than that of the pre­ced­ing gen­er­a­tion, till we are insen­si­bly led on to accuse our own incon­sis­ten­cy, if in the eighth or in the twelfth cen­tury we deny to the ven­er­a­ble Bede, or to the holy Bernard, the same degree of con­fi­dence which, in the sec­ond cen­tu­ry, we had so lib­er­ally granted to Justin or to Ire­naeus. If the truth of any of those mir­a­cles is appre­ci­ated by their appar­ent use and pro­pri­ety, every age had unbe­liev­ers to con­vince, heretics to con­fute, and idol­a­trous nations to con­vert; and suffi­cient motives might always be pro­duced to jus­tify the inter­po­si­tion of Heav­en. And yet, since every friend to rev­e­la­tion is per­suaded of the real­i­ty, and every rea­son­able man is con­vinced of the ces­sa­tion, of mirac­u­lous pow­ers, it is evi­dent that there must have been some period in which they were either sud­denly or grad­u­ally with­drawn from the Chris­t­ian church. What­ever aera is cho­sen for that pur­pose, the death of the apos­tles, the con­ver­sion of the Roman empire, or the extinc­tion of the Arian heresy, the insen­si­bil­ity of the Chris­tians who lived at that time will equally afford a just mat­ter of sur­prise. They still sup­ported their pre­ten­sions after they had lost their pow­er. Credulity per­formed the office of faith; fanati­cism was per­mit­ted to assume the lan­guage of inspi­ra­tion, and the effects of acci­dent or con­trivance were ascribed to super­nat­ural caus­es. The recent expe­ri­ence of gen­uine mir­a­cles should have instructed the Chris­t­ian world in the ways of Prov­i­dence, and habit­u­ated their eye (if we may use a very inad­e­quate expres­sion) to the style of the divine artist…What­ever opin­ion may be enter­tained of the mir­a­cles of the prim­i­tive church since the time of the apos­tles, this unre­sist­ing soft­ness of tem­per, so con­spic­u­ous among the believ­ers of the sec­ond and third cen­turies, proved of some acci­den­tal ben­e­fit to the cause of truth and reli­gion. In mod­ern times, a latent and even invol­un­tary scep­ti­cism adheres to the most pious dis­po­si­tions. Their admis­sion of super­nat­ural truths is much less an active con­sent than a cold and pas­sive acqui­es­cence.

I have seen these rea­sons mocked as sim­plis­tic and puerile, and I was cer­tainly aware that there were sub­tle argu­ments which intel­li­gent philoso­phers believed resolved the (such as , which is valid but I do not con­sider it sound since it requires the mean­ing­less con­cept of free will) and that Chris­tians of var­i­ous stripes had var­i­ous com­pli­cated expla­na­tions for why this world was con­sis­tent with there being a God (if for no other rea­son than that I observed there were the­ists as intel­li­gent or more intel­li­gent than me). But the basic con­cept seemed con­fused, free will was an even more dubi­ous plank to go on, and in gen­eral the entire com­plex of his­tor­i­cal claims, meta­physics, and activ­i­ties of reli­gious peo­ple did not seem con­vinc­ing. (Richard Car­ri­er’s 2011 Why I Am Not A Chris­t­ian expresses the gen­eral tenor of my mis­giv­ings, espe­cially after I checked out every­thing the library had on , , the Gnos­tics, and early Chris­tian­ity - Je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là, basi­cal­ly.)

So I never believed (although it was obvi­ous enough that there was no point in dis­cussing this since it might just lead to me going to church more and sit­ting on the hard wooden pews), but there was still the trou­bling mat­ter of Heaven & Hell: those infini­ties meant I could­n’t sim­ply dis­miss reli­gion and con­tinue read­ing about dinosaurs or Alca­traz. If I got reli­gion wrong, I would have got­ten lit­er­ally the most impor­tant pos­si­ble thing wrong! Noth­ing else was as impor­tant - if you’re wrong about a round earth, at worst you will never be a good geo­g­ra­pher or astronomer; if you’re wrong about believ­ing in astrol­o­gy, at worst you waste time and mon­ey; if you’re wrong about evo­lu­tion and biol­o­gy, at worst you endan­ger your life; and so on. But if you’re wrong about reli­gion, wast­ing your life is about the least of the con­se­quences. And every­one accepts a reli­gion or at least the legit­i­macy of reli­gious claims, so it would be unspeak­ably arro­gant of a kid to dis­miss reli­gion entirely - that sort of evi­dence is sim­ply not there1112. (Oddly enough, athe­ists - who are not imme­di­ately shown to be mis­taken or fools - are even rarer in books and car­toons than they are in real life.)

Kids actu­ally are kind of skep­ti­cal if they have rea­son to be skep­ti­cal, and like­wise will believe all sorts of strange things if the source was pre­vi­ously trust­wor­thy13. This is as it should be! Kids can­not come prewired with 100% cor­rect beliefs, and must be able to learn all sorts of strange (but true) things from reli­able author­i­ties; these strate­gies are exactly what one would advise. It is not their fault that some of the most reli­able author­i­ties in their lives (their par­ents) are mis­taken about one major set of beliefs. They sim­ply have bad epis­temic luck.

So I read the Bible, which veered from bor­ing to inco­her­ent to dis­gust­ing. (I became a fan of the , how­ev­er, and still peri­od­i­cally read the Book of Job, Eccle­si­astes, and Proverb­s.) That did­n’t help much. Well, maybe Chris­tian­ity was not the right reli­gion? My ele­men­tary school library had a rather strange selec­tion of books which included var­i­ous East­ern texts or antholo­gies (I remem­ber in par­tic­u­lar one anthol­ogy on med­i­ta­tion, which was a hodge-podge of reli­gious instruc­tion man­u­als, essays, and sci­en­tific stud­ies on med­i­ta­tion - that took me a long time to read, and it was only in high school and col­lege that I really became com­fort­able read­ing psy­chol­ogy paper­s). I con­tin­ued read­ing in this vein for years, in between all my more nor­mal read­ings. The Koran was inter­est­ing and in gen­eral much bet­ter than the Bible. Shinto texts were worth­less mythol­o­giz­ing. Tao­ism had some very good early texts (the Chuang-tzu in par­tic­u­lar) but then bizarrely degen­er­ated into alche­my. Bud­dhism was strange: I rather liked the gen­eral philo­soph­i­cal approach, but there were many pop­ulist ele­ments in Mahayana texts that both­ered me. Hin­duism had a strange beau­ty, but my reac­tion was sim­i­lar to that of the early trans­la­tors, who con­demned it for sloth and las­si­tude. I also con­sid­ered the Occult seri­ously and began read­ing the Skep­ti­cal lit­er­a­ture on that and related top­ics (see the later sec­tion).

By this point in my read­ing, I had reached mid­dle school; this sum­mary makes my read­ing sound more sys­tem­atic than it was. I still had­n’t found any espe­cially good rea­son to believe in God or any gods, and had a jaun­diced view of many texts I had read. was a shock when I finally became capa­ble of read­ing it and source-texts like Jose­phus: it’s amaz­ing just how uncer­tain, vari­able, self­-con­tra­dic­to­ry, edit­ed, and his­tor­i­cally incon­sis­tent both the Old and New Tes­ta­ments are. There are hun­dreds of major vari­ants of the var­i­ous books, there are count­less thou­sands of tex­tual vari­ants (many of key the­o­log­i­cal pas­sages) leav­ing traces of ide­o­log­i­cal fab­ri­ca­tion through­out besides the casual fal­si­fi­ca­tion of many his­tor­i­cal events for dra­matic effect or faked coher­ence with Old Tes­ta­ment ‘prophe­cies’ (we all know of false claims like the Mas­sacre of the Inno­cents or Jesus being born of a ‘vir­gin’ to fit an erro­neous trans­la­tion or the sun stop­ping or the Tem­ple veil being ripped or the Roman cen­sus) but it’s dra­matic to find that Jesus was an utter nobody even in Jose­phus, where the only men­tion of Jesus seems to be fal­si­fied (by Chris­tians of course) despite him name-drop­ping con­stantly - and speak­ing of Jose­phus, it’s hard not to be impressed that while one recites every Sun­day how Jesus was “cru­ci­fied under Pon­tius Pilate” as proof we are told of Jesus’s his­toric­ity & that he was not a story or mythol­o­gy, the Pon­tius Pilate in Jose­phus is a cor­rupt mer­ci­less Roman offi­cial who does­n’t hes­i­tate to get his hands bloody if nec­es­sary and who does­n’t match the Gospel story in the slight­est; indeed, read­ing through Jose­phus’s accounts of con­stant tur­moil in Jerusalem of var­i­ous false prophets and mes­si­ahs and rebels (hm­m….) and the diffi­cul­ties the author­i­ties face, one can’t believe the entire story of Pilate because to not either imme­di­ately exe­cute Jesus or leave the whole mat­ter until well after the very polit­i­cally sen­si­tive hol­i­day is to assume both the Roman and Jew­ish offi­cials suffered a sud­den attack of the stu­pids and a col­lec­tive amne­sia of how they usu­ally dealt with such prob­lems. The whole story is bla­tant rub­bish! Yet my reli­gion teach­ers kept occa­sion­ally empha­siz­ing how Jesus was a his­tor­i­cal fig­ure. The mythi­cist case is not com­pelling but they do a good job of show­ing how ele­ments of the story were stan­dard tropes for the ancient world, with many parts of the nar­ra­tive hav­ing mul­ti­ple prece­dents or weird­ly-in­ter­preted Old Tes­ta­ment jus­ti­fi­ca­tions. In short, read­ing through higher Bib­li­cal crit­i­cism, it’s not a sur­prise that it is such anath­ema to mod­ern Chris­t­ian sects and scrip­tural inerrancy devel­oped in reac­tion to it.

At some point, I shrugged and gave up and decided I was an athe­ist14 because cer­tainly I felt noth­ing15. The­ol­ogy was inter­est­ing to some extent, but there were bet­ter things to read about. (My lit­er­ary inter­est in Tao­ism and philo­soph­i­cal inter­est in Bud­dhism remain, but I put no stock in any super­nat­ural claims they might make.)

The American Revolution

In mid­dle school, we were assigned a pro-con debate about the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion; I hap­pened to be on the pro side, but as I read through the argu­ments, I became increas­ingly dis­turbed and even­tu­ally decided that the pro-Rev­o­lu­tion argu­ments were weak or fal­la­cious.

