An interesting result from behavioral/experimental economics is that bubbles can happen even with smart people who should know better. But once those people go through a bubble, they do a better job of avoiding bubbles in the future.
I think this result has major implications for society more broadly and I think we’re seeing it play out in the news. In the ’70s people learned a lot of hard lessons about things like stagflation (and racism–but ask a sociologist about that) that made the following decades easier. But those people gradually retired and were replaced with people who weren’t inoculated to certain ideas (like the idea of inflating your way out of a supply-side recession).
We’re now living in a world where the median voter and her elected representatives have unlearned those hard lessons. And so we’re going to live through the 1970’s again. Hopefully. If we’re not so lucky we might live through the 1930’s again.
There’s a whole set of simple but profound lessons that, if I were being lazy, I might call “the economic way of thinking.” We move through a hand-me-down world, solving some problems and creating new problems, adjusting and adapting, and shaping the world that we pass on to the next generation.
I just stumbled on a lovely example in an article about ballpoint pens and the end of cursive. A technological change changed the nature of handwriting, but the structure of human capital lagged behind. Specifically, the widespread adoption of ballpoint pens meant the old way of writing–how to hold the pen, how to form the letters, etc.–was poorly suited to the tool being used. This should have been an opportunity to test unchecked assumptions (e.g. about what the “correct” way to write is) but instead an inefficient practice (cursive writing with a bic pen) persisted in the face of increasing obsolescence.
I particularly like the idea of trying something new (fountain pens) can lead to a realization that some old method has a lot more going for it than was obvious to the non-alert.
I wonder how many other mundane skills, shaped to accommodate outmoded objects, persist beyond their utility. It’s not news to anyone that students used to write with fountain pens, but knowing this isn’t the same as the tactile experience of writing with one. Without that experience, it’s easy to continue past practice without stopping to notice that the action no longer fits the tool. Perhaps “saving handwriting” is less a matter of invoking blind nostalgia and more a process of examining the historical use of ordinary technologies as a way to understand contemporary ones. Otherwise we may not realize which habits are worth passing on, and which are vestiges of circumstances long since past.How the Ballpoint Pen Killed Cursive
Learning takes time. So in a dynamic society, it’s natural that there will always be some sort of practice outliving its utility. The only other way I see is stagnation: no new methods, no new problems, and we eventually setting into a “making the best of it” equilibrium.
The discovery of each of these inefficiencies creates some pocket of entrepreneurship. Sometimes it’s a massive, market oriented bit of entrepreneurship–like Bic industrializing the process of making cheap, reliable pens. Sometimes it’s a niche community of hobbyists (who might be incubating the next big thing). But that entrepreneurial reaction to inefficiency is pretty exciting. Realizing how my bad handwriting is the outcome of a technical problem makes me want to try fountain pens.
I read a lot. Wide, deep and across quite a number of different fields. As a self-proscribed ‘writer’ and ‘editor’, reading much is both satisfying an intellectual desire and a professionally useful practice in familiarize myself with various styles, voices and topics. A common tip for aspiring writers is to read someone they admire and try to imitate their style; at this, at least, I am somewhat successful, as a friend recently told me that my style reminded him of Deirdre McCloskey. Full of idolized admiration for Deirdre’s work, I couldn’t imagine a higher praise.
As readers, the eternal curse of modernity is our laughable inability to keep up with the couple of millions of books that are published every year. Not to mention written materials on blog or respectable outlets or in magazines and journals. As consumers of the written word, we are completely outstripped, utterly defenseless and overwhelmingly inundated.
When in September I published my discussion of geographer and anthropologist Jared Diamond’s impressive work, I got a lot of feedback of astonishment from friends and family – including the friend that praised me for occasionally (accidentally…?) write like McCloskey: “Wow,” he said, “I’ve never heard of him before!”
Huh, I thought. I wonder what other household names of public intellectuals are not read as much as they deserve.
My exact reaction of astonishment was more like a gaping “What?!”, betraying my wanna-know-everything attitude, slight elitism and writer lifestyle. Contrary to the belief that our times is one of all talking and no listening (well, writing and no reading), it takes a vast amount of reading before you can produce anything that others want to read. Sure, anybody with a laptop and an internet connection can start a blog and flush out their thoughts (I did so for years) but it takes knowledge to say something intelligent and interesting – knowledge acquired by extensive reading.
It also takes a lot of practice to develop a voice of one’s own. Authors with astonishing and recognizable writing styles are made, not born.
What, then, should you read?
In light of this surprise, I decided to make a list of intellectuals I would advise anybody to read. Note that this is not a list of the most important thinkers ever, nor is it a collection of the most profound academic contribution to various disciplines. Instead it’s a gathering of writers whose popular writing (often in addition to their rigorous academic work) is exactly that – popular. That means that a lot of others liked them (and if you’re anything like others, you might too) and more importantly: a lot of smart people you meet are rather likely refer to these authors or to the ideas contained in their work. Here are 11 authors I would consider to be household names and whose writing will make you a much smarter and interesting person.
Let’s begin our list with aforementioned Jared Diamond, whose trilogy on humanity is compulsory reading for pretty-much everyone. This year he released Upheaval, which received very mixed responses and that I decided to skip after hearing his pitch on Sam Harris’ Making Sense podcast. Diamond’s publisher maintains that this is the third installment of his “monumental trilogy” of how civilizations rise and fall, but to me that was The World Until Yesterday:
- Guns, Germs and Steel is the book that definitely made Diamond a well-known name, the kind of Big Picture civilizational economic history we have recently seen in Yuval Harari’s work – the author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, that strangely boring book that everyone seems to be reading these days – or the less well-known but more captivating Columbia professor Ruth DeFries’ The Big Ratchet. If you like, you could describe this Pulitzer prize-winning book as well-written geographical reasons for why the West is rich and the Rest isn’t. If that’s your thing, read away.
- Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, the book that my September piece was mostly concerned with, is a dense story of many different human civilizations falling apart: Easter Islanders, Native Americans in the dry southwest or central America and my favourite chapter: The Greenland Norse. Complemented with the Fall of Civilizations podcast and Dan Carlin’s recent book The End is Always Near would make you ridiculously interesting to talk to in these hyper-catastrophist times. Upheaval is a natural extension of Collapse so if you crave more, that one is for you.
