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Eric Weinstein's Error

Eric Weinstein has released his highly self-aggrandized anticipated research paper on geometric unity.

I read the paper. I gave it a solid hour or two. I did read the whole thing.

The paper is not really a research paper, it's a collection of briefly formalized mathematical intuitions combined with some comments about how these intuitions could possibly be turned into a significant finding, plus a number of paranoid intuitions about why and how this significant finding is thwarted by various political forces.

I'm not sure we've seen this kind of megalomania since Nietzsche. To be clear, I would say that's a compliment, given that Nietzsche was the absolute chad of late-19th century Europe. What happens to this kind of intellectual temperament in the 21st century is, of course, a different question.

I was mostly interested in this paper as an example of what a sophisticated outsider intellectual could do, after having gained a large social-media audience. For a couple years now, I've been listening to Eric's story about his suppressed theory, which, he has claimed, overturns all of modern economic theory, transcends Satoshi Nakamoto's conception of the blockchain, and more.

If I have any horse in this race, my bias is in favor of Eric dropping a world-historical research paper and totally dunking on the institutions from his outsider social-media perch. If anyone is capable of doing it, at this very moment, it would be him—and it would vindicate and flatter a lot of my recent theorizing. I would love to see it.

This paper and its whole self-flattering build up, unfortunately, reveal the author to be tremendously out of touch with both institutional legitimacy dynamics and indie legitimacy dynamics.

The paper certainly demonstrates that Eric knows advanced math, and has some creative ideas. But this simple fact is already priced into his stock as a public intellectual, and it means virtually nothing inside of institutions... given the basic nature of institutions.

What you have to understand about mathematics and mathematical physics is that lots of people in these fields can generate highly impressive numerical edifices making all kinds of claims about possible applications to other fields. Search around and you can find a ton of physics-based theories of the economy, most of which do not win Nobel prizes and do not overthrow the economics profession. But those authors don't feel like persecuted victims, perhaps because they are not megalomaniacs or perhaps because they lack large internet audiences. They understand that, ultimately, super-advanced math is a language game (not unlike woke theory, actually, except that woke theory is the econo-physics of verbal-IQ elites).

Advanced mathematics can occasionally find vindication by experiment, or inspire creative application in the world, or gain some public awareness for highly stochastic reasons, but to imagine that advanced mathematical sophistication combined with some creativity entitles one to any amount of institutional recognition is to woefully misunderstand the epistemology of scientific method (rooted in experiment), the nature of institutions, and the sociology of intellectual history. What gets power and credit in academic philosophy, for instance, is largely a function of who your teacher was (see Randall Collins' The Sociology of Philosophies). Most super-mathy academics understand that, while worth doing in the pursuit of truth, especially if it can get you an academic job, super-advanced math is very often strictly useless. Most artists will agree about their own work, find it worthwhile anyway, and never complain. Eric seems genuinely not to understand this.

Science is deeply rooted in experiment, whether one likes it or not. In the paper, Eric mentions that not all mathematics need be demonstrated by experiment. That is correct, but note that the academic variants of woke theory also make the same point in favor of themselves. The problem is that, as a matter of historical reality, scientific method is the one and only high-status validation and legitimation method recognized in modern culture. You can cite any number of theorists who have shown or theorized something like this—from Weber, to Heidegger, Adorno, Foucault, many others, most of the twentieth-century continental tradition revolves around this massive fact.

Scientific experiment is the only way an intellectual can claim to be more correct than others, in the public sphere, with inter-subjectively recognizable criteria to calibrate judgment. If your field doesn't lend itself to experiment, that's fine, some work can be described as better or worse than other work, but you can never claim some objective or inter-subjective superiority that would ever avail itself of universal recognition—in the way that you can with experimentally validated and engineering-generative insights.

The supreme irony here is that what's called postmodernism is the academic field where this basic problem has been most fully specified and ethically questioned. They are the ones who have been saying for years that modern culture over-weights that which can be validated by experiment, denying legitimacy to important truths that happen to not lend themselves to that particular mode of veridiction. This critique of science indeed plays some role in the unleashing of increasingly unhinged woke epistemology, but apparently it also unleashes the paranoid victim complexes of extremely intelligent rationalists as well. Rather than claiming to be persecuted by the economics profession, Eric should read post-structuralism and understand that his unique ideas are de-legitimated in the same way all "non-scientific" ideas are de-legitimated, but that, in this elision, he may also find unique forms of power and freedom. Even more ironically, Eric can thank the Deleuzian nature of the internet for already granting him historically novel and extraordinary sources of power and freedom. But it seems that Eric does not recognize these powers for what they are, or he doesn't understand how they work, which explains why he tried to publish a research paper in the way that he did.