The Rev­o­lu­tion was a blood­bath with ~100,000 casu­al­ties or fatal­i­ties fol­lowed by 62,000 Loyalist/Tory refugees for fear of retal­i­a­tion and their expro­pri­a­tion (the ones who stayed did not escape per­se­cu­tion); this is a butcher’s bill that did not seem jus­ti­fied in the least by any­thing in Britain or Amer­i­ca’s sub­se­quent his­tory (what, were the British going to ran­domly mas­sacre Amer­i­cans for fun?), even now with a pop­u­la­tion of >300 mil­lion, and much less back when the pop­u­la­tion was 1/100th the size. Inde­pen­dence was granted to sim­i­lar Eng­lish colonies at the smaller price of “wait­ing a while”: Canada was essen­tially autonomous by 1867 (less than a cen­tury lat­er) and Aus­tralia was first set­tled in 1788 with autonomous colonies not long behind and the cur­rent Com­mon­wealth formed by 1901. (Nor did Canada or Aus­tralia suffer worse at Eng­land’s hands dur­ing the wait­ing period than, say, Amer­ica in that time suffered at its own hand­s.) In the long run, inde­pen­dence may have been good for the USA, but this would be due to sheer acci­dent: the British were hold­ing the fron­tier at the Appalachi­ans (see ), and Napoleon likely would not have been will­ing engage in the with Eng­lish colonies inas­much as he was at war with Eng­land. (As­sum­ing we see this as a good thing: Bryan Caplan describes that as remov­ing “the last real check on Amer­i­can aggres­sion against the Indi­ans”.)

Nei­ther of these is a very strong argu­ment; the British could eas­ily have revoked the Procla­ma­tion in face of the colo­nial resis­tance (and in prac­tice did16), and Napoleon could not hold onto New France for very long against the British fleets. The argu­ment from ‘free­dom’ is a buzz­word or unsup­ported by the facts - Canada and Aus­tralia are hardly hell­hole bas­tions of total­i­tar­i­an­ism, and are ranked by as being as free as the USA. (Steve Sailer asks “Yet how much real differ­ence did the very differ­ent polit­i­cal paths of Amer­ica and Canada make in the long run?”; could we have been Canada?)

And there are impor­tant argu­ments for the oppo­site, that Amer­ica would have been bet­ter off under British rule - Britain very early on and likely would have ended slav­ery in the colonies as well. (Some have argued that with con­tin­ued con­trol of the south­ern colonies, Britain would have not been able to do this; but the usual argu­ments for the Rev­o­lu­tion cen­ter on the tyranny of Britain - so was the dog wag­ging the tail or the tail the dog?) The South cru­cially depended on Eng­land’s tacit sup­port (see­ing the South as a coun­ter­weight to the dan­ger­ous North?), so the would either never have started or have been sup­pressed very quick­ly. The Civil War would also have lacked its intel­lec­tual jus­ti­fi­ca­tion of if the states had remained Crown colonies. The Civil War was so bloody and destruc­tive17 that avoid­ing it is worth a great deal indeed. And then there comes WWI and WWII. It is not hard to see how Amer­ica remain­ing a colony would have been bet­ter for both Europe and Amer­i­ca.

Aside from the bet­ter out­comes for slaves and Indi­ans, it’s been sug­gested that Amer­ica would have ben­e­fited from main­tain­ing a par­lia­men­tary con­sti­tu­tion­al-monar­chy democ­racy rather than invent­ing its par­tic­u­lar pres­i­den­t-ori­ented repub­lic (a view that has some more appeal in the 2000s, but is more broadly sup­ported by the pop­u­lar­ity of par­lia­men­tary democ­ra­cies glob­ally and their appar­ent greater sta­bil­ity & suc­cess com­pared to the more Amer­i­can-style sys­tems in unsta­ble & coup-prone Latin Amer­i­ca).

Since that par­a­digm shift in mid­dle school, my view has changed lit­tle:

  • Crane Brin­ton’s con­firmed my beliefs with sta­tis­tics about the eco­nomic class of par­tic­i­pants: naked finan­cial self­-in­ter­est is not a very con­vinc­ing argu­ment for plung­ing a coun­try into war, given that Eng­land had incurred sub­stan­tial debt defend­ing and expand­ing the colonies and their tax bur­den - that they end­lessly com­plained of - was com­i­cally tiny com­pared to Eng­land prop­er. One of the inter­est­ing points Brin­ton makes was that con­trary to the uni­ver­sal belief, rev­o­lu­tions do not uni­ver­sally tend to occur at times of poverty or increas­ing wealth inequal­i­ty; indeed, before the Amer­i­can rev­o­lu­tion, the colonists were less taxed, wealth­ier & more equal than the Eng­lish.

  • con­tin­u­ing the eco­nomic the­me, the bur­dens on the Amer­i­can colonists such as the are now con­sid­ered to not be bur­den­some at all, but neg­li­gi­ble or pos­i­tive, espe­cially com­pared to inde­pen­dence. Famed Scot­tish econ­o­mist Adam Smith sup­ported the Nav­i­ga­tion Acts as a crit­i­cal part of the Empire’s defense18 (which included the Amer­i­can colonies; but see again the colonies’ grat­i­tude for the French-In­dian War). Their light bur­den has become eco­nomic his­tory con­sen­sus since the dis­cus­sion was sparked in the 1960s (eg. Thomas 1965, Thomas 1968): in 1994, 198 eco­nomic his­to­ri­ans were sur­veyed asked sev­eral ques­tions on this point find­ing that:

    1. 132 dis­agreed with the propo­si­tion “One of the pri­mary causes of the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion was the behav­ior of British and Scot­tish mer­chants in the 1760s and 1770s, which threat­ened the abil­i­ties of Amer­i­can mer­chants to engage in new or even tra­di­tional eco­nomic pur­suits.”
    2. 178 agreed or par­tially agreed that “The costs imposed on the colonists by the trade restric­tions of the Nav­i­ga­tion Acts were small.”
    3. 111 dis­agreed that “The eco­nomic bur­den of British poli­cies was the spark to the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion.”
    4. 117 agreed or par­tially agreed that “The per­sonal eco­nomic inter­ests of del­e­gates to the Con­sti­tu­tional Con­ven­tion gen­er­ally had a [sub­stan­tial] effect on their vot­ing behav­ior.”
  • Men­cius Mold­bug dis­cussed good deal of pri­mary source mate­r­ial which sup­ported my inter­pre­ta­tion.

    I par­tic­u­larly enjoyed his descrip­tion of the Pulitzer-win­ning , a study of the pop­u­lar cir­cu­lars and essays (of which Thomas Paine’s is only the most famous): the author finds that the rebels and their lead­ers believed there was a con­spir­acy by Eng­lish elites to strip them of their free­doms and crush the Protes­tants under the yoke of the .

    Bai­lyn points out that no traces of any such con­spir­acy has ever been found in the diaries or mem­o­ran­dums or let­ters of said elites. Hence the Found­ing Fathers were, as Mold­bug claimed, exactly anal­o­gous to or . Mold­bug fur­ther points out that real­ity has directly con­tra­dicted their pre­dic­tions, as both the Monar­chy and Church of Eng­land have seen their power con­tin­u­ously decreas­ing to their pre­sen­t-day cer­e­mo­nial sta­tus, a diminu­tion in progress long before the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion.

  • Pos­si­bly on Mold­bug’s advice, I then read vol­ume 1 of Mur­ray Roth­bard’s . I was unim­pressed. Roth­bard seems to think he is jus­ti­fy­ing the Rev­o­lu­tion as a noble lib­er­tar­ian thing (ex­cept for those other scoundrels who just want to take over); but all I saw were scoundrels.

  • Attempt­ing to take an out­side view and ignore the cult built up around the Found­ing Fathers, view­ing them as a cyn­i­cal for­eigner might, the Fathers do not nec­es­sar­ily come off well.

    For exam­ple, one can com­pare George Wash­ing­ton to : both led a guer­rilla rev­o­lu­tion of British colonies against the coun­try which had built their colony up into a wealthy regional pow­er­house, and they or their allies employed mobs and ter­ror­ist tac­tics; both over­saw hyper­in­fla­tion of their cur­ren­cy; both expro­pri­ated polit­i­cally dis­fa­vored groups, and engaged in give-aways to sup­port­ers (Mu­gabe redis­trib­uted land to black sup­port­ers, Wash­ing­ton approved of states’ war-debts - an incred­i­ble wind­fall for the Hamil­ton-con­nected spec­u­la­tors, who sup­ported the ); both were over­whelm­ingly voted into office and com­manded mass pop­u­lar­ity even after major fail­ures of their poli­cies became evi­dent (eco­nomic growth & hyper­in­fla­tion for Mugabe, the Whiskey Rebel­lion for Wash­ing­ton), being hailed as fathers of their coun­tries; and both wound up one of, if not the, most wealthy men in the coun­try (Mu­gabe’s for­tune has been esti­mated at any­where from $3b to $10b; Wash­ing­ton, in infla­tion-ad­justed terms, has been esti­mated at $0.5b).

  • Jeremy Ben­tham amus­ingly evis­cer­ates the Inde­pen­dence’s com­plaints


In roughly mid­dle school as well, I was very inter­ested in eco­nomic injus­tice and guer­rilla war­fare, which nat­u­rally led me straight into the com­mu­nist lit­er­a­ture. I grew out of this when I real­ized that while I might not be able to pin­point the prob­lems in com­mu­nism, a lot of that was due to the sheer obscu­rity and bull­shit­ting in the lit­er­a­ture (I finally gave up after read­ing twice, con­clud­ing the prob­lem was not me, Marx­ism was really that intel­lec­tu­ally worth­less), and the prac­ti­cal results with economies & human lives spoke for them­selves: the ideas were tried in so many coun­tries by so many groups in so many differ­ent cir­cum­stances over so many decades that if there were any­thing to them, at least one coun­try would have suc­ceed­ed. In com­par­ison, even with the broad­est sam­ple includ­ing hell­holes like the Bel­gian Con­go, cap­i­tal­ism can still point to suc­cess sto­ries like Japan.