- I would rather point to The World Until Yesterday for Diamond’s third gem as it is a deep dive into the lives of traditional societies in general, but in practice mostly New Guinean societies. Somehow, Diamond made anthropology exciting!
Rapidly moving up in controversy, Paul Collier is an Oxford development economist whose work most intellectuals have a distinctly firm opinion about. His popular claim to fame rests on:
- Exodus, a very cool (and prescient!) take on global migration. Highly recommended.
- The Bottom Billion, for a plunge into global poverty and development economics. It might be slightly outdated (published in 2007) as many of the 60 failing countries he identifies have seem quite some growth in the last decade.
I should also recommend his latest book, Future of Capitalism, but I wasn’t very impressed with it. In these times of political polarization, populist uprisings, urban-rural divides and worries about AI, it is still a relevant read.
Whenever Collier speaks, you want to listen.
The Four Horsemen of Atheism (or “New Atheism”):
Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett
Together, these 5 brilliant minds may have helped many out of their religiosity, but their contributions loom much larger than that. As most of the Western world has gradually abandoned faith, their religious inclinations have turned to other areas: environmentalism (Mike Munger’s take on recycling never gets old!), invented hierarchies or social justice. The writings of these five horsemen can be hugely beneficial here too. Some recommended reading includes:
- Dawkins: The God Delusion (update: Outgrowing God: A Beginner’s Guide, just released last month, apparently at first intended for children/teenagers)
- Hitchens: God Is Not Great
- Dennett: Darwin’s Dangerous Idea
- Harris: The End of Faith (but I like The Moral Landscape even more. Disclaimer: I’m a voracious consumer of his Making Sense podcast)
- Hirsi Ali: Infidel: My Life
- The Ascent of Money, which was my introduction to Ferguson during second year of Uni and still my favourite book of his
- The Cash Nexus, which I confess to not having read. Shame, I know.
- House of Rothschild (Money’s Prophets + The World’s Banker), the massive two-volume biography of the Rothschilds and an absolute treasure trove for 19th century European finance. Whenever I need some background info on that topic – or I find myself bored around a well-equipped academic library – I browse Ferguson’s diligent archival work.
- Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, the controversial “maybe it wasn’t all bad…?” take on British imperialism. Predictably, Ferguson generated some outrage over this.
- Civilization, “a book that belongs at the more populist end of the Ferguson oeuvre” which we can also say about:
- The Great Degeneration (which I didn’t mind reading, but wasn’t overly impressed with).
I should also mention his two-volume biography of Henry Kissinger (first volume 2015, next probably finished next year), which I ignored (politics is boring) and his recent book The Square and the Tower, which I heard very bad things about – and so downgraded for now.
Ah, this Harvard cognitive scientist and linguist-turned-public-intellectual is a must-read. His top trilogy, which I voraciously consumed last fall, includes:
- The Blank Slate, the best description of this book that I ever heard came from Charlotta Stern, sociologist at Stockholm University: every sound argument against the “Nurture Only”-idea that biology doesn’t matter compiled into a single book. Yes, you want to read it.
- The Better Angels of Our Nature, a Big Picture humanity-scale look at violence, resurrecting Norbert Elias’ Civilizing Process theory to explain why we hurt and kill each other less than at probably any point in human history. Nassim Nicholas Taleb (see below) is decidedly not convinced.
- Enlightenment Now! The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, as if Better Angels wasn’t Big Picture enough, here’s the ultimate case for why humanity is doing pretty well, why doomsday sayers are wrong on every count and why we shouldn’t despair. Many of the topics of Better Angels re-occur in Enlightenment Now!, but I don’t regret reading both as Pinker’s prose is easy to follow and his content well-sourced should you require more convincing. Originally a cognitive scientist, he has a ton of more books you might wanna check out – The Language Instinct, for instance, ranks pretty high on my Next Up list:
- The Language Instinct
- How the Mind Works
- The Stuff of Thought
Speaking of optimistic people taking a Big Picture view of humanity, zoologist and science writer Matt Ridley is a must. Tall (like me!), Oxford-educated (like me!) and techno-optimist (like me!), no wonder I like him.
- Rational Optimist, a book in the same style as Pinker’s Enlightenment Now!, Hans Rosling’s Factfulness, Johan Norberg’s Progress, and Angus Deaton’s The Great Escape, briefly summarised as: Shit is getting better. Accept it.
- The Origin of Virtue, one of his earlier books in the 1990s that I haven’t read yet (together with Genome and The Red Queen), but I imagine is similar in content to Nicholas Christakis 500-page Blueprint from earlier this year (which I have read).
- Ridley’s most recent book is from 2015 Evolution of Everything and we’ll blame his House of Lords duties for distracting him from his forthcoming book on Innovation that I’ve written about before (How Innovation Works and Why It Flourishes in Freedom).
At last, How Innovation Works is schedule for May 2020.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Oh, boy – here’s a controversial one. Frequently does he get into loud and hostile arguments with other high-profile intellectuals, and rarely does he pull any punches. His popular writing is found in the “Incerto” serie – the Latin term for ‘doubt’ or ‘uncertainty’ that capture Taleb’s core work. The set of books are together described as “an investigation of luck, uncertainty, probability, opacity, human error, risk, disorder, and decision-making in a world we don’t understand:”
They are intended to push One Big Idea: that we frequently overlook how random the world is, ascribing causality where none belongs and overestimate what we can know from (relatively recent) past events. Black Swans, the proverbial unpredictable event, dominates the social sciences in Taleb’s view. While the 2000-odd pages worth of the Incerto series may seem daunting, the books (and even the individual chapters) are designed not to fall very far from each other. The interested reader can, in other words, pick any one of them and work backwards in accordance with whatever is of interest. You wanna read all – or any – of them.
Having read Fooled by Randomness first, I’ve always held that highest. Be ready for a lot of sarcastic and frequently hostile (but thoughtful) objections of things you took for granted.