The paper is almost explicitly pseudo-scientific in that he self-consciously typesets the paper using LaTeX (the cool kid's writing application in STEM research disciplines) and it contains advanced math, but it does not deliver the basic promise of a scientific research article, namely a competent review of up-to-date research followed by a specific, novel insight which is then integrated back into the literature. He punts on those basic requirements of a scientific research paper, bizarrely mentioning in the opening footnote that he is merely an Entertainer. And yet as an entertainer he is constantly claiming he has a revolutionary theory that has been suppressed by academia.

Basically he does not have the grand, unifying, discipline-shattering research paper or discovery that I honestly hoped he did.

So the overall effect of this paper is quite a let down. There are only a few thousand people who will be capable of judging the formal math in the paper, but even if they are correct and interesting—which I'm happy to grant!—his naivety on the sociology of science and the sociology of the internet significantly deflates my estimation of Eric as social thinker.

I think Eric is a genius and a courageous, fascinating, impressive individual who could have extraordinary impact in the long-run of intellectual history. But sadly, he is becoming a genuine crank, insofar as the distinction between an independent intellectual and a crank is that the independent intellectual supersedes institutions and gains long-term influence, whereas the crank becomes possessed by resentment toward institutions and fails to gain long-term influence.

He makes good points about the selection effects of institutional science. It is true certain findings are likely to be rejected, even if true. But this is a reason for doing extra-institutional science. The error Weinstein insists on making is trying to force extra-institutional knowledge into institutional acceptance. The result can be nothing other than failure, crankhood, and the paranoid bitterness which, frankly, Weinstein exudes in his recent appearances. Fortunately he has plenty of time to change course. I hope that he does, and I wish him nothing but success.

The Second Golden Age of Blogging

Many people say that “blogging is dead,” but dead for whom? Blogging remains powerful, just not for the same type of person who found it powerful in the “golden age of blogging” (roughly 2003-2009). In that period, blog-based intellectual freedom coincided with professional career tracks. Tyler Cowen, Crooked Timber, Instapundit, etc. — most of these people were already successful, institutionalized professionals, and the blog was a new way for them to think and talk in public, having fun while parlaying their professional status into increased public reach. When people say “blogging is dead,” what they really mean is that this type of blogging is dead.

Blogging was then diffused into social media, but now social media is so tribal and algo-regulated that anybody with a real message today needs their own property. At the same time, professional institutions are increasingly suffocated by older, rent-seeking incumbents and politically-correct upstarts using moralism as a career strategy. In such a context, blogging — if it is intelligent, courageous, and consistent — is currently one of the most reliable methods for intellectually sophisticated individuals to accrue social and cultural capital outside of institutions. (Youtube for the videographic, Instagram for the photographic, podcasting for the loquacious, but writing and therefore blogging for the most intellectually sophisticated.)

Those who think blogs are irrelevant today — usually Gen-Xers or older — typically underestimate the degree to which real power has evacuated traditional institutions such as academia and New York publishing houses. Such people think, because they don’t know many institutionalized professionals who still blog, that blogging must be dead. What they don’t realize is that the credibility premium historically enjoyed by professional institutions is plummeting toward zero. This fact is so obvious to younger Millenials and Zoomers that it goes unremarked, undebated, because it is already baked-in to their reading/watching behaviors.

If the First Golden Age of Blogging saw the blog as a public amplifier of creative, intellectual talent ensconced in professional careers, today we are living through a Second Golden Age of Blogging, where the blog is now a vehicle for starting and exiting careers. Starting a career might mean building an audience that later becomes a customer-base for some kind of independent entrepreneurship, or it might mean winning the attention and interest of employers in a target industry. Exiting a career might mean blogging pseudonymously (exiting careerist constraints), to make intellectual progress and impact for its own sake. Or exiting could mean building a bridge into a new, different career track. This blog is certainly one example, but I’m not just generalizing from my own experience. There are countless examples of individuals who have successfully navigated all of these pathways, in recent years, with their personal blog as a primary source of leverage. In fact, there are so many examples that no individual case seems interesting enough to be newsworthy. Blogging isn’t dead, it’s so alive that it’s imperceptible.

