The Iron Cage of Ideology

Let’s encapsulate the problems of the Democratic Party in a single tweet:

The implicit assumptions underlying this position, insofar as it can be called any sort of position at all, are worth examining, and they point directly to a fundamental difference between America’s two major parties. Republicans never behave like this; you will never see them apologizing for their ideological approach. You could waterboard Paul Ryan and he’d never admit that tax cuts could have anything but a salutary effect. Tax cuts, under any circumstances whatsoever, are always good; this is the Republican party line, and damned if they don’t stick to it. By contrast, the signature rhetorical maneuver of the modern-day Democrat is the attempt to position oneself above “ideology.” The Republicans are ideological, goes the thinking, and since we are the opposite of Republicans, we must be non-ideological. What does this non-ideology consist of? Mostly maintenance of the status quo, with occasional tweaks around the edges if it seems like the status quo is threatening to end up somewhere truly catastrophic.

This, then, is the essence of the modern Democratic governance: “technocratic” “competence” in the service of vaguely-defined ends. Any suggestion of systemic change is foreclosed on before a discussion can even get going because it’s ideologically driven Governance denuded of any specific moral content coupled with campaigns devoid of rhetorical appeal; can you think of a better electoral strategy?

It should go without saying, but does not, that this position is, of course, [extremely Zizek voice] PURE EEDEEOLOGY. It just happens to be an ideology that places a kind of procedural neutrality above substantive advances. The important thing is not that the system be made more just, but that the unjust system be administered more competently. The current generation of Democratic politicians has this ideological construct bred in the bone, with the consequence that even when they can desire substantive justice, they are at a loss to draw a connection between ends and means. Sure, it would be nice if we could get everyone health care, say Ossoff and his clones, dime a dozen, but we can’t. Thinking that you can do a thing, viewing politics as a substantive struggle between competing visions, that’s ideology; keeping the rickety ship afloat by patching on the fly only what needs to be patched, well, that’s just “common sense.”

Lionel Trilling once famously described conservatism as a “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” That description still holds, but sadly, today’s liberal imagination is little better. The reflexive position of the Democratic party leadership is that anything which threatens the utter supremacy of the donor class is such a non-starter that it can’t even be vocalized for fear of driving away the moneyed interests that keep the party a going concern (if barely). In the past, this strategy worked pretty well for suppressing dissenting leftist voices, but with the rise of the internet, it doesn’t work anymore. Anyone who is interested in actual ideas can quickly ascertain for themselves that the top of the party pyramid is a barren wasteland devoid of intellectual sustenance. You might venture into the wastes as a practical matter because there’s something there that you need (e.g. registering as a Democrat in order to vote in primaries), but the ideas and the motivation aren’t going to come from the conventional Democratic politicians.

Ossoff lost his special election race, underperforming Clinton in the district by several points. Could a more committed leftist have won? Maybe, maybe not. GA-6 is hardly the ideal testbed for left politics, comprising as it does some of the wealthiest households in the state (although, as even the neoliberal Matt Yglesias observes, there are good reasons to take class warfare to the suburbs). Still, the perennial emptiness of Ossoff-style campaigns has failed to succeed there as well, so about the worst you could say for an openly left-wing campaign is that it wouldn’t do any worse than the current strategy. Even a losing campaign might have positive knock-on effects, by motivating activists and creating potential for future changes. Instead, Democrats spent literally the most money they have ever invested into a Congressional race, staffed it up with a bunch of DNC flacks, and still lost, by more than their presidential candidate in the same district (in which, previously, they ran someone named “Rodney Stooksbury,” who I’m not entirely convinced is a real person, and still got nearly 40% of the vote despite literally not campaigning at all).

Today, Republicans embrace their ideology while Democrats run from any recognizable form thereof. Mainstream liberalism has done such a good job of embedding itself into the background assumptions of its practitioners that they no longer even recognize the ideological underpinnings of their own beliefs. They want to act as if some form of procedural neutrality coupled with technocratic competence is a trans-ideological position, failing to recognize that politics is fundamentally a conflict about power: who will have it and what they will do with it. If you are unable to offer voters a vision that says “I will use the power of the state to make your lives better,” it’s not clear why they should entrust you with that power. Republicans, for all their terrible policies, understand this on a basic, primal level, even as they fuck over their own constituents, hoping that in the ensuing general confusion they will be able to slough off responsibility for doing so. Democrats, apparently, do not.

You can go down tweeting about Donald Trump’s manners, or you can go down swinging. Maybe you go down either way, but when you swing, you have a chance to connect fist with nose, and that’s worth something.

You Don’t Have to Give Bullshit a Platform

After the 2016 election, the New York Times underwent a cynical rebranding. Blithely ignoring its own role in perpetuating decades of anti-Clinton propaganda, up to and including a front page spread featuring five(!) stories on what eventually turned out to be a complete nothingburger in the form of Comey’s letter, the Times decided to brand itself as the #voiceoftheresistance. Subscriptions skyrocketed, presumably driven by gullible liberals who wanted to believe that someone, somewhere might actually pretend to care about the truth.

Naturally, the Times then decided to take all this goodwill, shit on it, set it on fire, and then dump the flaming shit on their readers when they hired Bret Stephens as an opinion columnist. Stephens’ schtick comprises nothing more than the standard conservative tropes about how very intolerant liberals are, how diseased Arab minds are, and how fake global warming is. This last one turned out to be what Stephens would lead with when he wrote his first column (you want to work your way up to the thinly disguised racism), and as you might expect from 750 words hastily typed up on the john, it’s shit. Not even the good shit, but the kind of shit you wouldn’t turn in if you were a college freshman, much less a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist[1].

Here’s Bret:

In the final stretch of last year’s presidential race, Hillary Clinton and her team thought they were, if not 100 percent right, then very close.

This is a classic denialist trick: at one point people were certain about X, but look, X turned out to be false! Thus, other people who are certain about a different thing are also wrong! I am very intelligent!. The poverty of this rationale is so stunningly obvious and indefensible that Stephens then spends two paragraphs detailing the provenance of the above anecdote, like a child padding a book report. Several more paragraphs are devoted to revolutionary ideas like “sometimes models are wrong” and “you should update your models when you get more data.” You can tell this is Pulitzer-level writing because it takes an inordinate amount of time to get to a point we knew was coming all along. Either that, or it’s pornography.

Bret goes on for a bit more, setting up the rhetorical frame on which he intends to hang his “evidence”, misrepresenting along the way both the statements of Andrew Revkin and the IPCC. Ultimately, like every scientifically illiterate swamp-dweller nurtured by the right-wing welfare gravy train, Stephens lays bare the true source of his incomprehension and dishonesty:

Anyone who has read the 2014 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change knows that, while the modest (0.85 degrees Celsius, or about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit) warming of the earth since 1880 is indisputable, as is the human influence on that warming, much else that passes as accepted fact is really a matter of probabilities. That’s especially true of the sophisticated but fallible models and simulations by which scientists attempt to peer into the climate future.

This is the sort of statement that could only be made by someone with no comprehension of what a climate model is, or what a scientific model more generally is, or how evidence is processed and incorporated into models, or, indeed, any part of the actual process of generating scientific predictions. To castigate a model or a theory for only offering a “probability” is, in the possibly-apocryphal words of Wolfgang Pauli, not even wrong. It’s tantamount to attempting to make a chess move while playing poker. It is a category error of the gravest nature, a product of either a fundamental confusion or a fundamental dishonesty. Or both.

It is in fact the case that our most successful physical theories run on probabilities. Quantum mechanics and thermodynamics, two foundational theories that give rise to such miracles as me typing these words and you being able to read them, are fundamentally probabilistic at their core[2]. The more complex global climate models that power projections like those made by the IPCC are built on top of those theories: you start with the basic theory of quantum transitions in molecular systems, work out a theory of radiation transfer in the atmosphere, and build in higher-order effects such as feedbacks[3]. Because your model is going to have some free parameters that aren’t part of the basic theory, you perform measurements to try and come up with plausible values for them. Typically this means coming up with a range for those values, and any given model is going to contains many of these parameters, so you then run your model across an entire range of the multidimensional space spanned by your parameters. And because different models themselves make different assumptions about the relevance of various mechanisms, you end up with entire ensembles of models, run across many sectors of parameter space, which you then average into some overall projection[4].