In sum: just bloody read more
Any selection of important contemporary intellectuals is arbitrary, highly skewed and super-unfair. There are more, many more, whose fantastic writings deserve attention. As I said, the eternal curse of modernity is our laughable inability to keep up with avalanche of cool stuff written every year.
As readers, we are overrun – and the only thing you can do to keep is is to read more. Read widely.
In our polarized and politically intolerant times, intellectuals worry about the divisions in our societies. You might call it inequality or absence of social mobility, racism or rigid social structures but all pundits seem to agree that despite our apparent cosmopolitanism, many people’s opinions on lifestyles, politics, or economics are diverging. More so, their opinions about others’ opinions is less accepting. We disapprove of people that believe the wrong things, and we shun them in favor of like-minded people.
Economists like Paul Collier (The Future of Capitalism), Raghuram Rajan (The Third Pillar), and Branko Milanovic (Capitalism, Alone) are producing well-publicized books about how the social world of our current societies are collapsing – “coming apart at the seams”, as Collier phrases it. A recent book on technology and the environment by MIT researcher Andrew McAfee, states the following:
more and more people are choosing to have fewer ties to people with dissimilar values and beliefs, opting instead to spend more time among the like-minded. The journalist Bill Bishop calls this phenomenon ‘the big sort’. (2019:227)
The observation could have come straight out Jonathan Haidt, a scholar I greatly admire. Why do we do this Bishop-style sorting? A common assessment is that having people challenging my beliefs hurts my identity and I don’t like it. We rather go for echo chambers.
Let me be contrarian and obnoxious for a minute and defend this Big Sort: is it really that bad to distance oneself from those with different views and opt for like-minded people?
The Irrelevance of Political Opinion
It’s long been recognized by social scientists that politics drive people apart (together with ‘Economics’, ‘Religion’ and ‘Abortion’, forming the acronym R.A.P.E, the avoidance of which is key to successful social conversations). From being friendly customers in a decentralized marketplace, politics urges us to become enemies and opponents, demands that we confiscate one another’s stuff rather than cooperate in creating value for each other. Bringing up your position on some labor market reform or the taxation of the rich (of which your familiarity is probably quite limited) is likely to deteriorate a relation rather than improve it.
Here’s the thing: Life is much more important than politics. Life is the experiences we’ve had, the sunrises we’ve seen, the friends and relationships we’ve had and lost and the stories that came with them. Not to mention the food we ate and the things we did. What your stance is on the environment or what you think the long-term consequences of QE is going to be are all very secondary issues. They might be much more interesting to those of us who care about such things, but for the majority of people, they remain pretty immaterial.
What happens when you trumpet these R.A.P.E. topics in your indecent search for like-minded people – or even an experience-widening tolerant search for opponents? Consider the typically loud liberty-minded American: within five minutes in his (yes, his) presence, you know what his views are and he throws them in people’s faces whether they like it or not. Your group of acquaintances, likely consisting of people who couldn’t care less, gets annoyed. While some people may engage in serious conversations about politics or economics (or religion or abortion) once in a while, their lives are generally concerned with more worthwhile topics. Having some loud-mouthed libertarian invade their everyday life with provocative statements and logical argument is not just annoying, it is bad manners.
I can lecture anyone and everyone I meet on the brilliancy or markets or how Scottish banks operated in the 18th century, with the sole outcome that I will have no friends or even acquaintances. Sharing your political and economic views rarely endear you to other people; it merely makes you a nuisance.
In short: Don’t be an arse. Stop ruining our great time with mindless, hurtful, harmful politics.
What about the perspectives and knowledge of others?
If you must invade others’ lives with your pesky politics, speaking to people with diverging opinions and different background might be interesting and fruitful. Key words “might be”. More accurate words: “is rarely”.
It is true that you might learn some exciting things from random strangers, but it’s unlikely. Most people are less informed about the world than I am (if you doubt that, ask your conversation partners to take Rosling’s Gapminder test) – what are they going to “teach” me but inaccuracies and misinformation…?
Sure, my car-loving friends can teach me something *fascinating* about some new car, a topic a could care less about. My baseball-crazy friends could recount the latest Sox game or why Tom Brady is the greatest – oh, ye, that’s a different sport. Soz. But is an environmentalist really going to teach me anything worth knowing about the impacts of climate change? (No, how could they – they don’t understand markets or even capitalism). Is an Occupy Wall Streeter going to lecture me about how financial markets work and what banks really do? How is my mother contributing to my perspectives on monetary policy when the sheer extent of her monetary wisdom comes from a novel where the ostensibly private Federal Reserve was purchased and controlled by some millionaire?
Don’t get me wrong: these are all amazing people that I highly cherish. I enjoy spending time with them and sharing stories about life. Point is: I’m under no illusion that they offer intellectually valuable perspectives that I could benefit from.
If I wanted to get such perspectives, I’d much rather spend time around two kinds of people: smart or curious. The majority of people you meet are neither:
Smart People are those who actually know things about the world, and I don’t meant boring things like why Israel celebrates this or that holiday, why the sky is blue (OK, that could be cool) or how one assembles a roof out of palm leaves. I mean a fair and favorable view of markets and a data-driven optimism. I mean a basic grasp of statistics. I mean a big picture understanding of what matters and the intellectual capabilities to explore them.
Curious people are those of whatever political persuasion that have thick enough skin to have their positions questioned and willing to reason to reach mutual understanding. One does not have to be smart or well-informed to be interesting – it’s enough to be sceptical and hungry for knowledge.
They rarely make ’em like that no more. So I take my probability-informed chances and avoid politically-minded people.
Elitist and Snobby?