(Sim­i­lar argu­ments can be used for sci­ence and reli­gion: after early sci­ence got the basic induc­tive empir­i­cal for­mula right, it took off and within 2 or 3 cen­turies had con­quered the intel­lec­tual world and assisted the con­quest of much of the real world too; in con­trast, 2 or 3 cen­turies after Chris­tian­ity began, its texts were begin­ning to finally con­geal into the begin­nings of a canon, it was minor, and the Romans were still mak­ing occa­sional efforts to exter­mi­nate this irk­some reli­gion. Charles Mur­ray, in a book I oth­er­wise approve of, attempts to argue in Human Accom­plish­ment that Chris­tian­ity was a key fac­tor in the great accom­plish­ments of West­ern sci­ence & tech­nol­ogy by some gib­ber­ish involv­ing human dig­ni­ty; the argu­ment is intrin­si­cally absurd - Greek astron­omy and phi­los­o­phy were active when Chris­tian­ity start­ed, St. Paul lit­er­ally debated the Greek philoso­phers in Athens, and yet Chris­tian­ity did not spark any rev­o­lu­tion in the 100s, or 200s, or 300s, or for the next mil­len­ni­um, nor the next mil­len­nium and a half. It would lit­er­ally be fairer to attribute sci­ence to William the Con­queror, because that’s a gap one-third the size and there’s at least a direct line from William the Con­queror to the Royal Soci­ety! If we try to be fairer and say it’s late Chris­tian­ity as exem­pli­fied by the phi­los­o­phy of Thomas Aquinas - as influ­enced by non-Chris­t­ian thought like Aris­to­tle as it is - that still leaves us a gap of some­thing like 300-500 years. Let us say I would find Mur­ray’s argu­ment of more inter­est if it were com­ing from a non-Chris­tian…)

The Occult

This is not a par­tic­u­lar error but a whole class of them. I was sure that the over­all the­is­tic expla­na­tions were false, but surely there were real phe­nom­e­non going on? I’d read up on indi­vid­ual things like Nos­tradamus’s prophe­cies or the Lance of Long­i­nus, check the skep­tics lit­er­a­ture, and dis­be­lieve; rinse and repeat until I finally dis­miss the entire area with some excep­tions like the men­tal & phys­i­cal ben­e­fits of med­i­ta­tion. One might say my expe­ri­ence was a lit­tle like career as recounted in “The Elu­sive Open Mind: Ten Years of Neg­a­tive Research in Para­psy­chol­ogy”, sans the detailed exper­i­ments. (I am still annoyed that I was unable to dis­be­lieve the research on until I read more about the cor­rup­tion, decep­tion, and fal­si­fied pre­dic­tions of the TM orga­ni­za­tion itself.) For­tu­nate­ly, I had basi­cally given up on occult things by high school, before I read Eco’s , so I don’t feel too cha­grined about this.


I spend most of my time read­ing; I also spent most of my time in ele­men­tary, mid­dle, and high school read­ing. What has changed in what I read - I now read prin­ci­pally non­fic­tion (phi­los­o­phy, eco­nom­ics, ran­dom sci­ences, etc.), where I used to read almost exclu­sively fic­tion. (I would include one non­fic­tion book in my stacks of books to check out, on a sort of ‘veg­eta­bles’ approach. Eat your veg­eta­bles and you can have dessert.) I, in fact, aspired to be a nov­el­ist. I thought fic­tion was a noble task, the high­est pro­duc­tion of human­i­ty, and writ­ers some of the best peo­ple around, pro­duc­ing immor­tal works of truth. Slowly this changed. I real­ized fic­tion changed noth­ing, and when it did change things, it was as oft as not for the worse. Fic­tion pro­moted sim­pli­fi­ca­tion, focus on sym­pa­thetic exam­ples, and I rec­og­nized how much of my own infat­u­a­tion with the Occult (among other errors) could be traced to fic­tion. What a strange belief, that you could find truths in lies.19 And there are so many of them, too! So very many. (I wrote one essay on this top­ic, .) I still pro­duce some fic­tion these days, but mostly when I can’t help it or as a writ­ing exer­cise.


I changed my mind about in 2011. I had nat­u­rally assumed, in line with the usual Amer­i­can cul­tural mes­sages, that there was noth­ing good about tobacco and that smok­ing is deeply shame­ful, prov­ing that you are a selfish lazy short­-sighted per­son who is happy to com­mit slow sui­cide (tak­ing oth­ers with him via sec­ond-hand smoke) and cost soci­ety a for­tune in med­ical care. Then some men­tions of nico­tine as use­ful came up and I began research­ing it. I’m still not a fan of smok­ing, and I regard any tobacco with deep trep­i­da­tion, but the research lit­er­a­ture seems pretty clear: nico­tine enhances men­tal per­for­mance in mul­ti­ple domains and may have some minor health ben­e­fits to boot. Nico­tine sans tobacco seems like a clear win. (It amuses me that of the changes listed here, this is prob­a­bly the one peo­ple will find most revolt­ing and bizarre.)

Centralized darknet-markets

I over­es­ti­mated the sta­bil­ity of Bit­coin+­Tor dark­net mar­kets such as : I was aware that the cen­tral­iza­tion of the first-gen­er­a­tion DNMs (SR/BMR/Atlantis/Sheep) meant that the site oper­a­tors had a strong temp­ta­tion to steal all deposit & escrows, but I thought that the value of future escrow com­mis­sions pro­vided enough incen­tive to make rip-and-run scams rare - cer­tainly they were fairly rare dur­ing the Silk Road 1 era.

After Silk Road was shut down in Octo­ber 2013, SR turned out to be highly unusu­al: both less hacked than most mar­kets, and it seems that what­ever his (many) other fail­ings, Ross Ulbricht gen­uinely believed his own ide­ol­ogy and so was run­ning Silk Road out of prin­ci­ple rather than greed (which also explains why he did­n’t retire despite a for­tune larger than he could spend in a life­time). Attracted by the sud­den void in a large mar­ket, and by the FBI’s press releases crow­ing over how many hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars Silk Road had earned, dozens of new mar­kets sprang up to fill the void. Many then pro­ceeded to scam users (often tak­ing advan­tage of the stan­dard ‘seller bonds’: sell­ers would deposit a large sum as a guar­an­tee against scam­ming buy­ers in the early period where they were accept­ing orders but most pack­ages would not have arrived) or alter­nate­ly, be hacked due to the oper­a­tors’ get-rich-quick incom­pe­tence and rather than refund users from future profits, decide to steal every­thing the hacker did­n’t get. As of April 2014, it seems users have mostly learned cau­tion, and the shift to mul­ti­sig escrow removes the need to trust mar­ket oper­a­tors and hence the risk from the oper­a­tors or hack­ers, so mat­ters may finally be sta­bi­liz­ing.

I think my orig­i­nal point is still cor­rect that mar­kets can be trusted as long as the dis­counted present value of their future earn­ings exceeds the amount they can steal. My mis­take here was over­es­ti­mat­ing the net present val­ue: I did­n’t real­ize that site oper­a­tors had such high dis­count rates (one, PBF, pulled its scam after per­haps a few thou­sand dol­lars’ worth of Bit­coin had been deposited despite pos­i­tive ini­tial reviews) and there was so much risk involved (the Bit­coin exchange rate, arrest, hack­ing; all exac­er­bated by the incom­pe­tence of many site oper­a­tors).

This mis­take lead to com­pla­cency on my part in archiv­ing the mar­kets & forums: if you expect a mar­ket to be around for years, there is no par­tic­u­lar need to try to mir­ror them week­ly. And so while I have good cov­er­age of the DNMs post-De­cem­ber-2013, I am miss­ing most of the mar­kets before then.

Potential changes

The mind can­not fore­see its own advance.20

There are some things I used to be cer­tain about, but I am no longer cer­tain either way; I await future devel­op­ments which may tip me one way or the oth­er.

Near Singularity

I am no longer cer­tain that is near.

In the 1990s, all the num­bers seem to be ever-ac­cel­er­at­ing. Indeed, I could feel with Kurzweil that . But an odd thing hap­pened in the 2000s (a dreary decade, dis­tracted by the dual dis­si­pa­tion of Afghanistan & Iraq). The hard­ware kept get­ting bet­ter mostly in line with Moore’s Law (trou­bling as the flight to par­al­lelism is), but the AI soft­ware did­n’t seem to keep up. I am only a lay­man, but it looks as if all the AI appli­ca­tions one might cite in 2011 as progress are just old algo­rithms now prac­ti­cal with newer hard­ware. And eco­nomic growth slowed down, and the stock mar­ket ticked along, barely main­tain­ing itself. The Human Genome Project com­pletely fiz­zled out, with inter­est­ing insights and not much else. (It’s great that genome sequenc­ing has improved exactly as promised, but what about every­thing else? Where are our embryo selec­tions, our ger­m-line engi­neer­ing, our uni­ver­sal genetic ther­a­pies, our cus­tomized drugs?21) The phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal indus­try has reached such dimin­ish­ing returns that even the opti­mists have noticed the prob­lems in the drug pipeline, prob­lems so severe that it’s hard to wave them away as due to that drat­ted FDA or igno­rant con­sumers. As of 2007, the increases in longevity for the elderly22 in the US has con­tin­ued to be less each year and , which isn’t good news for those hop­ing to reach “escape veloc­ity”; and med­i­cine has been a repeated dis­ap­point­ment even to fore­cast­ing-savvy pre­dic­tors (the ’90s and the genetic rev­o­lu­tion being espe­cially remark­able for its lack of con­crete improve­ments). Kurzweil pub­lished an eval­u­a­tion of his pre­dic­tions up to ~2009 with great fan­fare and self­-con­grat­u­la­tion, but read­ing through them, I was struck by how many he weaseled out on (claim­ing as a hit any­thing that existed in a lab or a micro­scopic mar­ket seg­ment, even though in con­text he had clearly expected it to be wide­spread) and how often they failed due to unin­tel­li­gent soft­ware.

And there are many trou­bling long-term met­rics. I was deeply trou­bled to read ’s point­ing out a long-term decline in dis­cov­er­ies per capita (de­spite ever increas­ing sci­en­tists and artists per cap­i­ta!), even after he cor­rected for every­thing he could think of. I did­n’t see any obvi­ous mis­takes. twisted the knife fur­ther, and then I read . I have kept notes since and see lit­tle rea­son to expect a gen­eral expo­nen­tial upwards over all fields, includ­ing the ones min­i­mally con­nected to com­put­ing. ( “The End of the Future” makes a dis­tinc­tion between “the progress in com­put­ers and the fail­ure in energy”; he also makes an inter­est­ing link between the lack of progress and the many recent spec­u­la­tive bub­bles in “The Opti­mistic Thought Exper­i­ment”.) The Sin­gu­lar­ity is still more likely than not, but these days, I tend to look towards emu­la­tion of human brains via scan­ning of as the cause. Whole brain emu­la­tion is not likely for many decades, given the extreme com­pu­ta­tional demands (even if we are opti­mistic and take the Whole Brain Emu­la­tion Roadmap fig­ures, one would not expect a upload until the 2030s) and it’s not clear how use­ful an upload would be in the first place. It seems entirely pos­si­ble that the mind will run slow­ly, be able to self­-mod­ify only in triv­ial ways, and in gen­eral be a curios­ity akin to the Space Shut­tle than a piv­otal moment in human his­tory deserv­ing of the title Sin­gu­lar­i­ty.


