Friday, July 3, 2020

The social justice steamroller: a pervasive and profound attack on citizenship

Political scientists Eric Kaufman and Matt Goodwin, in a recent online dialogue, discussed how centre-right parties have not found a language to deal with the current woke surge. There is language available: it is the language of citizenship. For the woke surge is, by its nature, a profound attack on citizenship.

Do you belong to an organisation that passed a crucial motion at the end of the meeting with very little debate? Was such a motion cast in such a way that dissent was treated as immoral or otherwise contemptible? Did the motion pass itself off as anti-racist, a matter of social justice, or something similar?

Congratulations, you have experienced the social justice steamroller in its most complete form, the critical social justice steamroller.

The basic premise of the critical social justice steamroller is that any pushback to social justice is itself just replicating oppression, and the discourses of oppression, and so is inherently oppressive and illegitimate. As error has no rights, not only should such discourses of oppression not be given any expression, things should ideally be arranged so they have no chance of being expressed.

And everything that does not endorse social justice is a discourse of oppression.

All versions of error has no rights are profound attacks on citizenship. All of them: hate speech, political correctness, wokeness, critical race theory, critical social justice ...

They are all profound attacks on citizenship because citizenship rests on the status to speak.

From the status to speak we build the social and political bargaining that makes democracy work.

Bargaining requires voice, and democracy requires bargaining
People think that democracy is about elections. They are half right. Democracy is about social bargaining where elections make the social bargaining matter.

To engage in social bargaining one has to be able to express one’s concerns. That is the crucial element of citizenship: the status to speak, to discover common voices, to cohere with the like-minded. It is the status to speak, and to discover common concerns, plus a vote that (collectively) matters that generates the ability to bargain about the future of one’s community and society.

Without the status to speak, elections just become rituals.

Bargaining plus elections creates democracy: 

democracy = bargaining + elections.

Social and political bargaining require voice, it requires the status and ability to speak in public and in private. To seek to drown dissenting voices is to block the ability to bargain, to block participating in the political life of your community and society in any open and effective manner. Without the ability and status to speak, politics is just a game of approved insiders and elections are just rituals.

Elections without bargaining are just rituals: 

elections - bargaining = ritual. 

That’s how the ritual elections of totalitarian societies work. Official propaganda drowns out any other public discourse,* and forces public acquiescence to the supporting narratives the dominant regime wants to push. Only approved organisations or groups are permitted in the public and political space. All bargaining is blocked and all one is left with is the legitimating ritual of elections that express the dominance of the regime.

No voice = no bargaining.

No bargaining = no effective citizenship.

No effective citizenship = no democracy.

We are in the midst of a pervasive campaign to deny citizens their voices. People are afraid of getting sacked if they say the wrong thing. This fear of losing one’s job is a form of job terror. It is a profound denial of your status as a citizen and of your ability to be an active citizen.

If you can control what people feel able to say, you can control the public spaces, and even private spaces. You stop the ability of people to express their concerns, to find and cohere with other people who share their concerns.

Such conformity, enforced by Twitter mobs, and other social media pile-ons, seeks to replace citizenship with social dominance by mobilised conformity.

The public rage by so many progressive voices at the Brexit vote in Britain, or the election of Donald Trump in the US, is the rage of frustrated social dominance.

The logical next step, of course, is attempt to block the ability to vote the “wrong” way. For votes “in error” have no rights either. But blocking the ability to express concerns is more easily managed. Online media can and is used to block online access by those deemed not to possess the status to speak.

The apologists for political correctness claim it was just about being kind to people when you speak. Just as the apologists for wokeness say it is about protecting the vulnerable.

Except, in both case, it is the PC and the woke who get to define what counts as kind, what counts as protecting the vulnerable, and who counts as vulnerable, who counts as people to be kind to.

The entire approach, in whatever form, harnesses the wish not to hurt others, the care/harm moral foundation, as a mechanism of social dominance by enforcing the boundaries of what counts as care/harm and when.

All of it, even the it-would-be-nice-if-everyone-was-nice-version, is an attack on citizenship.