So the probability that Stephens expends so much rhetorical effort to decry is in fact the primary piece of information yielded by any empirical model. The range of model outcomes represents different assumptions and different trajectories within the parameter space, but they are all based on the same underlying physics. And in the end, it turns out that the models have been quite good at tracking observations.

That models, of any kind, do not generate “certainty” is not actually a knock against them. Metaphysical certainty is not the kind of thing that exists in the real world; there are only better models and worse ones, and the only way to judge them is by measuring them against observed reality. This observation, by the way, is an incredibly difficult thing to perform; vast amounts of technical work goes into things like instrumentation, calibration, and data analysis, all in the service of getting the highest quality data. People devote their entire lives to finding better methods of reconstructing temperature from tree rings or ice cores, or developing better statistical methods for analyzing time-series. Thousands of highly skilled professionals devote an incredible amount of time and effort to solving these problems, and here comes Bret Stephens and shits on their work with his child’s understanding of probability.

Of course, Stephens wouldn’t even have a platform to peddle this garbage if it weren’t for the fact that the New York Times decided to give him one. Many other commenters have pointed out the problems with the Times’ editorial page; I will instead confine myself to the response to this fiasco given by Liz Spayd, the Times’ Public Editor. After Stephens dropped his turd on Times readers, they understandably were less than enthused and let Spayd know it:

Jim Thomas is a gay man living in a red state. He has friends who voted for Donald Trump and he interacts daily with people whose political views he finds questionable. Which is fine, because he believes that hearing perspectives different from your own is essential to healthy public discourse. Only not the views of Bret Stephens, the newly hired conservative columnist on The New York Times’s Op-Ed pages.

Why not Stephens? Thomas sees in him a provocateur who intentionally tried to incite his audience by choosing for his first column a subject of urgent concern to the left. “What troubles me is that he had to have known that writing about climate for his debut column was a meaningful and disturbing choice,” Thomas said. The Missouri resident believes Stephens is trying to create niggling doubts about the dangers of climate change by employing a tactic similar to that of some industries that stand to lose from stiff environmental regulation.

Jim Thomas… is right. He’s entirely correct. He has sussed out the essence of Stephens with an uncanny accuracy. Jim Thomas for public editor of the New York Times.

Thomas is among the thousands of readers who have written in protest since Stephens, a conservative, took a seat among the elite,

If you don’t think the guy who went to boarding school, the University of Chicago, and the London School of Economics and followed that up with stints at various right-wing op-ed shops is elite, you are a sucker. I’m not sure whether Spayd is a sucker, liar, or both, but she definitely has no respect for the intellect of her readers.

and mostly liberal, ranks of Times Opinion writers.

The Times employs walking sexual pathology Ross Douthat and David Brooks, a conservative who unironically taught a class on humility before marrying the woman who was his research assistant on a book about character. I wouldn’t call Thomas Friedman a “liberal” because it’s not even clear whether Friedman is even writing in any known human language. The farthest-left voice allowed at the Times is mainstream liberal Paul Krugman.

His first column last weekend — arguing that climate data creates the misleading impression that we know what global warming’s impact will be — produced a fresh geyser of complaints, either to the public editor, on the letters pages or posted on the column itself. No subject since the election has come close to producing this kind of anger toward The Times. Among the scores who have taken to social media are several of Stephens’s new colleagues in the newsroom, some welcoming him aboard, others not so much. I expressed my own concerns about Stephens after his hiring, but I support the general principle of busting up the mostly liberal echo chamber around here.

This is the point where Spayd really exposes the ideology that drives the Times’ op-ed page. Her argument is based on multiple false premises: first, as shown above, the Times’ op-ed page is hardly some liberal echo chamber, even “mostly”, and Spayd knows this. She’s comfortable lying to her readers about even the most trivial, easily fact-checked things in the service of preserving the fake neutrality that is the Times’ hallmark. But more importantly, she is miscasting the question of factual accuracy as a question of political affiliation.

Now, this is not a claim that the operations of science are somehow apolitical. Science, like any human activity, is subject to the vagaries of human experience and behavior; this is inescapable. Nevertheless, we are not, in fact, locked in some Foucauldian discourse prison where only power dictates what is true. There is an objective physical world out there[5] and objective physical processes that determine what is true and what is not. Quantum mechanics and thermodynamics do not care about your politics, so for Spayd to argue that this is in the service of “breaking up the liberal echo chamber,” is actually to admit that she is fine with having a professional liar and obfuscator on staff on the grounds that his lies and obfuscations are different from the “echo chamber” that is the truth.

Institutions that take truth-seeking seriously as an activity do in fact perform gatekeeping functions to keep out cranks, and appropriately so. Serious AIDS researchers steer clear of Peter Duesberg; serious cosmologists don’t publish “electric universe” theorists in their journals; (most) serious economists don’t entertain gold bugs. The reason for this is that these people are wrong because the empirical evidence does not support their views. Spayd thinks that the basics of climate science are debatable in the way that, say, the proper level of taxation or Constitutional interpretation is debatable, but it isn’t. There are people who are correct, because they’ve worked for decades to come up with physics-based models that reflect reality, and there are people who are wrong, because they are bullshitters. If Spayd was honest with herself and her readers, she would say, “Bret Stephens is a bullshitter and that’s fine; we have him on staff mostly to rile people who know what’s what.” She cannot say this, of course, but it is still true.

Since his column published last weekend, I’ve been sifting through the rubble, poring over complaints and reaching some readers by phone. The goal wasn’t to resolve the finer points of atmospheric physics, but to get an answer to a simple question: Do you actually want a diversity of views on the Opinion pages, and if so, what’s the matter with Bret Stephens?

Again, Spayd pulls a procedural maneuver where the situation calls for a substantive one. I do not want a “diversity of views” on climate science because there is no virtue in this diversity. I do not want it any more than I want a “diversity of views” on the question of whether abortion causes cancer, say, because it does not. This is not a question of diversity, it is a question of who is right or wrong.

This of course is a perfect illustration of the sort of procedural liberalism that is practiced by the Times. If you are an honest person, then you must confront the question of whether the arguments presented to you are actually true, but if you are a dishonest both-sides hack, then the only thing that matters is that there are multiple arguments. The substance of the arguments doesn’t actually matter because truth-seeking is not the function of the op-ed page (though it should be). In general, faced with real, genuine conflicts of truth and value, the standard liberal maneuver is to retreat into proceduralism and hope that the whole thing will work itself out somehow. But procedural norms on their own are useless, except insofar as they encode substantive norms that we think are valuable. Spayd believes that the fake “marketplace of ideas”-style neutrality is the overriding norm, but in fact that norm is only useful because it serves as a kind of first-order organizational principle for debate. Once an idea has been shown to be false, it needs to be kicked out of the marketplace; it no longer merits the real estate taken up by its stall. And Stephens is peddling exactly such false and discredited ideas. That Spayd is comfortable allocating space to this bullshit indicates that she doesn’t actually understand (or doesn’t accept, which is even more troubling) that truth ought to be an actual standard that institutions like the Times should be held to.

It’s worth pausing here to note a very obvious thing: there are absolutely limits to what the Times will tolerate. The Times’ op-ed page unquestionably acts to police the bounds of acceptable discourse. Here’s a small sampling of views you will not find there: anti-interventionism, left-wing economics, crude right-wing racism (scientific racism a la Nicholas Wade is fine though), gold bugs, homeopaths, conspiracy theorists. This of course is not to say that the Times should give a form to all of these people, but if they were really committed to disrupting the “liberal echo chamber,” then these views would do just as well. Why not, as Jesse Myerson said on Twitter, give space to someone who thinks Jews have horns and drink the blood of Christians?

The fact that the Times doesn’t give space to any of the above is prima facie evidence that it is engaged in discourse policing of a particular sort. The kinds of opinions allowed on its op-ed page are carefully curated to range from “median Republican” (which in our present world amounts to “frothing mad lunatic”) to “just a hair’s breadth left of the median Democrat”, so, Paul Krugman. That’s it, that is who is allowed to opine with regularity at the Times while drawing a salary from it. This is a direct outcome of the fetishization of a procedural neutrality and procedural diversity at the expense of substance; in reality, you end up limiting the substance anyway (how could you not?) but you give yourself a kind of cover to pretend you’re not doing it.