Durkheim Meltdown

The French sociologist Émile Durkheim believed that one defining feature of a profession is that the attitudes and behaviors that count as "professional" within it are of no interest to the general public. My recent experiences suggest that whatever Durkheim was referring to has changed a lot since the time of his writing. First, consider his description and explanation of professional morals in Professional Ethics and Civic Morals:

The distinctive feature of this kind of morals and what differentiates it from other branches of ethics, is the sort of unconcern with which the public consciousness regards it. There are no moral rules whose infringement, in general at least, is looked on with so much indulgence by public opinion. The transgressions which have only to do with the practice of the profession, come in merely for a rather vague censure outside the strictly professional field....

...a book-keeper who is complacent about the rules of scrupulous accounting, or an official who as a rule lacks energy in carrying out his duties, does not give the impression of a guilty person, although he is treated as such in the organization to which he belongs.

This feature of professional ethics can moreover easily be explained. They cannot be of deep concern to the common consciousness precisely because they are not common to all members of the society and because, to put it in another way, they are rather outside the common consciousness. It is exactly because they govern functions not performed
by everyone, that not everyone is able to have a sense of what these functions are, of what they ought to be, or of what special relations should exist between the individuals concerned with applying them. All this escapes public opinion in a greater or lesser degree...

It is this very fact which is a pointer to the fundamental condition without which no professional ethics can exist. A system of morals is always the affair of a group and can operate only if this group protects them by its authority...

Émile Durkheim in Professional Ethics and Civic Morals

Professionals today — if they are so cursed to have their professionalism called into question — may be surprised how many members of the general public have quite refined and passionate views on what should be counted as professional within a range of different professions! The reason why Durkheim's description of professional morals now rings false is because the professions are no longer "outside the common consciousness."

Through the collapse of distance that characterizes modernity, all of our increasingly concentrated social molecules heat up: professions that once enjoyed relative detachment and autonomy from the masses, increasingly find their edges melting down from the friction of everyone pressed up against the gates on the outside. In our epoch, pitchforks will never appear, the great estates will not be set aflame, the Winter Palace will not be stormed. The traditional negentropic structures will be melted down by the heat of cross-cutting social expectations, claims, and obligations from which they were relatively insulated during the period of their emergence. Capable and interested people have historically enforced different forms of order in different professions, for particular social purposes as well as for their own status and payment, before handing power on to the next generation of capable and interested agents, according to stringent professional criteria. As more and more people see, hear, judge, and gain leverage to make claims on the resources that circulate in and out of the professions, more and more people will "have their say" at the cost of these structures no longer providing their negentropic quotient. They will neither dissolve nor be revolutionized, they will simply be melted, like a standing steel building might be melted into a wide and shallow but equally impressive pool of boiling silver. The people will get what they ask for, but then it won't be what they wanted.

Is parental social status a mixed blessing? On toleration for occupational drudgery

Many people assume that coming from parents with high social status is an advantage, because it would appear to increase the probability of gaining high social status for oneself. But what if parental social status is more like a weight on one's shoulders, an obligation heavy enough that, in some cases, it might even be a losing ticket in the lottery of life?

My parents have very low social status. I am a statistical oddity for having become a tenured academic, which is a relatively high status position (although I wager it's falling in the ranks as academia becomes discredited).

But I've been an academic for five years now, and with every passing year it gets harder and harder to understand why my job is worth doing. The volume of patently nonsensical and often ethically dubious make-work is so high that one of the chief intellectual puzzles I've become the most fascinated by is simply why everyone around me (myself included) is willing to work this job. And people are not just willing to work this job, they even continue to eagerly compete for it. That this has become a puzzle to me suggests that something about me is losing the capacity to do it, and yet for the moment at least — I'm still doing it.

In other occupations, the answer to such a question is obvious: people put up with all the nonsense either because they have no other choice, or because the money is worth it. But what is peculiar about academia is that most academics are skilled and connected enough to do many other things,  and the money is usually better in private-sector versions of academic fields. So if I am right that academia is becoming less and less worth it, given increasing loads of nonsense, I do think that the continuing passionate interest in either obtaining or maintaining academic careers is indeed a puzzling instance of lemming-like, behavioral inertia. But to call it herd behavior is too easy and not really satisfying. How or why does this particular herd dynamic hang together? A good theory would explain why academic investment varies across individuals (e.g., why is it becoming weaker in me, but not others?).

One possible explanation is the drive to meet parental expectations. The rationale is simple. If both of your parents were professors, or they had some other high-status occupation, you'll have a higher tolerance for nonsensical make-work, because you don't want to fail in the eyes of your parents. Quitting because of a too-high volume of nonsense would be existentially much more difficult than it would be for me, as their parents would view it more negatively than mine. Plus, they would feel their parents' judgment more because their parents' status gives their judgments greater credence. My parents, on the other hand, basically think I'm a highly-successful genius no matter what I do, and if for some reason they were to downgrade their opinion of me, my superior education would blunt the effects of that downgrading on me. Therefore, for an academic from high-status parents, maintaining their academic position is more rewarding than it is for me. They feel like they are representing something larger and historical and their parents actually follow what they do. I am doing something that most of my family does not really understand or care about.