Probably. But consider this: I have 24 hours a day, of which I sleep maybe 8. For maybe another 8 a day, I need to produce value, and so can’t be interrupted by loud and obnoxious libertarians (or environmentalists, or anthropologists or whoever). The last third of my days contain a lot of tasks: washing, workout, food, reading, wonders of the world. At best, it leaves a couple of hours a day for curious intellectual disputes. Let’s say 3. Statistically, I have another 56 years to live, for little over 60,000 hours worth of intellectual endeavors. There is an almost an endless supply of materials from interesting people out there – actually smart people: authors of books and journal articles, podcast interviews, lectures etc, all on topics that interest me. And more is produced every day. For every hour you take away from me with your “enriching perspectives” and uninformed opinions, I lose an hour of engaging with the treasure trove of actually smart people. Besides, the depth of their knowledge, the clarity of their formulation, the well-researched (and sourced!) material and examples they bring are almost certainly better than whatever you’re about to bring me. Consider the opportunity cost for me of having to listen to you “bumble-f**k your way through it“, as my beloved Samantha (Lily Collins) says in Stuck in Love. Even if you only take 10 minutes of my time, is whatever you’re about to say better than 1/360,000 of the sum of humanity’s current (and future) literary, statistic and economic treasure?
I don’t think so either. It’s simply not worth it.
This is a good reason to stick to people of similar mindset – people who are curious and open to having every argument re-examined, every proposition questioned. People with thick enough skin and sharp enough intellect not to mistake your objection for insult. People who might jump that 1/360,000 bar.
It’s not really the content of someone’s ideas that we’re shunning; it’s the intolerance and ignorance that we’re avoiding, carefully taking the opportunity cost into account. Talking to people who don’t share those views – the meta-views of intellectual discourse if you wish – is mostly a waste of time. The book on my desk is almost certainly more valuable.
With all due respect, you’re simply not worth my time.
Most American undergraduates in four-year colleges want to study abroad for a while. (I think this is probably true. I would bet 75/25 for.) In 2019 (or 2018, not clear) 20% of American students were diagnosed with or treated for depression. I can’t vouch for this number. That’s from an article by Andrea Petersen in the frou-frou pages of the Wall Street Journal of 11/12/19. (Yes, the WSJ has had frou-frou pages for years.) Petersen cites a study of 68,000 students by the American College Health Association in support.
The sunny, gay article (in the original meaning of the word “gay”) examines some of the ways in which American colleges and universities assist mentally and emotionally afflicted students with realizing every student’s dream of studying abroad. The measures taken range from allowing students going to Europe to bring their emotional support dog with them (would I make this up?) to training host families in how to alleviate their American guests mental suffering.
I don’t make light of depression but hey, here is a sound idea: Take a depressed young person probably still struggling to establish his/her identity and, for half or more, also struggling with grade issues, separate him/her from his/her recently acquired college support system, drop him/her suddenly in a country whose language they don’t understand (including most of the UK and some of Ireland), insert the student someplace where he/she is a nobody, with zero recognizable accomplishments. Wish him/her well. Wish for the best.
The mindlessness gets worse. Ms. Petersen comments on the big problems that arise when students gone abroad suddenly cease to take their medication. She cites by name a psychiatry professor who recommends avoiding any interruption in treatment by taking along enough medicine to last for the whole duration of the stay abroad. Excuse me, but isn’t it true that much anti-depression medicine is feel-good drugs easily subject to abuse? Isn’t it also true that a quantity large enough to last a year, even six months, is a quantity large enough to qualify you as a dealer in some, in many countries? Do you really want your inexperienced twenty-year old to spend even a little time in a slammer among people whose language he/she has not mastered? Isn’t this picture pretty much a definition of batshit crazy? (1)
Yes, they say, but it’s worth taking this kind of risk, or some risks, for the great enrichment studying abroad provides. What enrichment, I ask? If you polled twenty experienced college professors in a variety of disciplines, I am sure you would find only lukewarm endorsement for the practice. Study abroad disrupts learning in the same way vacations disrupt learning, or a little worse. In return, what good does it do? The easiest thing first: No, almost no students will “learn” a foreign language while studying abroad for a quarter, for a semester, even for a school year. That takes several years; immersion is both problematic and much oversold as an initial language learning method. (Actually, I think it does not work at all. If it did, we wouldn’t have so many immigrants stuck in low pay jobs after twenty years.) Immersion lasting a few months will benefit the handful of students who have already spend several years studying the language of the country where they stay. It will make the pieces fall into place faster, so to speak. For the rest of them, they well come back completely unable to line up a sentence beyond, “Lets’ go.” They will often, however, be equipped with rare words such as “antifreeze,” and “suntan lotion-30 strength.”
But living abroad may open young minds in some esoteric, seldom described ways. I tend to agree with this, more or less on trust. But so does an equivalent amount of time spent in a lumber camp. So does a stay in an area occupied by a moderately different social class. So does serving the homeless. So does – come to think of it – working at Burger King if you haven’t already had the experience. Everything different from one’s own experience opens the mind. Why one has to do it at great expense and specifically in a foreign country is not obvious to me. There are always the vestiges of history strewn all over Europe, of course, but I don’t believe many undergraduates begin to do the homework necessary to understand what they are looking at. In fact, I believe only a handful do in a thousand.
Finally, someone a little more honest will say: But they have so much fun! I agree there, although guardedly (I have observed American students abroad being actively miserable). Yes, studying abroad can be a lot of fun for a twenty-year old. But so can a vacation. And, it’s a lot cheaper. And, it’s more honest; it involves no pretense of learning, of significant culture acquisition.
So, one may ask, why do so many American universities maintain the pretense of the essential educational nature of study abroad? Two reasons: First, “Study Abroad” is often a profit center. They are able to charge more for tuition there than is eaten by such programs in faculty and bureaucratic salaries and benefits. Often, low-paid local instructors teach most of what courses are taught anyway. Besides, being abroad at someone else’s expense is often in itself a fringe benefit for American faculty sent abroad (presumably to teach the same courses they would teach at home, but not really). I took advantages of such an opportunity myself once. I spent three radiant months in Italy with my young family, most expenses paid. I did very little real teaching. I counseled students only because I felt like it. There were no boring faculty meetings to attend. It was pretty much a vacation.