This, in my view, is the deepest dishonesty of all. Bret Stephens is a bullshitter, but we know how to deal with bullshitters. What’s much harder to do is to combat a media organ that at once presents itself as a neutral forum for ideas while factually discriminating against all sorts of ideas that it finds unpalatable. By allowing Stephens space in its op-ed page, the Times is trying to say, “look, we’re not just a liberal echo chamber,” but of course exactly this kind of faux-diversity and slavish devotion to both-siderism is emblematic of the hollowed-out post-value elite liberalism in which the Times traffics.

There is no virtue in playing this shell game. If you are legitimately willing to open your forum to all kinds of dissenting voices, do so. I do not believe that every idea is worth discussing or deserves a private forum, and I’m fine with publications that choose to filter their content on a substantive basis. I no more expect to read paeans to the free market in Jacobin than I expect to read paeans to Marx in the National Review. It’s hard to see why the Times’ op-ed should be any different, especially in light of the fact that the Times’ climate desk actually does some excellent reporting on the issue of global warming. But what the Times should not do is to present itself as a neutral arbiter while being very much engaged in a filtering process that keeps voices it deems unacceptable out of the public eye. That is rank dishonesty.

Spayd goes on:

That’s an important question. The Times, both in the newsroom and on the Opinion side, has proclaimed a public commitment to reflecting a broader range of perspectives in its pages. What its mostly liberal or left-leaning base of readers thinks about that strategy obviously matters. They represent the business model, after all, and many are threatening to cancel their subscriptions (although three weeks in, relatively few have).

There it is again, the same dishonesty as before. Substantive disagreements are transformed into a “someone said/someone else said” fake neutrality. Gotta hear both sides!

Most of the people I spoke with said they welcome opinions they don’t share and resent the suggestion that they prefer an ideological safe house. But many are incensed by what they felt was the gall of Stephens to take on climate change as his first column, and then to obliquely suggest that the data underlying climate science may be flawed, just like the data that predicted a Hillary Clinton win in November.

Most of the people Spayd interacts with on daily basis are almost certainly the same sort of milquetoast process liberals like herself, who think that it’s important To Be Scrupulously Fair to cranks and charlatans. It’s telling that apparently even many of those people are incensed at the obvious bullshit being published by the Times; apparently there are lines that even some milquetoast liberals won’t cross.

Rich Posert of Portland, Ore., said he would be happy to see a libertarian on the Op-Ed pages, or someone like Ross Douthat, another Times conservative columnist. But Posert said he doesn’t understand giving a platform to a columnist he sees as intentionally casting doubt on climate science. “It’s just too important,” Posert said. What made matters worse was when he saw the comments of two Times editors dismissing angry readers as people who reject free speech or alternative viewpoints. That’s when he canceled his subscription.

It turns out that if you publish someone who is openly misleading about the state of the science, people will object to this open dishonesty. That anyone could see this as a “free speech” issue just speaks to the utter derangment of senior people at the Times.

Ella Wagner, a graduate student at Loyola University Chicago, said she too favors a mix of opinions, but given the cast of mostly older white men on the Op-Ed pages now, she doesn’t see Stephens as some wild departure. “Instead, they found someone whose point is to destabilize the current science on climate change,” she said. “What really annoyed me was seeing Times ads promising to pursue the ‘truth’ and then you get this alert saying, ‘Read this column that questions the fundamental believability of facts.’”

Ella Wagner, a person who understands the difference between “things that are true” and “things that are not true,” is rightfully annoyed that the Times has chosen to give space to a person who peddles the latter.

Also among the readers was a climate scientist, who in an email went on for many paragraphs challenging Stephens’s “fallacious and misleading argument.” And a priest, who told me that, unlike the others, he took it upon himself to subscribe to The Times, as a gesture of reward for letting all voices speak.

A person who knows what they’re talking about is up in arms about a bullshitter who doesn’t know.

The bottom line: Few readers question the notion of having a conservative on the Op-Ed pages, with some caveats. But they thought it was a pugnacious move on Stephens’s part to choose climate change as his first target, a subject as flammable to many younger readers as the Middle East has long been to older ones.

“It turns out that unlike the straw-objector that I made up, actual people who understand how this game works object not to general conservative views, but to the specific proliferation of lies and obfuscations which the Times has abetted!”

That’s the readers’ side. Up the elevator on the 13th floor was Stephens, who sat beneath empty bookshelves in his new office. He was answering questions from readers for his next column, and was ready to take mine.

No one gives a fuck what “Stephens’ side” is. His “side” is to lie about climate science.

“It’s been an education,” he said of his maiden voyage into Times territory from the more conservative compound of The Wall Street Journal. “Some reader comments have been really smart and engaging,” he said, while many on Twitter, he said, have been less so. One tweet in particular left him explaining to his 11-year-old boy what it meant that someone wanted his dad “Danny Pearl-ed.”

Some people tweeted gross things at Stephens. All objections are therefore null and void. Give this man another Pulitzer!

He says he chose climate not to intentionally incite anyone, but because he was being attacked on that subject before he even arrived. He felt he couldn’t dodge it. What about the assertion that his broader purpose, like that of many industries, is to stoke doubt about global warming and thus reduce the need to act?

He chose to troll the readers of the Times because he knew they could be trolled. He’s in this respect no different than the people who use racial slurs because they know that it annoys decent people.

The first column was meant to recognize our fallibility. When I quoted the old Jew of Galicia, about someone who’s 55 percent right, that meant me. I am far from infallible, and I screw up all the time. I’m not offering my comments as statements of absolute truth. What I’m trying to do is offer statements about issues that matter in hopes that they approximate the truth. Just as I want to persuade readers, I understand that they might end up persuading me.

More dishonesty; if Stephens had been interested in the truth, the truth has been publily available to him for decades. He could have done the reading, he could have reached out to actual climate scientists, he could have educated himself in any number of ways. Instead what he did was to provide a glib and false summary of the state of climate science and then tried to pass off his bullshit as “wisdom.” When challenged on this, he takes refuge in an anecdote; I’m sure we’ll be hearing from Stephens in short order about how climate science is actually anti-Semitic.

The thing is, Stephens didn’t make any of the efforts he should have made because he knows there are no consequences for people like him. Incompetent mainstream pundits never die, they just fail upward into heaven! There’s no incentive for Stephens to be informed or honest because those would both require effort and self-reflection, whereas snarking on his readers is easy. The odds that any argument that a reader could make would “persuade” Stephens are less than epsilon; if he actually wanted to know the truth, it was there fore the knowing all along.

That may be where conciliation ends. From Stephens’s perspective, the gulf between his intentions and reader reaction is partly explained by how liberals tend to approach ideas with which they disagree.

“People who dare to point out that I’m wrong on the merits are actually suppressing my free speech.” –conservatives generally, Stephens particularly

“The dominant mode of liberal disagreement in many cases is to express contempt,” he said. “That’s a real problem, really for liberals.” Especially in the wake of Trump, he said, “The New York Times is a last bastion of objectivity and human civilization to many liberals. My presence here suggests there is a Fifth Column(ist) in the Citadel.”

People who are wrong and who peddle bullshit deserve noting but contempt. Stephens is actually contemptible, a loathsome, snarky little toad whose job is to defend the powerful from his position of privilege.

After a little prodding about whether conservatives share the same attribute, he maintained that they do not, but said that they have their own behavioral issues: They can be overbearing.

Ah, the “I hit you because I love you” defense. Very good, I think there’s a third Pulitzer Prize here.

If that’s how Stephens feels, life on The Times’s Op-Ed pages should stay interesting for a while, though maybe not productive.

Fuck his feelings.

For Stephens to win over new readers he’ll need to make a strategic pivot, from preaching to a choir of Journal conservatives to winning over a Times audience of suspicious liberals. Being steadfastly anti-Trump, as Stephens is, might count for something, but whatever trust was built up among Journal readers may be back on empty here. Showing some patience and respect for the new audience could start filling the tank.