Less­Wrong dis­cus­sion

I respect my own opin­ion, but at the same time I know I am not immune to com­mon beliefs; so it both­ers me to see ‘stag­na­tion’ and pes­simistic ideas become more wide­spread because this means I may just be fol­low­ing a trend. I did not like agree­ing with any of Wired’s hyper­bolic fore­casts back in the 1990s, and I do not like agree­ing with Peter Thiel or Neal Stephen­son now. One of Buffet’s clas­sic say­ings is “if they [in­vestors] insist on try­ing to time their par­tic­i­pa­tion in equi­ties, they should try to be fear­ful when oth­ers are greedy and greedy when oth­ers are fear­ful.” What grounds do I have for being ‘greedy’ now, when many are being ‘fear­ful’? What Kah­ne­man-style pre-mortem would I give for explain­ing why the Sin­gu­lar­ity might indeed be Near?

First, one could point out that a num­ber of tech­no­log­i­cal mile­stones seem to be catch­ing up, after long stag­na­tions. From 2009-2012, there were a num­ber of unex­pected achieve­ments: Google’s robotic car astounded me, the long AI-re­sis­tant game of is falling to tech­niques are clos­ing in the Go mas­ters (I expect com­put­ers to take world cham­pion by 2030), online edu­ca­tion seems to be start­ing to real­ize its promise (eg. the suc­cess of ), pri­vate space exploita­tion is doing sur­pris­ingly well (as are Tesla elec­tric cars, which seem to be mov­ing from play­things to per­haps mass mar­ket cars), smart­phones - after a decade of being crip­pled by tele­coms and lim­ited com­put­ing power - are becom­ing ubiq­ui­tous and desk­top replace­ments. Old dreams like and online have swung into action and given rise to active & grow­ing com­mu­ni­ties. In the larger pic­ture, the Long Depres­sion begin­ning in 2008 has wreaked havoc on young peo­ple, but China has not imploded while con­tin­u­ing to move up the qual­ity chain (re­plac­ing labor­ers with robots) and far from being ‘the cri­sis of cap­i­tal­ism’ or ‘the end of cap­i­tal­ism’, in gen­er­al, global life is going on. Even Africa, while the pop­u­la­tion size is explod­ing, is grow­ing eco­nom­i­cally - per­haps thanks to uni­ver­sally avail­able cheap cell­phones. Peak Oil con­tin­ues to be delayed by new devel­op­ments like frack­ing and resul­tant gluts of nat­ural gas (the US now exports ener­gy!), although the long-term sci­en­tific pro­duc­tiv­ity trends seem to still point down­wards.

What many of these points have in com­mon is that their fore­bears ger­mi­nated for a long time in niches and did not live up to the fore­casts of their pro­po­nents - smart­phones, for exam­ple, have been expected to rev­o­lu­tion­ize every­thing since at least the 1980s (by mem­bers of the in par­tic­u­lar). And indeed, they are rev­o­lu­tion­iz­ing every­thing, world­wide, 30 years lat­er. This exem­pli­fies a line attrib­uted to Roy Ama­ra:

We tend to over­es­ti­mate the effect of a tech­nol­ogy in the short run and under­es­ti­mate the effect in the long run.

A num­ber of cur­rent but dis­ap­point­ing trends may be dis­ap­point­ing only in the “short run”, the flat part of their respec­tive expo­nen­tial or sig­moid devel­op­ment curves23. For exam­ple, DNA sequenc­ing has been plum­met­ing and sequenc­ing a whole human genome will likely be <$100 by 2015; this has been an incred­i­ble boon for basic research and our knowl­edge of the world, but so far the appli­ca­tions have been fairly min­i­mal - but this may not be true forever, with new projects start­ing up tack­ling top­ics of the great­est mag­ni­tude like using thou­sands of genomes to search for the thou­sands of alle­les which each affect intel­li­gence a tiny bit. Were embryo selec­tion for intel­li­gence to become viable (as there is no rea­son to believe would not be pos­si­ble once the right alle­les have been iden­ti­fied) and every baby could be born with IQs >130, soci­ety would change.

Does this apply to AI? At least two of the exam­ples seem clear-cut exam­ples of an ‘Amara effect’: Go-play­ing AIs were for decades toys eas­ily beaten by bad ama­teurs until Monte Carlo Tree Search was intro­duced in 200624 and then a decade after that they were super­hu­man, while the first in was a deba­cle in which no car fin­ished and the best car man­aged to travel a whop­ping 7 miles before get­ting stuck on a rock. 8 years lat­er, and now the con­ver­sa­tion has sud­denly shifted from “will Go AIs ever reach human lev­el?” or “will self­-driv­ing cars ever be able to cope with the real world?” to the sim­ple ques­tion when?.

One of the ironies is that I am sure a ‘pure’ AI is pos­si­ble; but the AI can’t be devel­oped before the com­put­ing power is avail­able (we humans are just not good enough at math & pro­gram­ming to achieve it with­out run­ning code), which means the AI will be devel­oped either simul­ta­ne­ous with or after enough com­put­ing power becomes avail­able. If the lat­ter, if the AI is not run at the exact instant that there is enough pro­cess­ing power avail­able, ever more com­put­ing power in excess of what is needed (by defi­n­i­tion) builds up. It is like a dry for­est roast­ing in the sum­mer sun: the longer the wait until the match, the faster and hot­ter the wild­fire will burn25. Per­haps para­dox­i­cal­ly, the longer I live with­out see­ing an AI of any kind, the more schiz­o­phrenic my fore­casts will appear to an out­sider who has­n’t care­fully thought about the issue - I will pre­dict with increas­ingly high con­fi­dence that the future will be bor­ing and nor­mal (be­cause the con­tin­ued non-ap­pear­ance makes it increas­ingly likely AI is impos­si­ble, see & AI), that AI is more likely to be cre­ated in the next year (be­cause the pos­si­bil­i­ties are being exhausted as time pass­es) and the changes I pre­dict become ever more rad­i­cal!

This set of esti­mates is obvi­ously con­sis­tent with an appear­ance of stag­na­tion: each year small advances build up, but no big break­throughs appear - until they do.


“Almost in the same way as ear­lier physi­cists are said to have found sud­denly that they had too lit­tle math­e­mat­i­cal under­stand­ing to be able to mas­ter physics; we may say that young peo­ple today are sud­denly in the posi­tion that ordi­nary com­mon sense no longer suffices to meet the strange demands life makes. Every­thing has become so intri­cate that for its mas­tery an excep­tional degree of under­stand­ing is required. For it is not enough any longer to be able to play the game well; but the ques­tion is again and again: what sort of game is to be played now any­way?”

Wittgen­stein’s Cul­ture and Value, MS 118 20r: 27.8.1937

The idea of - per­ma­nent and a - used to be dis­missed con­temp­tu­ously as the . (There are mod­els where tech­nol­ogy does pro­duce per­ma­nent unem­ploy­ment, and quite plau­si­ble ones too; see Autor et al 2003 and Autor & Hamil­ton26 and Krug­man’s com­men­tary point­ing to recent data show­ing the ‘hol­low­ing out’ and ‘deskilling’ pre­dicted by the Autor mod­el, which is also con­sis­tent with the long-term decline in teenage employ­ment due to immi­gra­tion. Mar­tin Ford has some graphs explain­ing the com­ple­men­ta­tion-sub­sti­tu­tion mod­el.) But ever since the Inter­net bub­ble burst, it’s been look­ing more and more like­ly, with scads of evi­dence for it since the hous­ing bub­ble like the oth­er­wise pecu­liar changes in the value of col­lege degrees27. (This is closely related to my grounds for believ­ing in a dis­tant Sin­gu­lar­i­ty.) When I look around, it seems to me that we have been suffer­ing tremen­dous unem­ploy­ment for a long time. When Alex Tabar­rok writes “If the Lud­dite fal­lacy were true we would all be out of work because pro­duc­tiv­ity has been increas­ing for two cen­turies”, I think, isn’t that cor­rect? If you’re not a stu­dent, you’re retired; if you’re not retired, you’re dis­abled28; if you’re not dis­abled, per­haps you are insti­tu­tion­al­ized; if you’re not that, maybe you’re on wel­fare, or just unem­ployed.

Com­pare now to most of human his­to­ry, or just the 1300s:

  • every kid in spe­cial ed would be out work­ing on the farm; there would, if only from reduced 29 be fewer dis­abled than now (fed­eral alone sup­ports 8 mil­lion Amer­i­cans)

  • every­one in col­lege would be out work­ing (be­cause the num­ber of stu­dents was a round­ing error and they did­n’t spend very long in higher edu­ca­tion to begin with)

    Indeed, edu­ca­tion and health­care are a huge chunk of the US econ­omy - and both have seri­ous ques­tions about how much good, exact­ly, they do and whether they are grotesquely ineffi­cient or just ineffi­cient.

  • retirees did­n’t exist out­side the tiny nobil­ity

  • ‘guard labor’ - peo­ple employed solely to con­trol and ensure pro­duc­tiv­ity of the oth­ers has increased sub­stan­tially (Bowles & Jayadev 2006 claim US guard labor has gone from 6% of the 1890 labor force to 26% in 2002; this is not due to man­u­fac­tur­ing declines30); exam­ples of guard labor:

    • stand­ing mil­i­taries were unusual (although effec­tive when needed31); the US main­tains the in the world - ~1.5m (~0.5% of the pop­u­la­tion), which employs mil­lions more with its $700 bil­lion bud­get32 and is a key source of pork33 and make-work
    • pris­ons were mostly for tem­po­rary incar­cer­a­tion pend­ing trial or pun­ish­ment34; the US has ~2.3m (nearly 1% of the pop­u­la­tion!), and per­haps another 4.9m on parole/probation. (See also the rela­tion­ship of psy­chi­atric impris­on­ment with crim­i­nal impris­on­men­t.) That’s impres­sive enough, but as with the mil­i­tary, con­sider how many peo­ple are tied down solely because of the need to main­tain and sup­ply the prison sys­tem - prison war­dens, builders, police etc.
  • peo­ple worked hard; the and 5-day work­week were major hard-fought changes (a plank of the !). Switch­ing from a 16-hour to an 8-hour day means we are half-re­tired already and need many more work­ers than oth­er­wise.