The second reason American universities contribute to the fiction of study abroad is that it’s well aligned with their general mission. I explain: Do you wonder why so many undergraduates plunge into deep debt to earn a degree of little practical value (French, history, political science, biology, and best of all, psychology)? Aside from the traditional answer of personal cultivation (to which I happily subscribe for a large minority of the students I have known), there is the highly important symbolic matter of chartering. A college degree is and has been for many years a certificate of belonging to the middle class. No college degree? You may be rich, you may be respected, you may be talented; you are not middle class except if you are all of the above to a very high degree. Having studied abroad, being able to illustrate the fact with superficial comments about a foreign country, or more than one, is part of the chartering deal: “When I was in Italy….” There are costs but little by way of risks involved in the venture. It’s unlikely anyone in this country will be rude enough to address you in Italian; no one will ask you to demonstrate more than a spotty familiarity with Italy’s architecture; it’s unlikely anyone will try to make small talk with you about Italian history. You did it? Good enough! It’s just another youth entitlement. What’s wrong with this?
So, what if your kid is a little cuckoo? What if she can barely get up in the morning because she is so overwhelmed? What if he cries all the time? Well, it’s worth the risk just to make sure he or she enters adult life as a clearly middle class person. The alternative is too horrible to contemplate. Is this mad or not?
(1) I am grateful to Brandon Christensen, the capable founder and Editor of Notes on Liberty, for introducing this irreplaceable expression into my vocabulary.
PS: I am a retired university professor. My long-form vita can be found here.
There is a new UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. It contains nothing but bad news, of course. But I am busy with my real life; I have obligations to others; I have to feed myself and shower; I even go to the gym regularly. What to do? Just trust a hysterical sixteen-year-old? (Yes, I mean Greta.)
When someone or something claims that there is, has been, change in something I perceive might be important, I apply the following four quick tests. I do this to decide how much I must attention I should pay to the change news.
1 Source credibility
Not all sources are created equal. Some stink, some have a long record of being reliable. The Wall Street Journal is one of the latter. Almost all anonymous internet sources are not even sources. The National Enquirer will publish anything (although it has had a few remarkable scoops). Normal sixteen-year old girls are only credible when they pronounce on show biz stars or on something related to a skill they have personally acquired, such as piano or gymnastics.
2 Main text: description of process
I scrutinize the description at the heart of the announcement of change though only for a short time. Does the process described make sense? Is it derived in an intelligible way from a study, or studies, that conform to conventional scientific, or other scholarly standards? If no claim is made that they do, they don’t, ever. If there is such a claim, there can still be abuse but there will shortly be a denunciation, in most cases, at least.
3 Narrative around description
Most change descriptions not directly in a scholarly journal come wrapped up inside a narrative. The narrative is often more interesting than the findings to which they are supposed to be linked. That’s intentional but dangerous. Suppose your doctor carefully measures your heartbeat and records his observations. Suppose that then, he gives you a very good lecture on the faults of Social Security. However valid the latter is, it should gain no authority whatsoever from the impeccable measurement of you heartbeat. This is a crude example but people do this sort of things all the time. Do you think climate activist do?
I ask myself how tightly connected the narrative is to the straightforward description of the relevant change? Often the answer is: barely, sometimes: not at all.
4 Gauging critically the order of magnitude of change
Suppose I tell you that I have lost weight. (I could use that.) Courtesy requires that you congratulate me but rationality demands that you ask: How much? If my response is one ounce, you will tend to dismiss my announcement and you will be right. One ounce out of 220 lbs is like nothing. (That’s aside from the fact that it might actually be nothing, a measurement error.)
The mysterious issue of “statistical significance” (that I will resist going into here though I am tempted) is only indirectly related to this matter. A difference between before and after, for example, may be statistically significant but yet, completely unimportant.
The short Wall Street Journal piece (1) covering the publication of the report is rich in narrative and short on figures. (That’s usually the case with climate change announcements, I think.) On rare figure drew my attention:
In the past 140 years -covering most but not quite all of the Industrial Age – global surface temperatures have risen by one (unit) degree Celsius.
To give you a practical idea, that’s not enough of a rise to cause me to take off my cotton sweater, or even to unbutton the top of my shirt. If the temperature rose by only one C between 8 am and noon, I would think something was wrong with the weather! I can easily believe that at this rate, in another 1400 years, it will be ten degree centigrade (Celsius) warmer and, we will still be here. That’s unless something else, something much more likely, like an epidemic. wipes us out. (2) and (3).
As this example illustrates, it may often be wise too reverse the critical sequence described above. Why bother to assess the source credibility associated with an announced change, or the conformity of the description change process to good scientific practice, or check out the attachment of the surrounding narratives to the process in the description, why do all this if the measured change is too small to merit attention?
My more complete ruminations on climate change skepticism are in Liberty Unbound: “Climate Change Denier.”
1 “U.N. Panel Sees Threat to Ocean” – by Robert Lee Hotz, Wall Street Journal 9/26/19, P. A8.
2 I am well aware that this is a sort of arithmetic average. Surface temperature may have gone up more in some areas and less in others. They may have declined in some places. If the subject is dealt with, it will be in: Watts Up with That.
3 The WSJ accounts implies that the UN report is oddly concerned with fisheries. This is odd because fishermen have known forever that there are warm and cool patches at the same latitude in the oceans. They also know that those shift positions and that the positions of such warm and cool patches affect the movements of fish.
A well-known Latin adage reads “de gustibus non est disputandum”, roughly translated as “about tastes it should not be disputed”. In English, we usually refer to the maxim as “over tastes there is no argument”, indicating the economist’s fundamental creed that tastes and preferences may very well come from somewhere but are useless to argue over. We can’t prove them. We can’t disavow them. Ultimately, they just are and we have to live with that.
In November last year, ridiculing a prominent Swedish politician, I used the example of ice-cream flavours to illustrate the point:
“I like ice-cream” is an innocent and unobjectionable opinion to have. Innocent because hey, who doesn’t like ice-cream, and unobjectionable because there is no way we can verify whether you actually like ice-cream. We can’t effortlessly observe the reactions in your brain from eating ice-cream or even criticize such a position.
Over tastes there is no dispute. You like what you like. We can theorize all we want over sociological or cultural impacts, or perhaps attempt to trace biological reasons that may explain why some people like what they like – but ultimately we must act in the world (Proposition #1) and so we shrug our shoulders and get on with life. We accept that people believe, like, and prefer different things and that’s that.