Everything is measured in “winning readers,” not “telling the truth” or “being right.” Of course if you fetishize the market, you’re going to think that “number of readers” corresponds to “value of idea.” That Stephens would cynically exploit this is unsurprising; that the Times accedes implicitly to this framework should tell you everything you need to know about its leadership’s substantive commitments.

Readers, on the other hand, face the serious test of whether they can show tolerance for views they don’t like, even those they fear are dangerous. Stephens questioned the models of climate science, but isn’t it possible to take him at face value — to accept that he thinks global warming is at least partially man-made — and see where he takes his argument over time? He may not change opinions in the end, but at the very least he might concede that his stereotype of the contemptuous liberal is overly broad.

No, they actually do not face any such test. There is not a reasonable debate here; there is one person misrepresenting the state of the science, and a bunch of people pointing out that this is bullshit. It is not “possible to take him at face value,” because his arguments have no face value. They are utterly devoid of content and uninformed by any understanding of the relevant science. “Where he takes his argument” is irrelevant because the argument has moved so far ahead of him that he’s in the position of arguing for phlogiston at the 1911 Solvay Conference and then complaining that no one is taking him seriously. The place where his argument belongs is in the trash bin with Stephens’ entire career.

As for Stephens, I’m taking him at his word, that he has no intention of manufacturing facts and that he will be transparent with his audience about his ideas and intentions. That seems like a good place to start.

Yes, let’s extend good faith to liars and bigots. Because the most important thing is that we hear from another conservative who definitely does not have a platform for his views.

Ultimately, the problem of centrist media as gatekeeper that promotes conservative bullshit in the interests of faux-neutrality is much more serious than the conservative bullshit itself. There’s no obligation to give these charlatans a space to promulgate their falsehoods, but the Times does so anyway because it wants to be considered a “serious” paper. Of course, the people that it’s trying to pander to will never respect it anyway, and the people who would otherwise be its natural allies are going to be turned off. The Times can’t break out of this trap because it’s trying to have it both ways, to be a respectable filter while pretending its serving the cause of intellectual diversity. The way out is of course to decide that you aren’t going to publish things that are categorically false, but unfortunately that is a stronger commitment than the pillars of late liberalism are willing to sustain.

[1]: Not that a Pulitzer Prize, especially for commentary, has much intrinsic value. Any prize that Peggy Noonan can win can’t be worth much.

[2]: Don’t @ me, Bohmians.

[3]: Yes, I am aware that real climate models are substantially more complicated. This is just a general schematic.

[4]: Again, the process of aggregating the results climate models is much more complex than my brief sketch.

[5]: Don’t @ me, anti-realists.

Strangers in Every Land

I started responding to this piece by Emma Green on Facebook and before I knew I had written several hundred words, at which point I decided this would be better as a blog post.

I feel like this article asks the wrong question, and the reason it does so is that in American terms, “whiteness” has become a proxy for “legitimate member of the body politic.” This formulation makes sense in some ways because the cleavage between white and non-white has been the enduring fault line running through American history. But it’s also short-sighted because until very recently (in historical terms) people whose skin color wasn’t really a contestable issue as such (e.g. the Irish) didn’t really “count” as “white”; their integration into the mainstream of American society was accompanied by a sort of retroactive granting of whiteness while European racial divisions remained as fraught as ever.

Jews never properly fit into this dynamic; the author gropes at this problem but fails to apprehend it because, again, the framework she’s working from is the American framework of “whiteness” and “color.” But the knock on Jews was never that they weren’t “white” or even, I think, particularly that they were somehow racially flawed as such; that was Hitler’s particular innovation but again, there’s a lot of recency bias here making us think that it was always this way. But if you take a much broader historical view, one of the things that comes up, for example, is Christians using “Jew” as a broad category for “alien,” even in contexts where there were not even any actual Jews around to reference. The racist pseudo-science of the 19th century allowed for the possibility of grafting these views onto what was then perceived as “biological reality” but I think this was a convenient fusion of disparate streams of thought.

A much better framework for understanding this would be to read something like “Two Hundred Years Together,” Solzhenitsyn’s deeply anti-Semitic and yet also non-fascist history of Russian-Jewish relations. It’s not that Solzhenitsyn wants to send the Jews to the death camps or thinks they’re vermin, it’s that he fundamentally doesn’t believe that they can truly be at home within a Christian society. There’s more than a little parasite/host metaphor going on there, but the crucial point for me is that it operates in the long-standing tradition of viewing “Jewish” as synonymous with “fundamentally Other.” What could be more Other than the Wandering Jew, cursed with immortality for taunting Jesus and unable to find a home in any country of the world? The Jew’s fundamental rootlessness means that he can never truly be a citizen of anywhere, which is why it makes sense that many Jewish socialists and communists were purged by the USSR under the guise of being “rootless cosmopolitans,” who can’t possibly be trusted to be good citizens.

Viewed through this historical and trans-national lens, I think the question becomes not “are Jews white?” but rather “can Jews fundamentally belong to any place at all?” Or, for me as a Jew, the question is “can we ever have something other than provisional acceptance as Jews?” Because as we’re seeing, what can be made white can be made un-white (unmade white?) as long as the conception of the Jew as alien continues to underlie mainstream society’s attitude towards Jews.

What is the social purpose of David Brooks?

David Brooks is trash. This is so obviously the case that I will spend no time whatsoever proving it, except to link to his latest piece which equivocates between social democracy and the “alt-right,” or as we like to call it here in the literate world, fascism.

David Brooks being trash leads to an obvious question: what the fuck is he doing on the New York Times masthead? Who is so deeply invested in having him on board that they are willing to tolerate unceasing ridicule for it? It’s impossible to say for certain, of course, but I have a thesis.

Before I get to it, it’s important to point out that Brooks has virtually no qualifications to comment on anything; he owes his current position to nothing more than a moderate intelligence and a talent for social climbing. A child of two comfortable academics, he attended the University of Chicago where he begged William Buckley for a job via satirical sketch (no, really). He worked the crime beat for a local news service for a bit and then interned for the National Review; he also spent some time at the Hoover Institution. His only real job involved being editor of the book review for the Wall Street Journal, after which he promptly switched to the opinion page, where he pretty much has remained ever since. Brooks’ only qualifications for doing so involve being a “conservative commentator” of impeccable lineage, which is to say that he did time on the wingnut welfare circuit just like all the other washouts and losers who constitute the conservative “intellectual class.”

During his stint at the Times, which is ongoing from 2003, Brooks has repeatedly proven himself to be a howling void of thought, incapable of engaging on a serious and direct level with any idea he doesn’t already hold. His sociology is risible, and his lack of self-awareness is legendary; this is, after all, the man who unironically taught a class at Yale on the subject of humility and assigned them his own columns. His one constant is the rhetorical trick of always taking the most centrist position of milquetoast liberalism and the most insane positions of the right wing, splitting the difference, and then planting himself firmly in the “center” of political discourse that he has just engineered out of nowhere.

Again, what purpose does this serve? Who is actually moved by this? The answer, I think, is twofold: one is that David Brooks has the job that he has not because of any special qualifications (as shown above, he has none) or any critical capacity for insight (ditto) but rather because he knows the right people. Brooks went to the same schools they went to, interned at the “correct” magazines (in the upper echelons of boomer liberalism the National Review is incorrectly considered to have intellectual value), and has held the “correct” positions at more mainstream publications. That he is a waste of space doesn’t matter to anyone; once you ascend sufficiently high in this world, you can never fail out of it. No number of terrible columns or terrible books or terrible classes taught will ever disqualify Brooks from his post. His defenders will always shrug and point to his publication record, as though bylines and one’s name on a book jacket were more important than the actual work. In that sense, Brooks’ social value consists entirely of demonstrating how chummy quasi-nepotism and speaking the language of the elites is more important than one’s actual intellectual contributions.