For the moment, I'm carrying on. The big question is whether I am carrying on for the right reasons or the wrong reasons. My statistically improbable status background could give me a valuable edge in clarity, allowing me to see things that others can't see and act on them with a greater daring that others cannot access (namely, that perhaps academia is a sinking ship from which one should jump sooner than later). Or, my statistically improbable status background could just make long-term success in a high-status career more difficult, and the correct attitude and behavioral adaptation would be to suck it up and stop rationalizing my weaknesses. I still don't know the answer to this question, but I believe my basic observation about the causal role of parental status may be correct.

Does a country's separation of powers affect its status culture?

I was recently wondering whether countries with more centralized executive and legislative powers (less checks and balances) might have more status-intensive cultures — or in some way a qualitatively different type of status culture. My hypothesis is inchoate but here it goes.

When a government has few checks and balances (e.g. the UK is known for having a pretty centralized, unified government), the flow of public funds into civil society is highly conditional on the subjective status-estimates of a small set of people (those in government). By subjective status estimates I mean the personal impressions of the rulers regarding what people and projects out in the world are good, valuable, desirable, attractive, etc. When a government has a lot of checks and balances, the flow of public funds into civil society is not as conditional on the subjective status-estimates of one small set of agents — it's conditional on many different socially separated sets of agents.

The two countries I have the most experience living in, the US and the UK, occupy the two opposite poles with respect to the centralization of power in a unified government. And it seems to me that status-signaling activity in these countries is different in a noticeable but predictable way. These are just impressions and could be totally wrong, but here's what it looks like to me. It seems to me that much of UK civil society revolves around satisfying the whims of some superior, who is mostly concerned to satisfy the whims of some other superior, and so on upward... But at the top of almost all of these different chains of deference in different subspaces of civil society, is the whim of one group: the government in parliament at that time. This is why, I think, there is a lot of volatility in the priorities of civil society organizations in the UK (the "strategic plan" of a university can easily change once a year for some stretches), and yet the volatility seems strangely correlated (some change in a university's "strategic plan" sounds oddly like some new messaging you encounter from some other Arts organization. There are weird lags and interactions as you descend the pyramid from parliament to civil society, of course, but the diversity of civil society organizations all seem roughly attuned to the one fickle center at the top. So all the status-games feel, to me, weirdly and claustrophobically entrained.

In the US, it's obviously not that status competition is less prevalent, but the many status games of different civil society actors don't all trace upward to one master at the top of the pyramid. It's much more fractured, regarding who different civil society actors are trying to impress. But because it's more fractured, this means individuals have a relatively wider choice of what particular status game they want to play. Those who are immersed in one, don't pay as much attention to those who are playing another. If you find one status game really irksome, then you can potentially switch into another (relative to a country such as the UK).

One can then speculate about what types of people are selected for by these different contexts. I find the overly synchronized, centrally entrained status games of the UK kind of creepy, personally. I think it might make people marginally more delusional. It seems to me that people in the UK, including really smart people, are more likely to take arbitrary government directives as anchors of reality, whereas Americans have more mental leeway to, as it were, take 'em or leave 'em. When everyone else is attuned to the same center, it makes sense that you might mistake what's coming from the center as a vector of reality itself, rather than one contingent possibility among others. Americans often seem "kind of crazy" to non-Americans, and this might help to explain it. The highly fractured nature of government power in the US might make the American individual feel and act kind of like a free agent navigating many contingent possibilities of what reality even is.

Motives and Institutions with Robin Hanson

Robin Hanson is an economist, futurist, and blogger at overcomingbias.com. I've been following Robin for a while now because he's a genuine intellectual: he thinks, speaks, and writes intensely and prolifically about whatever he wants, even if it seems weird to other people. His recently published book, co-authored with Kevin Simler, is called The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life. 

In this podcast, we talked about the new book; Robin's larger motivation behind the book; which minds Robin would like to change; the internet; academia; Robin's strategic insights on how to be an intellectual, especially for young-ish academic types such as myself; the near future; Robin's ideas about "futarchy;" Robin's book The Age of Em; how to incentivize honesty in small groups; the profit motive and the space of institutions beyond the profit motive; and a few other things.

Download this episode.

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