Being strange rationalising creatures, you don’t have to scratch humans very deeply before you encounter convictions or beliefs that make no sense whatsoever. Most of the time we’re talking plainly irrational or internally inconsistent beliefs, but, like most tastes and political opinions, they are very cheap to hold – you are generally not taxed or suffer noticeable disadvantages from holding erroneous or contradictory beliefs. Sometimes, by giving the speaker social kudos for believing it, the cost of holding an erroneous belief might even be negative – openly portraying it gives us benefits with our in-group. (yes, we’re all Caplanites now).
When I make a decision in the world (as I must to stay alive, Proposition #1), I occasionally feel the urge to explain that choice to others – because they ask or because I submit to the internalised pressure. I might say “eating ice-cream is good for me” (Proposition #2a).
Now, most people would probably consider that statement obviously incorrect (ice-cream is a sweet, a dessert; desserts make you fat and unhealthy, i.e. not good for you). The trouble is, of course, that I didn’t specify what I meant by “good for me”. It’s really unclear what that exactly means, since we don’t know what I have in mind and what I value as “good” (taste? Longevity? Complete vitamins? How it makes me feel? Social considerations?).
This version of Proposition 2a therefore essentially reverts back to a Proposition 1 claim; you can like whatever you want and you happen to like what ice-cream does to you in that dimension (taste, feeling, social consideration). Anything still goes.
I might also offer a slightly different version (Proposition #2b) where I say “eating ice-cream is good for me because it cures cancer”.
Aha! Now I’ve not only given you a clear metric of what I mean by ‘good’ (curing cancer), I’ve also established a causal mechanism about the world: ice-cream cures cancer.
By now, we’ve completely left the domain of “everything goes” and “over tastes there is no argument”. I’m making a statement about the world, and this statement is ludicrous. Admittedly, there might be some revolutionary science that shows the beneficial impacts of ice-cream on cancer, but I seriously doubt it – let’s say the causal claim here is as incorrect and refuted as a claim can possibly be.
Am I still justified in staying with my conviction and eating ice-cream? No, of course not! I gave a measure of what I meant by ‘good’ and clear causal criteria (“cure cancer”) for how ice-cream fits into that – and it’s completely wrong! I must change my beliefs, accordingly – I am no longer free to merely believe whatever I want.
If I don’t change my behaviour and maintain enjoying my delicious chocolate-flavoured ice-cream, two things happen: First, I can surrender my outrageous claim and revert back to Proposition 1. That’s fine. Or I can amend Proposition 2b into something more believable – like “eating ice-cream makes me happy, and I like being happy”.
What’s the story here?
If we substitute ice-cream for – I posit with zero evidence – the vast majority of people’s beliefs (about causality in the world, about health and nutrition, about politics, about economics and religion), we’re in essentially the same position. All those convictions, ranging from what food is good for you, to how that spiritual omnipotent power you revere helps your life, to what the government should do with taxes or regulations to reduce poverty, are most likely completely wrong.
Sharing my own experiences or telling stories about how I solved some problem is how we socially interact as humans – that’s fine and wonderful, and essentially amounts to Proposition 1-style statements. If you and I are sufficiently alike, you might benefit from those experiences.
Making statements about the world, however, particularly causal relations about the world, subjects me to a much higher level of proof. Now my experiences or beliefs or tastes are not enough. Indeed, it doesn’t even matter if I invoke the subjective and anecdotal stories of a few friends or this or that family member. I’m still doing sh*t science, making claims about the world on seriously fragile grounds. It’s not quite Frankfurt’s “Bullshit” yet, since we haven’t presumed that I don’t care about the truth, but as a statement of the world, what I’m saying is at least garbage.
I am entitled to my own beliefs and tastes and political “opinions“, whatever that means. I am not, however, entitled to my own facts and my own causal mechanisms of the world.
Keeping these spheres separate – or at least being clear about moving from one to the other – ought to rank among the highest virtues of peaceful human co-existence. We should be more humble and realise that on most topics, most of the time, we really don’t know. But that doesn’t mean anything goes.
“Euro-what?” I hear you ask. Great! Set your coffee aside for a few minutes and indulge in a much-required and long-overdue cultural enlightenment.
Eurovision Mania is on, so you better get with it!
Eurovision Song Contest, or “Eurovision”, is an annual music competition that’s been running since 1956 and every year sees some 40 countries participating. And it’s massive. Every participating country selects an original song – usually through some kind of nationally televised show – with an associated live performance and all those entries get to perform in front of tens of thousands of ecstatic Eurovision fans from across the globe.
In short, it’s basically American’s Got Talent merged with The Voice – but structured a bit like Miss U.S.A – with tons more glitter, spex, showtime and glamour and with twice(!) the audience of SuperBowl. Beat that, ‘Murica.
Yes, that’s some 200 million people lining up their Saturday nights (and the preceeding Tuesday and Thursday too, for semi-finals) for this:
The winner is lavished in eternal fame and glory, and their country’s broadcasting company gets the honor of splashing out on next year’s event. As Israel’s Netta and her song ‘Toy’ won last year’s competition in Libson, Portugal, the 64th version of Eurovision is held in Tel Aviv, Israel, beginning today!
Is Israel European?
Perhaps not, but that’s never stopped Eurovision before. Actually, the event is organized by European Broadcasting Union (EBU), an alliance of public service media companies – and includes associate members such as Australian, Algerian, Jordanian and Lebanon organizations. Thus, the geographical boundaries for entries into Eurovision is somewhat flexible – which is why Australia has competed in the competition since 2015!
That’s also the reason Brexit won’t affect the UK’s participation in Eurovision, thank god!
So, what is this thing – and why have I never heard of it?
Depending on who you ask, Eurovision could be anything between a fabulous celebration of European unity through culture and music, or a dull, wasteful affair of pretty freaky performances. No doubt among the competition’s 1500 entries, it has seen its fair share of strange, quirky, silly and outrageous performances (just google some of them). But it also contains the fanciest, most extravagant dresses and costumes imaginable, friendly rivalry, great music and an outburst of colors. Indeed, a bit like the SuperBowl, the half-time entertainment has been at least as interesting as most of the performances. This year it is even rumored that Madonna is making an appearance!