In con­trast, Amer­i­cans now spend most of their lives not work­ing.

The unem­ploy­ment rate looks good - 9% is surely a refu­ta­tion of the Lud­dite fal­la­cy! - until you look into the meat fac­tory and see that that is the best rate, for col­lege grad­u­ates actively look­ing for jobs, and not the over­all pop­u­la­tion one includ­ing those who have given up. Econ­o­mist Alan Krueger writes of the ratio (which cov­ers only 15-64 year old­s):

Telling­ly, the has hardly budged since reach­ing a low of 58.2% in Decem­ber 2009. Last month it stood at just 58.4%. Even in the expan­sion from 2002 to 2007 the share of the pop­u­la­tion employed never reached the peak of 64.7% it attained before the March-No­vem­ber 2001 reces­sion.

Let’s break it down by age group using :

Labor force par­tic­i­pa­tion rate 1993–2013, by age groups: 25–54yo, 20–24yo, >55yo

cor­rectly points out that the employ­men­t:pop­u­la­tion ratio itself does­n’t intrin­si­cally tell us about whether things are going well or poorly - one could imag­ine a happy and highly auto­mated coun­try with a where only 20% of the pop­u­la­tion works or an agri­cul­tural coun­try where every­one works and is des­per­ately poor. What mat­ters more is wealth inequal­ity com­bined with employ­ment ratio: how many peo­ple are either rich enough that not hav­ing a job is not a dis­as­ter or at least can get a job?

What do you sup­pose the employ­men­t-to-pop­u­la­tion rate was in 1300 in the poorer 99% of the world pop­u­la­tion (re­mem­ber­ing how home­mak­ing and rais­ing chil­dren is effec­tively a ful­l-time job)? I’d bet it was a lot higher than the world record in 2005, Ice­land’s 84%. And Ice­land is a very brainy place. What are the merely aver­age with IQs of 100-110 sup­posed to do? (Heck, what is the half of Amer­ica with IQs in that region or below sup­posed to do? Learn C++ and sta­tis­tics so they can work on Wall Street?) If you want to see the future, look at our youth; where are sum­mer jobs these days? Gre­gory Clark com­ments sar­don­ically (although he was likely not think­ing of whole brain emu­la­tion) in :

Thus, while in prein­dus­trial agrar­ian soci­eties half or more of the national income typ­i­cally went to the own­ers of land and cap­i­tal, in mod­ern indus­tri­al­ized soci­eties their share is nor­mally less than a quar­ter. Tech­no­log­i­cal advance might have been expected to dra­mat­i­cally reduce unskilled wages. After all, there was a class of work­ers in the prein­dus­trial econ­omy who, offer­ing only brute strength, were quickly swept aside by machin­ery. By 1914 most horses had dis­ap­peared from the British econ­o­my, swept aside by steam and inter­nal com­bus­tion engi­nes, even though a mil­lion had been at work in the early nine­teenth cen­tu­ry. When their value in pro­duc­tion fell below their main­te­nance costs they were con­demned to the knack­er’s yard.

Tech­nol­ogy may increase total wealth under many mod­els, but there’s a key loop­hole in the idea of “Pare­to-im­prov­ing” gains—they don’t ever have to make some peo­ple bet­ter off. And a Pare­to-im­prove­ment is a good result! Many mod­els don’t guar­an­tee even that - it’s per­fectly pos­si­ble to become worse off (see the horses above and the fate of humans in ‘crack of a future dawn’ sce­nar­i­o). Such doc­tri­nairism is not use­ful:

“Like experts in many fields who give pol­icy advice, the authors show a pref­er­ence for first-best, text­book approaches to the prob­lems in their field, while leav­ing other messy objec­tives acknowl­edged but assigned to oth­ers. In this way, they are much like those pub­lic finance econ­o­mists who oppose tax expen­di­tures on prin­ci­ple, because they pre­fer direct expen­di­ture pro­grams, but do not really ana­lyze the var­i­ous diffi­cul­ties with such pro­grams; or like trade econ­o­mists who know that the losers from trade surges need to be pro­tected but regard this as not a prob­lem for trade pol­i­cy.” –, “Com­ments on ‘The Con­tra­dic­tion in Chi­na’s Grad­u­al­ist Bank­ing Reforms’”, Brook­ings Papers on Eco­nomic Activ­ity 2006, 2, 149-162

This is closely related to what I’ve dubbed the “‘Lud­dite fal­lacy’ fal­lacy” (along the lines of the Pas­cal’s Wager Fal­lacy Fal­lacy): tech­nol­o­gists who are extremely intel­li­gent and have worked most of their life only with fel­low poten­tial con­fi­dently say that “if there is struc­tural unem­ploy­ment (and I’m being gen­er­ous in grant­ing you Lud­dites even this con­tention), well, bet­ter edu­ca­tion and train­ing will fix that!” It’s a lit­tle hard to appre­ci­ate what a stu­pen­dous mix­ture of avail­abil­ity bias, infi­nite opti­mism, and plain denial of intel­li­gence differ­ences this all is. Marc Andreessen offers an exam­ple in 2011:

Sec­ond­ly, many peo­ple in the U.S. and around the world lack the edu­ca­tion and skills required to par­tic­i­pate in the great new com­pa­nies com­ing out of the soft­ware rev­o­lu­tion. This is a tragedy since every com­pany I work with is absolutely starved for tal­ent. Qual­i­fied soft­ware engi­neers, man­agers, mar­keters and sales­peo­ple in Sil­i­con Val­ley can rack up dozens of high­-pay­ing, high­-up­side job offers any time they want, while national unem­ploy­ment and under­em­ploy­ment is sky high. This prob­lem is even worse than it looks because many work­ers in exist­ing indus­tries will be stranded on the wrong side of soft­ware-based dis­rup­tion and may never be able to work in their fields again. There’s no way through this prob­lem other than edu­ca­tion, and we have a long way to go.

I see. So all we have to do with all the peo­ple with <120 IQs, who strug­gled with alge­bra and never made it to cal­cu­lus (when they had the self­-dis­ci­pline to learn it at all), is just to train them into world-class soft­ware engi­neers and man­agers who can sat­isfy Sil­i­con Val­ley stan­dards; and we have to do this for the first time in human his­to­ry. Gosh, is that all? Why did­n’t you say so before - we’ll get on that right away! Or an anony­mous “data sci­en­tist” recorded in the NYT: “He found my con­cerns to be amus­ing. Peo­ple can get work cre­at­ing SEO-optimized niche blogs, he said. Or they can learn to code.” Thomas Fried­man:

Every mid­dle-class job today is being pulled up, out or down faster than ever. That is, it either requires more skill or can be done by more peo­ple around the world or is being buried - made obso­lete - faster than ever. Which is why the goal of edu­ca­tion today, argues Wag­n­er, should not be to make every child “col­lege ready” but “inno­va­tion ready” - ready to add value to what­ever they do…­more than ever, our kids will have to “invent” a job. (For­tu­nate­ly, in today’s world, that’s eas­ier and cheaper than ever before.) Sure, the lucky ones will find their first job, but, given the pace of change today, even they will have to rein­vent, re-engi­neer and reimag­ine that job much more often than their par­ents if they want to advance in it… What does that mean for teach­ers and prin­ci­pals? [Tony Wag­ner:] “All stu­dents should have dig­i­tal port­fo­lios to show evi­dence of mas­tery of skills like crit­i­cal think­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tion, which they build up right through K-12 and post-sec­ondary. Selec­tive use of high­-qual­ity tests, like the Col­lege and Work Readi­ness Assess­ment, is impor­tant. Final­ly, teach­ers should be judged on evi­dence of improve­ment in stu­dents’ work through the year - instead of a score on a bub­ble test in May. We need lab schools where stu­dents earn a high school diploma by com­plet­ing a series of skil­l-based ‘merit badges’ in things like entre­pre­neur­ship. And schools of edu­ca­tion where all new teach­ers have ‘res­i­den­cies’ with mas­ter teach­ers and per­for­mance stan­dards - not con­tent stan­dards - must become the new nor­mal through­out the sys­tem.”

These sen­ti­ments or goals are so breath­tak­ingly delu­sional (have these peo­ple ever met the aver­age Amer­i­can? or tried to recall their mid­dle school alge­bra? or thought about how many of their class­mates actu­ally learned any­thing?) that I find myself won­der­ing (de­spite my per­sonal injunc­tions against resort­ing to ad hominems) that “surely no one could believe such impos­si­ble things, either before or after break­fast; surely an award-win­ning New York Times colum­nist or a famous Har­vard edu­ca­tional the­o­rist, surely these peo­ple can­not seri­ously believe the claims they are sup­pos­edly mak­ing, and there is some more rea­son­able expla­na­tion - like they have been bribed by spe­cial inter­ests, or are expound­ing pro­pa­ganda designed to safe­guard their lucra­tive profits from pop­ulist redis­tri­b­u­tion, or are pulling a prank in very bad taste, or (like Pres­i­dent Rea­gan) are trag­i­cally in the grips of a debil­i­tat­ing brain dis­ease?” But the sen­ti­ments are so con­sis­tent and peo­ple who’ve met pro­po­nents of the train­ing panacea say they are gen­uine about it (eg Scott Alexan­der thought the retrain­ing peo­ple were just Inter­net straw­men until he met them), that it must be what they think.

But mov­ing on past Andreessen and Fried­man. If it really is pos­si­ble for peo­ple to rise to the demands of the New Econ­o­my, why is it not hap­pen­ing? For exam­ple (em­pha­sis added)

As doc­u­mented in Turner (2004), Bound and Turner (2007, 2011), and , while the num­ber of stu­dents attend­ing col­lege has increased over the past three decades in the U.S., col­lege grad­u­a­tion rates (i.e., the frac­tion of col­lege enrollees that grad­u­ate) and col­lege attain­ment rates (i.e., the frac­tion of the pop­u­la­tion with a col­lege degree) have hardly changed since 1970 and the time it takes col­lege stu­dents to com­plete a bac­calau­re­ate (BA) degree has increased (Bound, Loven­heim and Turn­er, 2010b). The dis­par­i­ties between the trends in col­lege atten­dance and com­ple­tion or time-to-com­ple­tion of col­lege degrees is all the more stark given that the earn­ings pre­mium for a col­lege degree rel­a­tive to a high school degree nearly dou­bled over this same period (Goldin and Katz, 2008).