The second answer is that Brooks remains a kind of lodestar for a certain class of Times reader: the relatively affluent, centrist (maybe even center-left) boomer, who of course does not at all go in for the vulgarity of a Trump, but finds protests by black people over their arbitrary murder at the hands of police just a bit too gauche. Brooks is their safe space, ready at all times to validate their fears of the masses they imagine must be assembled with torches and pitchforks right outside their castle gates. This goes double for Brooks’ liberal readers: they get to paint themselves as “openminded” and “willing to listen to the other side” by reading a man who will gently mock their bourgeois-liberal sensibilities while serving as a stalking-horse for your standard loot-the-country-and-fuck-the-poor Republicanism. Brooks provides the illusion of dissent which merely reinforces the circumscribing of acceptable political opinions into a boundary that just barely includes the center-left but mostly caters to the right. This works out very well for the center-left leadership of the Times, which cements its claims to “legitimacy” by employing obvious cranks like Brooks as a sop to the right while at the same time punching hard to the left to avoid any serious criticism of its own role in our coming nightmare. The twin poles of managerial liberalism and center-right culture-shaming generate between them a kind of affective niche occupied by the Times that it then markets to its readers.

David Brooks is trash, but he wouldn’t have a job if some other people weren’t socially predisposed to hiring him for frivolous reasons. Which is also why he’s going to keep that job until they carry him out of his office (real or metaphorical) feet first, and why we’re going to be reading his therapy notes in the form of thinly veiled columns about his divorce throughout the Trumpocalypse.

Some Thoughts About Amazon

A recent New York Times article examining the alleged problems with Amazon’s work culture has been making waves all week. Depending on whom you want to believe, Amazon is either the province of the damned, chained to their cubicles and forced to work while being whipped by demons, or a glorious utopia of technological innovation where no one is ever unhappy. This unresolvable war of cross-firing anecdotes is impossible to adjudicate from the outside, for the simple reason that only Amazon could even collect the necessary data to do that, and it wouldn’t make them public in any case. So anyway, this prompted in me a few loosely-connected observations, presented in roughly ascending order of how interesting I find them:

  1. Large organizations are like the rainforests they’re sometimes named after: if you go looking for something, you’re likely to find either that thing or a reasonable facsimile thereof. If what you’re looking for is team dysfunction and people being drummed out of the company for having had the temerity to get cancer, you’ll find that; if you’re looking for a functional team of normal adults who treat each other well and all go home satisfied at the end of the day, I bet you could find that as well. Interviews with newspaper reporters aren’t nothing, but they’re not company-wide statistics, and neither are anecdotes from some guy who really loves it there. It wouldn’t be impossible to set up an experiment that attempted to describe at a macro level the effects of Amazon’s internal culture, but it would require a pretty serious resource investment from Amazon itself, which, despite their claims of being very data-driven, I doubt Amazon would actually undertake.

  2. One theme that sounds throughout the Amazonians’ replies to the NYT article is that the high-criticism stack-ranking culture just has to be the way it is in order for Amazon to be at its most awesomest. The natural question this raises is: how do they, or anyone, know that? Has Amazon ever experimented with any other system? What, put simply, is the control group for this comparison? Without this information, justification of ostensibly bad culture practices are nothing more than post hoc rationalizations by the survivors. Clearly this hazing made me into a superlative soldier/frat brother/programmer, so suck it up! Also recognizable as the kind of justification offered by people who beat their children. You’d think that an organization as allegedly devoted to data gathering as Amazon would have done some controlled studies on these questions but my guess is that Amazon gives precisely zero fucks about whether its culture is poisonous or not, except insofar as it affects their public image. There’s basically no incentive to care, since there’s always another fresh-out-of-college 23-year-old programmer to hire.

  3. Another common theme that Amazon’s defenders (and the tech world’s agitprop more generally) plays again and again is that of SOLVING THE VERY CHALLENGINGEST OF PROBLEMS. Here’s a thing that a grown-up person actually wrote:

    Yes. Amazon is, without question, the most innovative technology company in the world. The hardest problems in technology, bar none, are solved at Amazon.

    This, of course, is totally fucking ludicrous, and yet no one seems to ever question these claims. Obviously Amazon has some fairly serious problems that need solving; that would be true of almost any organization of its scale and scope. But in the end, those problems are about how to make the delivery of widgets slightly more efficient, so you can get your shit in two days instead of three. This, of course, twins with the tech world’s savior complex: not only are we solving the most challenging problems but they also happen to be the most pressing ones and also the ones that will result in the greatest improvements to standards of living/gross national happiness/overall karmic state of the universe. It’s never enough to merely deliver a successful business product if that product doesn’t come with messianic pretensions. So it is with Amazon, which must sell itself as the innovatingest innovator that ever innovated if it hopes to keep attracting those 23-year-olds. These grandiose claims are hard to square with the reality that marginal improvements in supply chain management and customer experience, while good for the bottom line (or, I guess in Amazon’s case, investors) and certainly not technically trivial, ain’t the fucking cure for cancer or even a Mars rover. If your shit gets here in three days after all, you’ll survive. Or to put it another way, Bell Labs invented C and UNIX and also won eight Nobel Prizes in Physics. That’s what actual innovation looks like.

Sports Still not a Morality Play

The St. Louis Cardinals’ inept illegal access of the Houston Astros’ database is a hilarious sports scandal for many reasons. As an IT professional, I am giddy with inappropriate excitement over the Astros’ terrible password policies, but as a hater of cheap sentiment and unctuous mythmaking, I’m super-delighted that this happened to the Cards.

I don’t follow baseball at all, but if you read any sort of sports media, it’s impossible to escape the cult that the Cardinals have wrapped themselves in. Not content to be merely one of the most successful teams of all times, the Cardinals PR-machine puts out endless reams of propaganda about how everything the organization “wins the right way” and is just such a moral paragon. That this has now backfired on them in the worst way possible (federal indictments might be coming!) is just the most delicious of ironies.

Here’s the thing: we routinely conflate external characteristics with internal virtue, or lack thereof. Not just in sports, but in society generally. Rich and attractive people are perceived to be more virtuous than poor and ugly ones, despite the fact that there’s no connection whatsoever between these things. Still, sports is particularly bad at this; there’s no more tired sports cliche than the assertion that on-field performance reflects personal worth, even though it’s manifestly untrue. What this story should teach us, but won’t, is that winning and being a good person are totally unconnected. Winning is a function of team or individual performance in a contest of skill, and being a good person is, well, a song from an entirely different opera, as my people like to say. Teams should, but will not, stop wrapping themselves in moralistic language and pretending that their sports triumphs are indicative of anything other than their performance in those contests. Sports teams aren’t moral undertakings; they’re businesses designed for entertainment, and if they succeed at entertaining us, that ought to be enough.

It turns out that good people often lose and bad people often triumph, and there’s no real rhyme or reason to it. It’s nice when “good guys” win, but being a good guy guarantees nothing. You know, kinda like life.

English and the Political Language

Among the strangest phenomena of American political life is one politician accusing another of “playing politics.” This terrible locution is bipartisan, employed as often by liberals as by conservatives, and I don’t know of another area of human activity in which practice partly consists of denying the existence of the very activity you are engaged in. To accuse a basketball coach of “playing basketball” or an egineer of “playing engineering” would be nonsensical, and yet in politics we routinely hear such accusations leveled.

Like any piece of widely employed nonsense, this phrasing does, of course, carry a certain kind of semantic content, one conveyed not so much by the phrase itself as by the fact of it being uttered. What does it mean, to “play politics?” That depends on where and how you split the phrase. In its naive usage, “playing politics” is normally used to signify that one’s opponent has taken a “non-political” question and rendered it political, somehow. For example, liberals are often accused of “playing politics with the troops” when either attempting to curb American warmaking abroad or provide some support for returning soldiers domestically; by the same token, conservatives will be called out for, say, “playing politics with women’s lives,” when attempting to enact limits on reproductive rights.

The paradoxical nature of the “playing politics” maneuver is its ubiquitous deployment by political actors engaged in the political process of achieving political goals. What is the question of, say, reproductive rights, if not a political issue? The actions of politicians carried out in the course of their professional work are almost definitionally “politics,” and the attempt to prevent the political success of an opponent is, again, definitionally political. So: what purpose does it serve? On my reading, one operation accomplished by the accusation of “playing politics” or “politicization” is the suggestion that politics itself is a kind of alien enterprise that no one should engage in. At the same time, by deploying this rhetoric, its user seeks to position themselves on the ground of consensus: all reasonable non-political people acknowledge the universal rightness of my position, and it is only the political operative who disagrees. Thus: to be political is to stand in fundamental disagreement with a presumed rightness. And more: to be political, to politicize, is to acknowledge conflict where the accuser demands recognition of trans-political necessary truth. It’s not just that the personal is not held ot be political, but even the political itself is transformed into a dishonorable practice.