In other words, across the Atlantic, Eurovision mania has descended and will be this week’s Big Thing. Indeed, at 10 pm local time (3 p.m ET), the first semi-final begins, and the winner usually emerges after a rather complicated voting procedure sometime Saturday night (6 p.m ET).
As for American’s (un)surprising ignorance of the event, it’s even become somewhat of a Youtube phenomena of introducing this long-standing pan-European institution to shockingly unaware Americans and recording their reactions. Some of them are pretty spot-on (“this is the cheesiest of music shows!”). Without passing judgment on the worldy outlooks of Americans, y’all aren’t exactly – erm let’s say – well-versed in the going-ons of places beyond your coasts.
In the Eurovision case, not for lack of trying: in the last few years, Logo actually broadcasted the event, but couldn’t muster more than 50,000-75,000 viewers and so the greatest of European non-sports events won’t be on American TV this year. Hardcore fans (list of international broadcasters) are probably best served by a youtube live-stream.
Of course, the skimpy American coverage by outlets like the New York Times isn’t exactly helping either; their angle of the “Israel-Palestine dispute” compleeeeetely miss the point of Eurovision. The event’s apolitical nature is another thing that makes Eurovision so great: politics is strictly, explicitly, unavoidably relegated to the sidelines. As in political messages and even song lyrics with too definitive political flavors are censured or expelled. For instance, Iceland’s participants this year, the controversial band Hatari, is already challenging this sacred line of No Politics Beyond This Point by their frequent pro-Palestine stunts. Allegedly, they have already been issued a final warning by the organizers; one more political stunt and they’re disqualified.
In sum: Eurovision is the biggest, fanciest, most extravagant and entertaining music event you’ve never heard of. Get on the train. A great start is by watching the recap of this year’s 41 entries.
From Ilya Repin, a painter from the Russian Empire:
Note: I wish you all a prosperous, healthy, and writerly year 2019. (No wishes for happiness, it will come from all the above.)
I have a French nephew who is super-smart. Not long after graduating from the best school in France, he moved to Morocco where he married a super-smart Moroccan woman. He is so smart that he asked me for my intellectual will before I depart for another planet. It’s below.
Here are my qualifications: I taught in universities for thirty years, including twenty-five years in a business school in Silicon Valley. My doctorate is in sociology. (Please, don’t judge me.) My fields of specialization are Organizational Theory and the Sociology of Economic Development. My degree is from a very good university although I am a French high school dropout. My vita is linked here (pdf). Its academic part is respectable from a scholarly standpoint, no more. There is much additional info in my book: I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography, available from me, and on Amazon Kindle, and in my electronic book of memoirs in French: “Les Pumas de grande-banlieue: histoires d’émigration”, also on Amazon Kindle.
1. When the facts don’t fit your perspective you should change …. ? (Complete sentence.)
2. One basic complex idea worth knowing that resists learning: natural selection.
Note: the effective mechanism involved is multi-generational differential reproduction. You don’t understand natural selection until you can put a meaning on all three words.
3. Another basic idea worth knowing, a counter-intuitive one, that also resists learning: the principle of Comparative Advantage: If you are not working at what you do the very best, you are impoverishing me. There is a ten-lesson quick course on my blog to explain this. Look for short essays with the word “protectionism” in the title. A longform version can also be found, here.
4. Taking from the poor is a stupid way to try to become rich when you can invent a new world – like Steve Jobs – and be immensely rewarded for it. Or open a decent restaurant and be well rewarded, or learn welding. There isn’t much you can take from the poor anyway because they are poor. Plus, the bastards often resist!
5. Culture is in the heads (plural). Everything else isn’t “culture.”
6. How a body of people act is not simply the addition of the thinking of its individual human members. (There is a sociology!)
7. Beware those pesky fractions. Quick test: Five years ago, my income was 40% of yours. Now, my income is only 20% of yours. Am I earning less than I did five years ago?
8. Correlation is not causation but there is no causation without some sort of correlation.
9. Statistical significance is significant even if you don’t quite know what it signifies. Find out. It’s not hard.
10. Use statistical estimation methods even if you don’t understand them well. It will improve your reasoning rigor by confronting you brutally with the wrongness of your guesses. And you can only become better at it with practice.
11. There is not text that’s not improved by extirpating from it half of all adjectives and adverbs.
12. Reading is still the most efficient way to improve your comprehension of the world.
It seems to me that if you understand these twelve points inside out, you are well above average in general culture; that’s even true on a global scale.
Below are some intellectual anchoring points of my life. They are subjectively chosen, of course. Don’t lend them too much credence.
My favorite singer-composers: Jacques Brel; the Argentinean Communist Atahualpa Yupanqui. (I can’t help it.)
My favorite instrumental musics: baroque music, the blues.
My favorite painters: Caravaggio (link); Delacroix (Eugene); Delacroix (Krishna).
I don’t have a favorite book because I read all the time without trying to rank books. These three books have made a lasting impression, changed my brain pathways forever, I suspect: Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe; George R. Stewart, Earth Abides; Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements.
The only two intelligent things I have said in my life:
“Once you know a woman well vertically, you know nothing about her horizontally.”
“There is not bad book.”
This past summer at language school a young man invited me to a party, which I had to refuse since there was a major exam coming up. In response he said, “But you’re smart, why do you have to study?” He was genuinely astonished at the idea that intelligent people have to study; for him, intelligence meant that one was spared the bother of having to work to master a skill or a subject. His bewildered reaction made me start thinking about the nature of the work surrounding achievement and how it is perceived.
Bluntly put, achievement is very hard work and requires tremendous sacrifice. Last weekend, Oxford had its matriculation ceremony, after which the individual colleges arranged group photoshoots. While waiting for one shoot, I overheard two young women discussing a celebratory evening party. One said that she couldn’t go because she had to finish the reading for the next day, but the other said that she had risen at five o’clock that morning in order to finish her reading so that she could attend the party. Neither one was bothered by the choices she had to make, and they were united in their agreement that study came first. Missing a party or missing sleep were simply prices for achievement.