  • Bound, John and Sarah Turner (2011). “Dropouts and Diplo­mas: The Diver­gence in Col­le­giate Out­comes.” in Hand­book of the Eco­nom­ics of Edu­ca­tion, Vol. 4, E. Hanushek, S. Machin and L. Woess­mann (ed­s.) Else­vier B.V., 573-613
  • Gold­in, Clau­dia and Lawrence Katz (2008). The Race between Edu­ca­tion and Tech­nol­ogy. Cam­bridge: Har­vard Uni­ver­sity Press

Or “Study of Men’s Falling Income Cites Sin­gle Par­ents”:

The fall of men in the work­place is widely regarded by econ­o­mists as one of the nation’s most impor­tant and puz­zling trends. While men, on aver­age, still earn more than wom­en, the gap between them has nar­rowed con­sid­er­ably, par­tic­u­larly among more recent entrants to the labor force. For all Amer­i­cans, it has become much harder to make a liv­ing with­out a col­lege degree, for inter­twined rea­sons includ­ing for­eign com­pe­ti­tion, advance­ments in tech­nol­ogy and the decline of unions. Over the same peri­od, the earn­ings of col­lege grad­u­ates have increased. Women have responded exactly as econ­o­mists would have pre­dict­ed, by going to col­lege in record num­bers. Men, mys­te­ri­ous­ly, have not. Among peo­ple who were 35 years old in 2010, for exam­ple, women were 17% more likely to have attended col­lege, and 23% more likely to hold an under­grad­u­ate degree. “I think the great­est, most aston­ish­ing fact that I am aware of in social sci­ence right now is that women have been able to hear the labor mar­ket scream­ing out ‘You need more edu­ca­tion’ and have been able to respond to that, and men have not,” said Michael Green­stone, an M.I.T. eco­nom­ics pro­fes­sor who was not involved in Pro­fes­sor Autor’s work. “And it’s very, very scary for econ­o­mists because peo­ple should be respond­ing to price sig­nals. And men are not. It’s a fact in need of an expla­na­tion.”

It’s always a lit­tle strange to read an econ­o­mist remark that poten­tial returns to edu­ca­tion have been ris­ing and so more peo­ple should get an edu­ca­tion, but this same econ­o­mist some­how not real­ize that the con­tin­ued pres­ence of this free lunch indi­cates it is not free at all. Look at how the trend of increas­ing edu­ca­tion has stalled out:

“Edu­ca­tion attain­ment climbed dra­mat­i­cally in the 20th cen­tu­ry, but its growth has flat­tened recently (source: Cen­sus)”

Appar­ently mar­kets work and peo­ple respond to incen­tives—except when it comes to edu­ca­tion, and there peo­ple sim­ply aren’t pick­ing up those $100 bills lay­ing on the ground and have been not pick­ing them up for decades for some rea­son35, as the share of income accru­ing to ‘labor’ falls both in the USA and world­wide I see. (In Eng­land, there’s evi­dence that col­lege grad­u­ates were still being suc­cess­fully absorbed in the ’90s and ear­lier, although appar­ently there weren’t rel­a­tively many dur­ing those peri­ods36.) What do bad stu­dents know that good econ­o­mists don’t?

(in­ven­tor of the much-cited - by opti­mists and anti-neo-lud­dites - com­par­a­tive advan­tage con­cept) changed his mind about whether tech­no­log­i­cal unem­ploy­ment was pos­si­ble, but he thought it was pos­si­ble only under cer­tain con­di­tions; Sachs & Kot­likoff 2013 gives a mul­ti­-gen­er­a­tional model of suffer­ing. Most econ­o­mists, though, con­tinue to dis­miss this line of thought, say­ing that tech­no­log­i­cal changes and struc­tural unem­ploy­ment are real but things will work them­selves out some­how. Robin Han­son, for exam­ple, seems to think that and he’s a far bet­ter econ­o­mist than me and has thought a great deal about AI and the eco­nomic impli­ca­tions. Their oppo­si­tion to Neo-Lud­dism is about the only rea­son I remain uncer­tain, because oth­er­wise, the data for the eco­nomic trou­bles start­ing in 2007, and espe­cially the unem­ploy­ment data, seem to match nice­ly. From a Fed­eral Reserve brief (prin­ci­pally argu­ing that the data is bet­ter matched by a model in which the longer a worker remains unem­ployed, the longer they are likely to remain unem­ployed):

For most of the post-World War II era, unem­ploy­ment has been a rel­a­tively short­-lived expe­ri­ence for the aver­age work­er. Between 1960 and 2010, the aver­age dura­tion of unem­ploy­ment was about 14 weeks. The dura­tion always rose dur­ing reces­sions, but rel­a­tively quick upticks in hir­ing after reces­sions kept the long-term unem­ploy­ment rate fairly low. Even dur­ing the two “job­less recov­er­ies” that fol­lowed the 1990-91 and 2001 reces­sions, the peak shares of long-term unem­ploy­ment were 21% and 23%, respec­tive­ly. But the 2007-09 reces­sion rep­re­sents a marked depar­ture from pre­vi­ous expe­ri­ence: the aver­age dura­tion has increased to 40 weeks, and the share of long-term unem­ploy­ment remains high more than two years after the offi­cial end of the reces­sion.37 Never before in the post­war period have the unem­ployed been unem­ployed for so long.

The Econ­o­mist asked in 2011:

But here is the ques­tion: if the pace of tech­no­log­i­cal progress is accel­er­at­ing faster than ever, as all the evi­dence indi­cates it is, why has unem­ploy­ment remained so stub­bornly high - despite the rebound in busi­ness profits to record lev­els? Two-and-a-half years after the Great Reces­sion offi­cially end­ed, unem­ploy­ment has remained above 9% in Amer­i­ca. That is only one per­cent­age point bet­ter than the coun­try’s job­less­ness three years ago at the depths of the reces­sion. The mod­est 80,000 jobs added to the econ­omy in Octo­ber were not enough to keep up with pop­u­la­tion growth, let alone re-em­ploy any of the 12.3m Amer­i­cans made redun­dant between 2007 and 2009. Even if job cre­ation were mirac­u­lously nearly to triple to the monthly aver­age of 208,000 that is was in 2005, it would still take a dozen years to close the yawn­ing employ­ment gap caused by the recent reces­sion, says Laura D’An­drea Tyson, an econ­o­mist at Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley, who was chair­man of the Coun­cil of Eco­nomic Advis­ers dur­ing the Clin­ton admin­is­tra­tion.

And lays out the cen­tral argu­ment for neo-Lud­dism, why “this time is differ­ent”:

Thanks to trac­tors, com­bine har­vesters, crop-pick­ing machines and other forms of mech­a­ni­sa­tion, agri­cul­ture now accounts for lit­tle more than 2% of the work­ing pop­u­la­tion. Dis­placed agri­cul­tural work­ers then, though, could migrate from fields to fac­to­ries and earn higher wages in the process. What is in store for the Dil­berts of today? Media the­o­rist (Pro­gram or Be Pro­grammed and Life Inc) would argue “noth­ing in par­tic­u­lar.” Put blunt­ly, few new white-col­lar jobs, as peo­ple know them, are going to be cre­ated to replace those now being lost-de­spite the hopes many place in tech­nol­o­gy, inno­va­tion and bet­ter edu­ca­tion.

The argu­ment against the Lud­dite Fal­lacy rests on two assump­tions: one is that machines are tools used by work­ers to increase their pro­duc­tiv­i­ty; the other is that the major­ity of work­ers are capa­ble of becom­ing machine oper­a­tors. What hap­pens when these assump­tions cease to apply - when machines are smart enough to become work­ers? In other words, when cap­i­tal becomes labour. At that point, the Lud­dite Fal­lacy looks rather less fal­la­cious…In his analy­sis [Lights in the Tun­nel], Mr [Mart­in] Ford noted how tech­nol­ogy and inno­va­tion improve pro­duc­tiv­ity expo­nen­tial­ly, while human con­sump­tion increases in a more lin­ear fash­ion. In his view, Lud­dism was, indeed, a fal­lacy when pro­duc­tiv­ity improve­ments were still on the rel­a­tively flat, or slowly ris­ing, part of the expo­nen­tial curve. But after two cen­turies of tech­no­log­i­cal improve­ments, pro­duc­tiv­ity has “turned the cor­ner” and is now mov­ing rapidly up the more ver­ti­cal part of the expo­nen­tial curve. One impli­ca­tion is that pro­duc­tiv­ity gains are now out­strip­ping con­sump­tion by a large mar­gin.

The Amer­i­can odd­i­ties began before the cur­rent reces­sion:

Unem­ploy­ment increased dur­ing the 2001 reces­sion, but it sub­se­quently fell almost to its pre­vi­ous low (from point A to B and then back to C). In con­trast, job open­ings plum­met­ed-much more sharply than unem­ploy­ment rose-and then failed to recov­er. In pre­vi­ous recov­er­ies, open­ings even­tu­ally out­num­bered job seek­ers (where a ris­ing blue line crosses a falling green line), but dur­ing the last recov­ery a labor short­age never emerged. The ane­mic recov­ery was fol­lowed in 2007 by an increase in unem­ploy­ment to lev­els not seen since the early 1980s (the rise after point C). How­ev­er, job open­ings fell only a lit­tle-and then recov­ered. The reces­sion did not reduce hir­ing; it just dumped a lot more peo­ple into an already weak labor mar­ket.38

And then there is the well-known exam­ple of Japan. Yet over­all, both Japan­ese, Amer­i­can, and global wealth con­tinue to grow. The hope­ful sce­nario is that all we are suffer­ing is tem­po­rary pains, which will even­tu­ally be grown out of, as fore­cast in his 1930 essay “Opti­mism in a Ter­ri­ble Econ­omy”:

At the same time tech­ni­cal improve­ments in man­u­fac­ture and trans­port have been pro­ceed­ing at a greater rate in the last ten years than ever before in his­to­ry. In the United States fac­tory out­put per head was 40 per cent greater in 1925 than in 1919. In Europe we are held back by tem­po­rary obsta­cles, but even so it is safe to say that tech­ni­cal effi­ciency is increas­ing by more than 1 per cent per annum com­pound…­For the moment the very rapid­ity of these changes is hurt­ing us and bring­ing diffi­cult prob­lems to solve. Those coun­tries are suffer­ing rel­a­tively which are not in the van­guard of progress. We are being afflicted with a new dis­ease of which some read­ers may not yet have heard the name, but of which they will hear a great deal in the years to come - name­ly, tech­no­log­i­cal unem­ploy­ment. This means unem­ploy­ment due to our dis­cov­ery of means of economis­ing the use of labour out­run­ning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour. But this is only a tem­po­rary phase of mal­ad­just­ment. All this means in the long run that mankind is solv­ing its eco­nomic prob­lem. I would pre­dict that the stan­dard of life in pro­gres­sive coun­tries one hun­dred years hence will be between four and eight times as high as it is to-day. There would be noth­ing sur­pris­ing in this even in the light of our present knowl­edge. It would not be fool­ish to con­tem­plate the pos­si­bil­ity of afar greater progress still.