That’s the “politics” fork of “playing politics.” What about the “playing?” To accuse someone of playing is, firstly, to accuse them of a sort of insincerity. You are not truly a fan of 1960s avant garde Czech cinema; you are merely playing at being one for nefarious purposes (hipster cred, presumably). In politics, that translates as follows: you are not really concerned about the issue that you claim to be concerned about; you are merely putting on a sort of act by pretending concern. While it’s certainly true that political debates are full of what might generously be described as concern-trolling, we do have a language for calling bullshit on those things: we merely say that the speaker is lying. Whether true or not, an accusation of lying is at least intelligible and, presumably, open to some sort of independent adjudication with reference to the facts at hand. But “playing politics” is precisely the kind of slippery non-phrase that can never be proven or disproven. Are we truly concerned or is our political face merely another actor’s mask we wear on the face we present in everyday political life? How can you tell the dancer from the dance? This of course is an unanswerable question, with unanswerability being just the point: the goal is not to establish a fact but to sow doubt.

A secondary, complementary meaning of the accusation of “playing” is to imply that the accused regards the process as a kind of game, games being the sorts of things you play. In other words: the accused may or may nor really care about the issue at hand, but is really employing it as a kind of point-scoring maneuver in a game that has no purpose beyond itself. This dovetails neatly with the first fork, which seeks to convey the sense of politics as a fundamentall alien activity. If politics is, in fact, alien, that is, if it has no real relevance to our lives, then of course any political engagement can only be understood not as an expression of particular principles, but rather as just another game in which the goal is not to achieve any particular end, but rather to “defeat” whatever opponent stands in your way. Couple that to the accusation of insincerity, and more doubt is sown. The irony of this reading is that there really does exist an entire class of people for whom politics really is something of a social game; it’s just that this class overwhelmingly comprises various pundits and other political hangers-on (e.g. David Brooks, Tom Friedman, Maureen Dowd, etc.) for whom actual political practice would entail, well, too much work. But the people actually doing the work, whether you deem that work good or bad, are not playing but practicing.

The reason I object so strongly to the use of this formulation is because, like all euphemisms, it crowds out meaningful understanding of its subject. To insinuate that politics is something apart from life is to mistakenly assume that it can be bracketed off from your existence; to accuse an opponent of being engaged in a kind of sophisticated pretense is to misjudge their motivations and the strength of their convictions. The accusation of “playing politics” serves to conceal the existence of genuine, perhaps ultimately irreconcilable conflicts by removing those conflicts to a realm of seeming abstraction inhabited by people who are not engaged in anything real.

Unfortunately, American political discourse is fundamentally infantile, conducted on a level that should be embarrassing to a sixth-grader, much less to grown adults. So we get constructions like this, in which the very act of achieving a political end takes the form of denying that politics exists at all. Our political language is in quite a bad way.

Stupid People Arguing About Stupid Things

Earlier today I was listening to yesterday’s podcast of the Diane Rehm Show on which the panel was discussing what the Amtrak accident means in light of our decaying infrastructure. Unfortunately, as is often the case with discussions of public transit, the debate got bogged down in the end in a very stupid Republican talking-point. Basically, any time Republicans encounter government money being spent on something they don’t like (as opposed to Good And True things like bombing Middle Eastern countries), they’ll complain about those things being “subsidized.” Why are we subsidizing Amtrak passengers?! cries Rep. Andrew Harris of Maryland, idiot.

Ed Rendell, a person who seems to have something resembling a functional nervous system, sensibly replied that all transit systems everywhere are subsidized. Unfortunately, while getting the particulars right, Rendell neglected to defend the larger principle. Ignore for the moment the fact that automotive transport has been the beneficiary of innumerable government subsidies for decades, not least of which is the actual interstate highway system the imminent collapse of which is going to kill us all presently because we won’t spend the money to repair it.

The larger principle that Rendell should have defended, but which apparently cannot be uttered in polite company, is that sometimes it makes sense to subsidize stuff. We “subsidize” public education, for example; we do it poorly and often reluctantly, and usually in racially inequitable ways, but we do do it. There are undertakings that we, as a society, deem worthwhile, and that means that we can choose to spend public resources on them. There’s nothing wrong with that determination! Rendell’s hemming on the issue serves to obscure this basic point, but it’s just as true of alternative energy or education as it is of infrastructure or public transit. There’s no magic way to get something you want without paying for it, and yet the inability to openly acknowledge this basic fact continues to hamper the ability to push for necessary public works

These are the fruits of decades of well-poisoning on the part of conservatives with regard to any notion of the public good. Even people who ostensibly favor such public efforts cannot bring themselves to say with a straight face that yes, these things are good, and we can and should spend money to achieve them. “Subsidy” is not a dirty word; it’s an integral part of development throughout the history of this country.

Toothpicks and Bubblegum, Software Edition, Iteration 326

There’s nothing like working with an old *nix utility to remind you how brittle software is. Case in point: I’m trying to use flex and bison to design a very simple grammar for extracting some information from plaintext. Going by the book and everything, and it just doesn’t work. Keeps telling me it caught a PERIOD as its lookahead token when it expected a WORD and dies with a syntax error. I killed a whole day trying to track this down before I realized one simple thing: the order of token declarations in the parser (that’s your .y file) must match the order of token declaration in the lexer (your .l file). If it doesn’t, neither bison nor flex will tell you about this, of course (and how could they, when neither program processes files intended for the other?). It’s just that your program will stubbornly insist, against all indications to the contrary, that it has indeed caught a PERIOD when it expected a WORD and refuse to validate perfectly grammatical text.


I was so angry when this was happening and now I think I might be even angrier. Keep in mind that this fantastically pathological behavior is not documented anywhere, so I found myself completely baffled by what was happening. Where was PERIOD coming from? Why didn’t it just move on to the next valid token? Of course the correct thing is to include the tab.h file in the lexer, but I had written my definition down explicitly in the lexer file so I didn’t think to do that.

What’s ludicrous about this is that the flex/bison toolchain has to go through yet another auxiliary tool, m4, just to do its thing. m4, if you don’t know, is a macro language with a terrible, incomprehensible syntax that was invented for the purposes of text transformation, thereby proving years before its formulation Greenspun’s 10th rule, according to which any sufficiently advanced C project will end up reimplementing, badly, some subset of Common Lisp.

I have the utmost respect for Dennis Ritchie, but m4 is a clusterfuck that should have never survived this long. Once a language like Lisp existed, which could actually give you code and DSL transformations at a high level of abstraction, m4 became superfluous. It has survived, like so many awful tools of its generation, through what I can only assume is inertia.

Five Years in the Future

Oh gosh, it has been a long time, hasn’t it? My deepest apologies, sports fans. You know how life is, always getting in the way. Perhaps this will spur a production in verbal output but it’s just as likely that it’ll be a once-per-year salvo. Don’t get used to anything nice, my mother always told me.

Anyway, this too-prolix production has been made possible by a friend soliciting my input on the following article. That shit is long, so take a good thirty minutes out of your day if you plan to read it all, and then take another thirty to read this response, which I know you’re going to do because you love me that much.

I’ll save you some of the trouble by putting my thesis front and center so you can decide whether or not you want to continue reading or leave an angry comment: I think the linked piece is premised on some really flimsy assumptions and glosses over some serious problems, both empirical and logical, in its desire to attain its final destination. This is, sadly, par for the course in popular writing about AI; even very clever people often write very stupid things on this topic. There’s a lot of magical thinking going on in this particular corner of the Internet; much of it, I think, can be accounted for by a desire to believe in a bright new future about to dawn, coupled with a complete lack of consequences for being wrong about your predictions. That said, let’s get to the meat.

There are three basic problems with Tim Urban’s piece, and I’ll try and tackle all three of them. The first is that it relies throughout on entirely speculative and unjustified projections generated by noted “futurist” (here I would say, rather, charlatan, or perhaps huckster) Ray Kurzweil; these projections are the purest fantasy premised on selective interpretations of sparsely available data and once their validity is undermined, the rest of the thesis collapses pretty quickly. The second problem is that Urban repeatedly makes wild leaps of logic and inference to arrive at his favored result. Third, Urban repeatedly mischaracterizes or misunderstands the state of the science, and at one point even proposes a known mathematical and physical impossibility. There’s a sequel to Urban’s piece too, but I’ve only got it in me to tackle this one.