There is an ancient Egyptian legend about a couple who stole the Book of Thoth, which contained all the wisdom of the natural and supernatural worlds, copied it down on a stone writing tablet, washed the stone, and then drank the runoff water; in doing so they acquired all that knowledge without having to read the book. (For those who are interested, the story doesn’t end well, mostly because Thoth is annoyed that his book is gone, but also because, having not genuinely learned the material, the couple can’t control their new-found powers.) In the Folger Museum in Washington DC, there is a medieval manuscript (MS V.b.26 (1)) that contains a spell to compel the spirits to do your writing for you, though as a friend of mine drily pointed out, there’s nothing promised about the quality of writing delivered. What is interesting about myths and spells concerning shortcuts to knowledge and accomplishment is that they are all focused on bypassing the sacrificial process, while still being crowned with the laurels.
The ancient/medieval view was that the spiritual sphere, being responsible in the first place, could help create a world where everyone could achieve without the bother of the foundational work. Now, in a post-Frankfurt School, Utilitarianist world, society speaks in terms of “talent,” as if it is a supernatural thing that requires no cultivation, existing fully formed in a vacuum. We have come from Thomas Jefferson arguing that every person should be free to pursue his own interests according to his endowments to John Rawls’ yowling about the “injustice” of modern society and a world where smart, talented people appear to “have it all.” In order for the Rawlsian vision of the world to work out in completely equitable justice, the work put in by achievers in pursuit of their goals must be negated.
On a personal note, I remember one chillingly funny episode when, during a seminar, a classmate informed a group of us that our coming in prepared, having done the readings and written up commentary, was an act of oppression against her. Her basic argument was that we were too smart, and it wouldn’t cost us anything to show up unprepared once in a while in order to let her shine. We finished on time; I ran into her three days before all MA theses were due for submission and she hadn’t started writing yet. I’m willing to bet, though, that in her movie she’s a victim and we’re all oppressors.
In a way, the romaticization and mythicization of people of genius has been very unhelpful to society, especially since the popular conception of these people appears to support Rawls and Co.’s complaints. Let us take the example of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, partially because his myth is a perfect example and partially because this is a topic I would be happy to discuss for days on end. The popular myth is fairly well established: genius infant who miraculously taught himself everything and created beautiful music as a three-year-old, before dying tragically young, in keeping with the romantic tradition of great geniuses.
The reality, while hardly prosaic, is much less romantic. W.A. Mozart’s parents, Leopold and Anna Maria, were superbly well-educated for the standards of their time. Their familial letters, written in a mix of German, French, Italian, Latin, some English, and mathematical substitution ciphers are a jumble of thoughts and observations on literature, music, art, history, political events, social commentary, and professional talk, along with some infantile humor. Musicologist Nicholas Till wrote a wonderful book, Mozart and the Enlightenment: Truth, Beauty and Virtue in Mozart’s Operas, that covers exactly how having an Enlightenment-era (possessing an unbound belief in the benefits of education and faith in the individual), Renaissance man (good at everything) for a father affected Mozart and his sister.
Due to the extensive concertizing tours undertaken throughout Wolfgang and Marianne Mozart’s childhood,music history tends to treat their father as the epitome of a deranged stage parent. But one of Leopold’s primary reasons for the tours was to procure music lessons for his son with the best musicians in the world. On the infamous “Grand Tour,” where the Mozart family travelled across Europe, from 1763 to 1766, the family spent over a year in England, on stretched financial means, so Wolfgang could study composition with Johann Christian Bach, one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s surviving sons and a much-sought after composer and teacher. Leopold was absolutely determined that his son would study with a Bach and the family had first spent time in the Netherlands in an unsuccessful effort to contact Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach, J.C.’s brother. Mozart senior also applied the same strategy to obtaining private instrumental and voice lessons for Wolfgang. So much for the spontaneous aspect of the child genius story; during his boyhood, the composer had lessons with masters for whom he had to prepare work and have it judged. Genius might exist, but it had to be formed and cultivated, a process that the Mozart myth has completely and deceptively lost.
Losing sight of the work, sacrifice, and constructive elements of achievement has, I believe, provided valuable fuel to the social resentment industry. It is easier to envy the accomplishments and standing of others if one believes that they are unearned endowments because the person holding them is “gifted.” In my own path and work that I do, I’ve seen many people of envious or resentful inclination become devastated emotionally and psychologically when they come into close contact with high-achievers and see the amount of work, time, investment, and sacrifice that being one requires.
In my experience, these people either develop personal persecution narratives, such as the girl from my class, or flounce out proclaiming that they “have a life.” My personal experience has made me doubt the efficacy of Charles Murray’s solution, proposed at the end of Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960 – 2010, that the best cure for the culture of resentment and anger is for the top twenty percent, representative of the high-achieving, to become visible to the bottom eighty and in doing so to allow the bottom sectors to see how hard the top actually works. Historically, the argument is probably justified; returning to the example of the Mozart family, their close association with the aristocracy, both hereditary and professional, certainly provided impetus for the children to set themselves new challenges as part of winning respect and recognition. But that family had an openness to self-improvement, a belief in the possibility of it that as a larger cultural force was, as Nicholas Till repeatedly pointed out, unique to the Enlightenment.
The people of contemporary society not only lack such a belief, they are closed even to the possibility that there is room for improvement. This is not new; Nietzsche observed and decried the culture of ressentiment– defined by the OED as “a psychological state resulting from suppressed feelings of envy and hatred that cannot be satisfied.” Only now there is no suppression. Achievement through self-improvement is replaced with cries for equality of outcome. People are no longer willing to work for achievement, instead they want is for what they have done, no matter how small, no matter how inadequate, to be recognized as achievements, citing that they did invest time, energy, and money it their banalities. Since the investment aspect is very important, I’ll close here and we’ll look at it next.
Marianne Mozart was, according to the entire family, the better musician and performer of the two siblings. By the time of her early teens, she had surpassed her father and brother as a violinist and pianist to such an extent that her brother gradually ceased playing seriously himself in order to concentrate on composing for her. However, her parents had her retire from the stage once she turned seventeen in order to leave her open for an aristocratic marriage, which she eventually made. After she was widowed, she became a very successful teacher and was able to support single-handedly her children, step-children, and nephews and leave behind a massive fortune.