Of course, as plau­si­ble as this all looks, that does­n’t mean much. Any­one can cher­ryp­ick a bunch of quotes and cita­tions. When mak­ing pre­dic­tions, there are a few heuris­tics or prin­ci­ples I try to apply, and it might be worth apply­ing a few here.

The spec­i­fi­ca­tion seems fairly clear: the Neo-Lud­dite claim, in its sim­plest form pre­dicts that ever fewer peo­ple will be able to find employ­ment in undis­torted free mar­kets. We can see other aspects as either tan­gents (will peo­ple be able to con­sume due to a Basic Income or via cap­i­tal own­er­ship?) or sub­sets (the Autor the­sis of polar­iza­tion would nat­u­rally lead to an over­all increase in unem­ploy­men­t). The due date is not clear, but we can see the Neo-Lud­dite the­sis as closely linked to arti­fi­cial intel­li­gences, and 2050 would be as good a due date as any inas­much as I expect to be alive then & AI will have matured sub­stan­tially (if we date seri­ous AI to 1960 then 2012 is a bit past halfway) & many pre­dic­tions like Ray Kurzweil’s will have been ver­i­fied or fal­si­fied.

The prob­a­bil­ity part of a pre­dic­tion is the hard part. Going in order (the lat­ter heuris­tics aren’t help­ful):

  1. “What does the pre­dic­tion about the future world imply about the present world?”

    What would we expect in a world in which the Neo-Lud­dite the­sis were true?

    • first and fore­most, we would expect both soft­ware & hard­ware to con­tinue improv­ing. Both are true: Moore’s law con­tin­ues despite the break­down in chip fre­quen­cies, and AI research forges on with things like deep neural net­works being deployed at scale by com­pa­nies such as Google. If we did not see improve­ment, that would be extremely dam­ag­ing to the the­sis. How­ev­er, this is a pretty bor­ing retro­d­ic­tion to make: tech­nol­ogy has improved for so many cen­turies now that it would be sur­pris­ing if the improve­ments had sud­denly stopped, and if it had, why would any­one be tak­ing this the­sis seri­ous­ly? It’s not like any­one wor­ries over the impli­ca­tions of a philoso­pher’s stone for forex.

    • More mean­ing­ful­ly: cap­i­tal & labor increas­ingly cease to be com­ple­ments, and become sub­sti­tutes. We would expect grad­u­ally ris­ing dis­em­ploy­ment as algo­rithms & soft­ware & hard­ware were refined and com­pa­nies learned when employ­ees could be replaced by tech­no­log­i­cal sub­sti­tutes, with occa­sional jumps as idio­syn­cratic break­throughs were made for par­tic­u­lar tasks. We would expect returns on cap­i­tal to increase, and we would expect that employ­ees with un-sub­sti­tutable skills or prop­er­ties would increase wealth. This seems sort of true: STEM-related salaries in par­tic­u­lar fields seem to be steady and tech com­pa­nies con­tinue to com­plain that good soft­ware engi­neers are hard to find (and Con­gress should autho­rize ever more H-1B visas) with con­se­quences such as sky­rock­et­ing San Fran­cisco real estate as tech com­pa­nies flock there to find the rare tal­ent they require, which is the sort of “super­star effect” we would expect if human beings with cer­tain prop­er­ties were intrin­si­cally rare & valu­able and the remain­der just so much use­less dross that hold back a busi­ness or worse. This is par­tic­u­larly strik­ing when we note that it has never been cheaper or eas­ier to become a soft­ware engi­neer as ade­quate com­puter hard­ware is dirt cheap & all nec­es­sary soft­ware is avail­able for free online & instruc­tional mate­ri­als like­wise, and it’s unclear how bar­ri­ers like cer­ti­fi­ca­tion could mat­ter when pro­gram­mers are pro­duc­ing objec­tive prod­ucts - either a web­site is awe­some and works, or it does­n’t.

      On the other hand, I also read of boom­ing poor economies like China or Africa where wages are ris­ing in gen­eral and unem­ploy­ment seems to be less of a con­cern. This might fit the Autor model of polar­iza­tion if we fig­ure that those boom­ing economies are pric­ing human labor so cheap that it out­com­petes software/robots/etc, in which case we would expect to see these coun­tries hit a “wall” where only a part of their pop­u­la­tions can pass the ‘val­ley of death’ to reach the happy part of the polar­ized econ­omy but the rest of the pop­u­la­tion is now strug­gling to be cheap enough to com­pete with the cap­i­tal-al­ter­na­tives. I’m not sure I see this. Yes, there are a lot of robotic fac­to­ries being set up in China now, but does that really mean any­thing impor­tant on Chi­na’s scale? What’s a few mil­lion robots in a coun­try of 1.3 bil­lion peo­ple? If China does wind up falling into what looks like a , that would be con­sis­tent with the Autor mod­el, I think, and strengthen this retro­d­ic­tion.

    • As tech­nol­ogy is mobile and can eas­ily be sold or export­ed, we would expect to see this gen­eral trend in many wealthy West­ern coun­tries. This is a seri­ous weak point of my knowl­edge thus far: I sim­ply don’t know what it really looks like in eg Japan or Eng­land or Ger­many. Are they see­ing sim­i­lar things to my fac­toids about the USA?

  2. “Base rates” here is essen­tially apply­ing the Out­side View

    The main prob­lem here is that it’s very diffi­cult to rebut the Out­side View: the Lud­dite the­sis has, it seems, failed many times in the past; why expect this time to be any differ­ent? The his­tor­i­cal horse exam­ple is amus­ing, cer­tain­ly, but there could be many fac­tors sep­a­rat­ing horses from ordi­nary peo­ple. To this, I don’t have any good reply. Even if the the­sis is “right” from the per­spec­tive of 1000 years from now, there is good rea­son to be chary of expect­ing it to hap­pen in my life­time. Com­put­ers them­selves fur­nish a great many exam­ples of peo­ple who, with vision and deep insight not shared by the peo­ple who ridiculed them as tech­no-u­topi­ans, cor­rectly fore­saw things like the per­sonal com­puter or the Inter­net or online sales - and started their com­pa­nies too ear­ly. The best I can say is that software/AI seems com­pletely & qual­i­ta­tively differ­ent from ear­lier tech­nolo­gies like rail­roads or assem­bly lines, in that they are per­form­ing deeply human men­tal func­tions that ear­lier tech­nolo­gies did not come any­where near: the reg­u­la­tor of a steam engine is solv­ing a prob­lem so much sim­pler than an autonomous car solves that it’s hard to even see them as being even the­o­ret­i­cally related in exert­ing con­trol on processes by feed­back process­es. The dimmest human could pro­duc­tively use con­tem­po­rary tech­nolo­gies, where today we strug­gle to find sub­si­dized jobs for the men­tally hand­i­capped where they are even just not a net loss.

From these mus­ings, I think we can extract a few warn­ing signs which would indi­cate the Neo-Lud­dite the­sis break­ing down:

  • global eco­nomic growth stop­ping
  • AI research progress stop­ping
  • Moore’s law in terms of FLOPS/$ break­ing down
  • decreased wealth inequal­ity (eg. Gini) in the First World
  • increases in pop­u­la­tion work­ing

Daniel Kah­ne­man has an inter­est­ing think­ing tech­nique he calls the “pre-mortem”, where you ask your­self: “assume it’s the future, and my con­fi­dent pre­dic­tions have com­pletely failed to come true. What went wrong?” Look­ing back, if the Neo-Lud­dite the­sis fails, I think the most likely expla­na­tion for what I’ve seen in the USA would be some­thing related to glob­al­iza­tion & China in par­tic­u­lar: the polar­iza­tion, increased dis­em­ploy­ment, increas­ing need for tech­ni­cal train­ing etc, all seem explain­able by those jobs head­ing over­seas, exac­er­bated by other fac­tors such as domes­tic pol­i­tics (Bush’s tax cuts on the rich?) and maybe things like the struc­tural unem­ploy­ment relat­ing to exist­ing work­ers hav­ing diffi­culty switch­ing sec­tors or jobs but new work­ers being able to adapt. If this is so, then I think we would expect the trends to grad­u­ally ame­lio­rate them­selves: older work­ers will die off & retire, new work­ers will replace them, new niches and jobs will open up as the econ­omy adapts, Chi­na’s expo­nen­tial growth will result in catchup being com­pleted within 2 or 3 decades, and so on.


may be even more inflam­ma­tory than sup­port­ing nicotine, but it’s an impor­tant entry on any hon­est list. I never doubted that IQ was in part hered­i­tary (Stephen Jay Gould aside, this is too obvi­ous - what, every­thing from drug responses to skin and eye color would be her­i­ta­ble except the most impor­tant things which would have a huge effect on repro­duc­tive fit­ness?), but all the experts seemed to say that diluted over entire pop­u­la­tions, any ten­dency would be non-ex­is­tent. Well, OK, I could believe that; vis­i­ble traits con­sis­tent over entire pop­u­la­tions like skin color might differ sys­tem­at­i­cally because of sex­ual selec­tion or some­thing, but why not leave IQ fol­low­ing the exact same bell curve in each pop­u­la­tion? There was no spe­cific thing here that made me start to won­der, more a grad­ual under­min­ing (Gould’s work like being com­pletely dis­hon­est is one exam­ple - with ene­mies like that…) as I con­tin­ued to read stud­ies and won­der why Asian model minori­ties did so well, and a lack of really con­vinc­ing coun­ter-ev­i­dence like one would expect the last two decades to have pro­duced - given the pol­i­tics involved - if the idea were false. And one can always ask one­self: sup­pose that intel­li­gence was mean­ing­ful, and did have a large genetic com­po­nent, and the likely genetic rank­ing East Asians > Cau­casian > Africans; in what way would the world, or the last mil­len­nium (eg the growth of the Asian tigers vs Africa, or the differ­ent expe­ri­ences of dis­crim­i­nat­ed-a­gainst minori­ties in the USA), look differ­ent than it does now?