Conjectures and Refutations

Let me start with what’s easily the most objectionable part of Urban’s piece: the charts. Now, I realize that the charts are meant to be illustrative rather than precise scientific depictions of reality, but for all that they are still misleading. Let’s set aside for the moment the inherent difficulty of defining what exactly constitutes “human progress” and note that we don’t really have a good way of determining where we stand on that little plot even granting that such a plot could be made. Urban hints at this problem with his second “chart” (I guess I should really refer to them as “graphics” since they are not really charts in any meaningful sense), but then the problem basically disappears in favor of a fairly absurd thought experiment involving a time traveler from the 1750s. My general stance is that in all but the most circumscribed of cases, thought experiments are thoroughly useless, and I’d say that holds here. We just don’t know how a hypothetical time traveler retrieved from 250 years ago would react to modern society, and any extrapolation based on that idea should be suspect from the get-go. Yes, the technological changes from 1750 to today are quite extreme, perhaps more extreme than the changes from 1500 to 1750, to use Urban’s timeline. But they’re actually not so extreme that they’d be incomprehensible to an educated person from that time. For example, to boil our communication technology down to the basics, the Internet, cell phones, etc. are just uses of electrical signals to communicate information. Once you explain the encoding process at a high level to someone familiar with the basics of electricity (say, Ben Franklin), you’re not that far off from explicating the principles on which the whole thing is based, the rest being details. Consider further that in 1750 we are a scant 75 years away from Michael Faraday, and 100 years away from James Clerk Maxwell, the latter of whom would understand immediately what you’re talking about.

We can play this game with other advances of modern science, all of which had some precursors in the 1750s (combustion engines, the germ theory of disease, etc.). Our hypothetical educated time traveler might not be terribly shocked to learn that we’ve done a good job of reducing mortality through immunizations, or that we’ve achieved heavier-than-air flight. I doubt that however surprised they are it would be to the extent that they would die. The whole “Die Progress Unit” is, again, a tongue-in-cheek construct from Urban, meant to be illustrative, but rhetorically it functions to cloak all kinds of assumptions about how people would or would not react. It disguises a serious conceptual and empirical problem (just how do we define and measure things like “rates of progress”) behind a very glib imaginary scenario that is both not meant to be taken seriously and function as justification for the line of thinking that Urban pursues later in the piece.

The idea that ties this first part together is Kurzweil’s “Law of Accelerating Returns.” Those who know me won’t be surprised to learn that I don’t think much of Kurzweil or his laws. I think Kurzweil is one part competent engineer and nine parts charlatan, and that most of his ideas are garbage amplified by money. The “Law” of accelerating returns isn’t any such thing, certainly not in the simplistic way presented in Urban’s piece, and relying on it as if it were some sort of proven theorem is a terrible mistake. A full explanation of the problems with the Kurzweilian thesis will have to wait for another time, but I’ll sketch one of the biggest objections below. Arguendo I will grant an assumption that in my view is mostly unjustified, which is that the y-axis on those graphics can even be constructed in a meaningful way.

A very basic problem with accelerating returns is that it very much depends on what angle you look at it from. To give a concrete example, if you were a particle physicist in the 1950s, you could pretty much fall ass-backwards into a Nobel Prize if you managed to scrape together enough equipment to build yourself a modest accelerator capable of finding another meson. But then a funny thing happened, which is that ever incremental advance over the gathering of low-hanging fruit consumed disproportionately more energy. Unsurprisingly, the marginal returns on increased energy diminished greatly; the current most powerful accelerator in the world (the LHC at CERN) has beam energies that I believe will max out at somewhere around 7 TeV, give or take a few GeV. That’s one order of magnitude more powerful than the second-most powerful accelerator (the RHIC at Brookhaven), and it’s not unrealistic to believe that the discovery of any substantial new physics will require an accelerator another order of magnitude more powerful. In other words, the easy stuff is relatively easy and the hard stuff is disproportionately hard. Of course this doesn’t mean that all technologies necessarily follow this pattern, but note that what we’re running up against here is not a technological limit per se, but rather a fundamental physical limit: the increased energy scale just is where the good stuff lies. Likewise, there exist other real physical limits on the kind of stuff we can do. You can only make transistors so small until quantum effects kick in; you can only consume so much energy before thermodynamics dictates that you must cook yourself.

The astute reader will note that this pattern matches quite well (at least, phenomenologically speaking) the logistic S-curve that Urban draw in one of his graphics. But what’s really happening there? What Urban has done is to simply connect a bunch of S-curves and overlaid them on an exponential, declaring (via Kurzweil) that this is how technology advances. But does technology really advance this way? I can’t find any concrete argument that it does, just a lot of hand-waving about plateaus and explosions. What’s more, the implicit assumption lurking in the construction of this plot is that when one technology plays itself out, we will somehow be able to jump ship to another method. There is historical precedent for this assumption, especially in the energy sector: we started off by burning wood, and now we’re generating energy (at least potentially) from nuclear reactions and sunlight. All very nice, until you realize that the methods of energy generation that are practical to achieve on Earth are likely completely played out. We have fission, fusion, and solar, and that’s about it for the new stuff. Not because we aren’t sufficiently “clever” but because underlying energy generation is a series of real physical processes that we don’t get to choose. There may not be another accessible S-curve that you we can jump to.

Maybe other areas of science behave in this way and maybe they don’t; it’s hard to know for sure. But admitting ignorance in the face of incomplete data is a virtue, not a sin; we can’t be justified in assuming that we’ll be able to go on indefinitely appending S-curves to each other. At best, even if the S-curve is “real,” what we’re actually dealing with is an entire landscape of such curves, arranged in ways we don’t really understand. As such, predictions about the rate of technological increase are based on very little beyond extrapolating various conveniently-arranged plots; it’s just that instead of extrapolating linearly, Kurzweil (and Urban following after him) does so exponentially. Well, you can draw lines through any set of data that you like, but it doesn’t mean you actually understand anything about that data unless you understand the nature of the processes that give rise to it.

You can look at the just-so story of the S-curve and the exponential (also the title of a children’s book I’m working on) as a story about strategy and metastrategy. In other words, each S-curve technology is a strategy, and the metastrategy is that when one strategy fails we develop another to take its place. But of course this itself assumes that the metastrategy will remain valid indefinitely; what if it doesn’t? Hitting an upper or lower physical limit is an example of a real barrier that is likely not circumventable through “paradigm shifts” because there’s a real universe that dictates what is and isn’t possible. Kurzweil prefers to ignore things like this because they throw his very confident pronouncements into doubt, but if we’re actually trying to formulate at least a toy scientific theory of progress, we can’t discount these scenarios.

1. p → q;
2. r
3. therefore, q

Since Kurzweil’s conjectures (I won’t dignify them with the word “theory”) don’t actually generate any useful predictions, it’s impossible to test them in any real sense of the word. I hope I’ve done enough work above to persuade the reader that these projections are nothing more than fantasy predicated on the fallacious notion that the metastrategy of moving to new technologies is going to work forever. As though it weren’t already bad enough to rely on these projections as if they were proven facts, Urban repeatedly mangles logic in his desire to get where he’s going. For example, at one point, he writes:

So while nahhhhh might feel right as you read this post, it’s probably actually [sic] wrong. The fact is, if we’re being truly logical and expecting historical patterns to continue, we should conclude that much, much, much more should change in the coming decades than we intuitively expect.

It’s hard to see why the skeptics are the ones who are “probably actually wrong” and not Urban and Kurzweil. If we’re being “truly logical” then, I’d argue, we aren’t making unjustified assumptions about what the future will look like based on extrapolating current non-linear trends, especially when we know that some of those extrapolations run up against basic thermodynamics.

That self-assured gem comes just after Urban commits an even grosser offense against reason. This:

And yes, no one in the past has not died. But no one flew airplanes before airplanes were invented either.

is not an argument. In the words of Wolfgang Pauli, it isn’t even wrong. This is a sequence of words that means literally nothing and no sensible conclusion can be drawn from it. To write this and to reason from such premises is to do violence to the very notion of logic that you’re trying to defend.

The entire series contains these kinds of logical gaps that are basically filled in by wishful thinking. Scales, trends, and entities are repeatedly postulated, then without any particular justification or reasoning various attributes are assigned to them. We don’t have the faintest idea of what an artificial general intelligence or super-intelligence might look like, but Urban (via Kurzweil) repeatedly gives it whatever form will make his article most sensational. If for some reason the argument requires an entity capable of things incomprehensible to human thought, that capability is magicked in wherever necessary.

The State of the Art

Urban’s taxonomy of “AI” is likewise flawed. There are not, actually, three kinds of AI; depending on how you define it, there may not even be one kind of AI. What we really have at the moment are a number of specialized algorithms that operate on relatively narrowly specified domains. Whether or not that represents any kind of “intelligence” is a debatable question; pace John McCarthy, it’s not clear that any system thus far realized in computational algorithms has any intelligence whatsoever. AGI is, of course, the ostensible goal of AI research generally speaking, but beyond general characteristics such as those outlined by Allen Newell, it’s hard to say what an AGI would actually look like. Personally, I suspect that it’s the sort of thing we’d recognize when we saw it, Turing-test-like, but pinning down any formal criteria for what AGI might be has so far been effectively impossible. Whether something like the ASI that Urban describes can even plausibly exist is of course the very thing in doubt; it will not surprise you, if you have not read all the way through part 2, that having postulated ASI in part 1, Urban immediately goes on to attribute various characteristics to it as though he, or anyone else, could possibly know what those characteristics might be.

I want to jump ahead for a moment and highlight one spectacularly dumb thing that Urban says at the end of his piece that I think really puts the whole thing in perspective:

If our meager brains were able to invent wifi, then something 100 or 1,000 or 1 billion times smarter than we are should have no problem controlling the positioning of each and every atom in the world in any way it likes, at any time—everything we consider magic, every power we imagine a supreme God to have will be as mundane an activity for the ASI as flipping on a light switch is for us.

This scenario impossible. Not only does it violate everything we know about uncertainty principles, but it also effectively implies a being with infinite computational power; this is because even if atoms were classical particles, controlling the position of every atom logically entails running forward in time a simulation of the trajectories of those atoms to infinite precision, a feat that is impossible in a finite universe. Not only that, but the slightest error in initial conditions will accumulate exponentially (here, the exponential stuff is actually mathematically valid), so that e.g. improving your forecast horizon by a factor of 10 requires a factor of 100 increase in computational power and so on.

This might seem like an awfully serious takedown of an exaggerated rhetorical point, but it’s important because it demonstrates how little Urban knows, or worries, about the actual science at stake. For example, he routinely conflates raw computational power with the capabilities of actual mammalian brains:

So the world’s $1,000 computers are now beating the mouse brain and they’re at about a thousandth of human level.

But of course this is nonsense. We are not “beating” the mouse brain in any substantive sense, we merely have machines that do a number of calculations per second that is comparable to a number that we imagine the mouse brain is also doing. About the best we’ve been able to do is to mock up a network of virtual point neurons that kind of resembles a slice of the mouse brain, maybe, if you squint from far away, and run it for a few seconds. Which is a pretty impressive technical achievement, but saying that we’ve “beaten the mouse brain” is wildly misleading. “Affordable, widespread AGI-caliber hardware in ten years,” is positively fantastical even under the most favorable Moore’s Law assumptions.

Of course, even with that kind of hardware, AGI is not guaranteed; it takes architecture as much as computational power to get to intelligence. Urban recognizes this, but his proposed “solutions” to this problem again betray as misunderstanding of both the state of science and our capabilities. For example, his “emulate the brain” solution is basically bog-standard connectionism. Not that connectionism is bad or hasn’t produced some pretty interesting results, but neuroscientists have known for a long time now that the integrate-and-fire point neuron of connectionist models is a very, very, very loose abstraction that doesn’t come close to capturing all the complexities of what happens in the brain. As this paper on “the neuron doctrine” (PDF) makes clear, the actual biology of neural interaction is fiendishly complicated, and the simple “fire together-wire together” formalism is a grossly inadequate (if also usefully tractable) simplification. Likewise, the “whole brain simulation” story fails to take into account real biological complexities of faithfully simulating neuronal interactions. Urban links to an article which claims that whole-brain emulation of C. elegans has been achieved, but while the work done by the OpenWorm folks is certainly impressive, it’s still a deeply simplified model. It’s hard from the video to gauge how closely the robot-worm’s behavior matches the real worm’s behavior; it’s likely that, at least, it exhibits some types of behaviors that the worm also exhibits, but I doubt that even its creators would claim ecological validity for their mode. At the very best, it’s a proof of principle regarding how one might go about doing something like this in the future, and, keep in mind, that this is a 300-neuron creature whose connectome is entirely known.

Nor are genetic algorithms likely to do the trick. Overall, the track record of genetic algorithms in actually producing useful results is decidedly mixed. In a recent talk I went to, Christos Papadimitriou, a pretty smart guy, flat out claimed that “genetic algorithms don’t work.” (PDF, page 18). I do not possess sufficient expertise to judge the truth of this statement, but I think the probability that genetic algorithms will provide the solution is low. It does not help that we “know” what we’re aiming for; in truth we have no idea what we’re optimizing for, and our end-goal is something of the “we know it when we see it” variety, which isn’t something that lends itself terribly well to a targeted search. Evolution, unlike humans, optimized for certain sorts of local fitness maxima (to put it very, very simply), and wound up producing something that couldn’t possibly have been targeted for in such an explicit way.

All of this is to say that knowing the connectome and having some computing power at your disposal is a necessary but not sufficient condition for replicating even simple organismic functionality. Understanding how to go from even a complete map of the human brain to a model of how that brain produces intelligence is not a simple mapping, nor is it just a matter of how many gigaflops you can execute. You have to have the right theory or your computational power isn’t worth that much. A huge problem that one hits on when speaking with actual neuroscientists is that there’s really a dearth of theoretical machinery out there that even begins to accurately represent intelligence as a whole, and it isn’t for lack of trying.

The concluding discussion of what an AI might look like in relation to humans is hopelessly muddled. We barely have any coherent notion of how to quantify existing human intelligence, much less a possible artificial one. There’s no particular reason to think that intelligence follows some kind of linear scale, or that “170,000 more intelligent than a human,” is any sort of meaningful statement, rather than a number thrown out into the conversation without any context.

The problem with the entire conversation surrounding AI is that it’s almost entirely divorced from the realities of both neuroscience and computer science. The boosterism that emanates from places like the Singularity Institute and from people like Kurzweil and his epigones is hardly anything more than science fiction. Their projections are mostly obtained by drawing straight lines through some judiciously-selected data, and their conjectures about what may or may not be possible are mostly based on wishful thinking. It’s disappointing that Urban’s three weeks of research have produced a piece that reads like an SI press release, rather than any sort of sophisticated discussion of either the current state of the AI field or the tendencious and faulty logic driving  the hype.


None of this is to say that we should be pessimists about the possibility of artificial intelligence. As a materialist, I don’t believe that humans are somehow imbued with any special metaphysical status that is barred to machines. I hold out hope that some day we will, through diligent research into the structure of existing brains, human and otherwise, unravel the mystery of intelligence. But holding out hope is one thing; selling it as a foregone conclusion is quite another. Concocting bizarre stories about superintelligent machines capable of manipulating individual atoms through, apparently, the sheer power of will, is just fabulism. Perhaps no more succinct and accurate summary of this attitude has ever been formulated than that written by John Campbell of Pictures for Sad Children fame:

it’s flying car bullshit: surely the world will conform to our speculative fiction, surely we’re the ones who will get to live in the future. it gives spiritual significance to technology developed primarily for entertainment or warfare, and gives nerds something to obsess over that isn’t the crushing vacuousness of their lives

Maybe that’s a bit ungenerous, but I find that it’s largely true. Obsession about AI futures is not even a first world problem as much as a problem for a world that has never existed and might never exist. It’s like worrying about how you’ll interact with the aliens that you’re going to find on the other side of the wormhole before you even know how to get out of the solar system without it taking decades.