It’s worth not­ing that the IQ wars are a rab­bit hole you can eas­ily dive down. The lit­er­a­ture is vast, spans all sorts of groups, all sorts of designs, from test validi­ties to sam­pling to sta­tis­ti­cal regres­sion vs causal infer­ence to forms of bias; every point is hotly debat­ed, the ways in which stud­ies can be validly cri­tiqued are an edu­ca­tion in how to read papers and look for how they are weak or make jumps or some of the data just looks wrong, and you’ll learn every tech­ni­cal require­ment and premise and method­olog­i­cal lim­i­ta­tion because the oppo­nents of that par­tic­u­lar result will be sure to bring them up if it’ll at all help their case.

In this respect, it’s a lot like the feuds in bib­li­cal crit­i­cism over issues like , or the long philo­soph­i­cal debate over the . There too is an incred­i­ble amount of mate­r­ial to cov­er, by some really smart peo­ple (what did geeks do before sci­ence and moder­ni­ty? well, for the most part, they seem to have done the­ol­o­gy; con­sider how much time and effort Isaac New­ton report­edly and , or the sheer brain­power that must’ve been spent over the cen­turies in rab­bini­cal stud­ies). You could learn a lot about the ancient world or the incred­i­bly com­plex chain of trans­mis­sion of the Bible’s con­stituents in their end­less vari­eties and how they are put together into a sin­gle canon­i­cal mod­ern text, or the other count­less issues of . An awful lot, indeed. One could, and peo­ple as smart or smarter than you have, lose one’s life in explor­ing lit­tle back­-al­leys and details.

If, like most peo­ple, you’ve only read a few papers or books on it, your opin­ion (what­ever that is) is worth­less and you prob­a­bly don’t even real­ize how worth­less your opin­ion is, how far you are from actu­ally grasp­ing the sub­tleties involved and hav­ing a com­mand of all the stud­ies and crit­i­cisms of said stud­ies. I exempt myself from this only inas­much as I have real­ized how lit­tle I still know after all my read­ing. No mat­ter how tempt­ing it is to think that you may be able to finally put together the com­pelling refu­ta­tion of God’s exis­tence or to demon­strate that Jesus’s divin­ity was a late addi­tion to his gospel, you won’t make a dent in the debate. In other words, these can become forms of nerd snip­ing and intel­lec­tual crack. “If only I com­pile a few more stud­ies, make a few more points—then my case will become clear and con­vinc­ing, and peo­ple on the Inter­net will stop being wrong!”

But hav­ing said that, and admir­ing things like Planti­nga’s free will defense, and the sub­tle log­i­cal issues in for­mu­lat­ing it and the lack of any really con­crete evi­dence for or against Jesus’s exis­tence, do I take the basic ques­tion of God seri­ous­ly? No. The the­ists’ rear­guard attempts and ever more inge­nious expla­na­tions and indi­rect path­ways of rea­sons and touted mir­a­cles fun­da­men­tally do not add up to an exist­ing whole. The uni­verse does not look any­thing like a omni-benevolent/powerful/scient god was involved, a great deal of deter­mined effort has failed to pro­vide any con­vinc­ing proof, there not being a god is con­sis­tent with all the observed processes and ani­mal king­dom and nat­ural events and mate­r­ial world we see, and so on. The per­sis­tence of the debate reflects more what moti­vated cog­ni­tion can accom­plish and the weak­ness of exist­ing epis­te­mol­ogy and debate. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, this could be equally well-said by some­one on the other side of the debate, and in any case, I can­not com­mu­ni­cate my gestalt impres­sion of the field to any­one else. I don’t expect any­one to be the least bit swayed by what I’ve writ­ten here.

So why be inter­ested in the top­ics at all? If you can­not con­vince any­one, if you can­not learn the field to a rea­son­able depth, and you can­not even com­mu­ni­cate well what con­vinced you, why bother? In the spirit of , I say: it’s not clear at all. So you should know in advance whether you want to take the red pill and see how far down the rab­bit hole you go before you finally give up, or you take the blue pill and be an onlooker as you set­tle for a high­-level overview of the more inter­est­ing papers and issues and accept that you will only have that and a gen­eral inde­fen­si­ble assess­ment of the state of play.

My own belief is that as inter­est­ing as it is, you should take the blue pill and not adopt any strong posi­tion but per­haps (if it does­n’t take too much time) point out any par­tic­u­larly naive or egre­gious holes in argu­ment, by peo­ple who are sim­ply wrong or don’t real­ize how lit­tle they know or how slanted a view they have received from the mate­r­ial they’ve read. It’s sad to not reach agree­ment with other peo­ple, dan­ger­ous to ignore crit­ics, tempt­ing to engage trolls - but life is too short to keep tread­ing the same ground.

The rea­son for IQ is this: yes, Mur­ray failed to orga­nize a defin­i­tive genetic study. It has­n’t hap­pened yet even though it’s more impor­tant than most of the triv­i­al­i­ties that get stud­ied in pop­u­la­tion genet­ics (like his­tor­i­cal move­ments of ran­dom group­s). I don’t need to explain why this would be the case even if peo­ple on the envi­ron­men­tal­ist side of the IQ wars were con­fi­dent they were right. But the mas­sive fall in genome sequenc­ing costs (pro­jected to be <$1000 by ~2014) means that large human datasets will be pro­duced, and the genet­ics directly exam­ined, elim­i­nat­ing entire areas of objec­tions to the pre­vi­ous hered­ity stud­ies. And at some point, some researcher will man­age the study - some group inside or out­side the USA will fund it, at some point a large enough genetic data­base will be cross-ref­er­enced against IQ tests and exist­ing racial mark­ers. We already see some of this in research: (fol­lowup: ) found 3 SNPs sim­ply by pool­ing exist­ing data­bases of genet­ics data & cor­re­lat­ing against school­ing. I don’t know when the defin­i­tive paper will come out, if it’ll be this year, or by 2020, although I would be sur­prised if there was still noth­ing by 2030; but it will hap­pen and it will hap­pen rel­a­tively soon (for a debate going on for the past cen­tury or more). Genome sequenc­ing is sim­ply going to be too cheap for it to not hap­pen. By 2030 or 2040, I expect the issue will be defin­i­tively set­tled in the same way ear­lier debates about the valid­ity of IQ tests were even­tu­ally set­tled (even if the pub­lic has­n’t yet got­ten the word, the experts all con­cede that IQ tests are valid, reli­able, not biased, and mean­ing­ful pre­dic­tors of a wide vari­ety of real-world vari­ables).

Value of Information

What is the direct value of learn­ing about IQ? Speak­ing of it in terms of money may not be the best approach, so instead we can split the ques­tion up into a few differ­ent sub­-ques­tions:

  1. how much do your efforts lead to addi­tional infor­ma­tion?

    In this case, not much. I would have to be very arro­gant to think I can go through a large frac­tion of the lit­er­a­ture and eval­u­ate it bet­ter than the exist­ing author­i­ties like Nis­bett or Flynn or Jensen. I have no advan­tages over them.

  2. would this infor­ma­tion-gath­er­ing be expen­sive?

    Yes. A sin­gle paper can take an hour to read well, and a tech­ni­cal book weeks. There are hun­dreds of papers and dozens of books to learn. The math­e­mat­ics and sta­tis­tics are non­triv­ial, and sooner or lat­er, one will have to learn them in order to eval­u­ate the seri­ous­ness of crit­i­cisms for one­self. The time spent will not have been throw-away recre­ational time, either, like slum­ming on the couch watch­ing TV, but will be one’s high­est-qual­ity time, which could have been spent learn­ing other diffi­cult mate­ri­al, work­ing, mean­ing­fully inter­act­ing with other peo­ple, and so on. Given the decline with age of fluid intel­li­gence, one may be wast­ing a non-triv­ial frac­tion of one’s life­time learn­ing.

  3. will new infor­ma­tion come in the absence of your efforts?

    Yes. My inter­est does not mate­ri­ally affect when the final genetic stud­ies will be con­duct­ed.

  4. what deci­sions or beliefs would the addi­tional infor­ma­tion change?

    Sup­pose the envi­ron­men­tal­ists were 100% right and the between-race genet­ics were a neg­li­gi­bly small fac­tor. Regard­less, the topic of IQ and its cor­re­lates and what it pre­dicts does not live and die based on there being a genetic fac­tor to aver­age IQ differ­ences between groups; if the admix­ture and genet­ics stud­ies turn in a solid esti­mate of 0, IQ will still pre­dict life­time income, still pre­dict crime rates, still pre­dict edu­ca­tional scores, and so on.

    In con­trast, some of the other top­ics have very con­crete imme­di­ate impli­ca­tions. Switch­ing from occultism/theism to athe­ism implies many changed beliefs & choic­es; a near vs far Sin­gu­lar­ity has con­sid­er­able con­se­quences for retire­ment plan­ning, if noth­ing else; while Neo-Lud­dism has impli­ca­tions for both career choice and retire­ment plan­ning; atti­tudes towards fic­tion and nico­tine also cash out in obvi­ous ways. Of the top­ics here, per­haps only Com­mu­nism and the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion are as ster­ile in prac­ti­cal appli­ca­tion.

If genetic differ­ences and inequal­ity exists, they should be engi­neered away.

So, I try not to spend too much time think­ing about this issue: the results will come in regard­less of my opin­ion, and unlike other issues here, does not mate­ri­ally affect my world­view or sug­gest action. Given this, there’s no rea­son to invest your life in the top­ic! It has no prac­ti­cal ram­i­fi­ca­tions for you, dis­cussing the issue can only lead to neg­a­tive con­se­quences - and on the intel­lec­tual lev­el, no mat­ter how much you read, you’ll always have nag­ging doubts, so you won’t get any sat­is­fac­tion. You might as well just wait patiently for the inevitable final answer.