No social reform worth having was built on just being nice, on not offending. Which is why the wielders of PC and wokeness reserve the right to be shreikingly offensive to anyone they disagree with.

Other citizens have the right to tell fellow citizens when they are being an obnoxious jerk. Even when they are being a stupid obnoxious jerk. (Lots of people on all sides of politics can be amazingly obnoxious jerks.)

A right to speak is not the demand to be agreed with. That is what the enemies of citizenship push.

It is the denial of the legitimacy to speak that is the attack on citizenship. It is the claim to set the boundaries of legitimate discourse, of legitimate talk, which is the play for social dominance.

It is an attack on citizenship because it is an attack on the status to speak. Not the status to be agreed with, or not to be criticised, but the status to speak.

The new taboo-and-dominance Brahmins
In his very revealing assembly of data (pdf) on postwar elections in the US, the UK and France, French economist Thomas Piketty writes about modern politics having become a contest between the Brahmin Left and the Merchant Right.

The term Brahmin Left is brilliant, because what did the original Brahmins do? They organised rituals, systems of taboos and they sought to grant and deny legitimacy. What interactions were legitimate, what were not. What foods were legitimate for whom to eat, or not, and when. And so on.

This, in new forms, is exactly what the modern Brahmin Left, the Brahmin progressives do. They seek to grant and deny legitimacy. To say what concerns are legitimate to express and what are not and how they it is legitimate to express them and how it is not.

That is why modern political talk has become so full of -phobe and -ist terms. It is all about granting and denying legitimacy under the guise (above all to themselves) of protecting the vulnerable.

It is an attack on citizenship, on denying the status to speak to anyone who dissents in what they say or how they say it. On maximising the level of vulnerability of anyone who dissents.

The social justice Great Awokening is not a fight for social justice. That is just a legitimating story they tell to themselves and that they present to us, and themselves, as an approved public narrative.

We can tell it is not a fight for social justice by all the things the shrieking modern Brahmins ignore, downplay or obfuscate.

Such as the surge in homicides in African-American urban communities that followed the 2014 Ferguson riots, the surge in anti-police activism and the surge in highly selective media coverage over which deaths by violence get covered and how and which do not.

Or the failing to notice, the failing to get outraged over, the serial rape and sexual exploitation of thousands of underage girls in Britain, the Netherlands and Finland by overwhelmingly Muslim gangs, and the priority given to discourse management to avoid noticing that they are overwhelmingly Muslim gangs.

Or that we are supposed to believe in white supremacy when people with low melanin counts have become just about the only racialised group one can safely denigrate. Or in the pervasiveness of patriarchy when men have become the only sex one can safely denigrate.

The social justice steamroller is a fight for social dominance, and it is a fight for social dominance that represents, and requires, a profound attack on citizenship.

It is by the language of citizenship, and the defence of citizenship, of the status to speak, to express concerns as citizens and to, bargain over them, that an effective counter-attack against the self-righteous drive for social dominance using the guise of social justice must be mobilised.

* Political correctness is communist propaganda writ small. In my study of communist societies, I came to the conclusion that the purpose of communist propaganda was not to persuade or convince, not to inform, but to humiliate; and therefore, the less it corresponded to reality the better. When people are forced to remain silent when they are being told the most obvious lies, or even worse when they are forced to repeat the lies themselves, they lose once and for all their sense of probity. To assent to obvious lies is in some small way to become evil oneself. One's standing to resist anything is thus eroded, and even destroyed. A society of emasculated liars is easy to control. I think if you examine political correctness, it has the same effect and is intended to. Theodore Dalrymple.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

The toll in black lives is why the BLM movement is not worthy of anyone’s respect

African-Americans are 2.5 times more likely to be poor than Euro-Americans. African-American males are more than twice as likely to be shot (not necessarily fatally) (pdf) by police than Euro-American males and perhaps 3.5 times more likely to be unarmed and killed by police. Are these results because the colour of their skin or because of the consequences of poverty?

There is no difference between the male rate of death by homicide between Euro-Americans and African-Americans in rural US (pdf). The more urbanised the locality, the greater the disparity in their homicide rates. Is that because of their skin colour, or because of social dynamics in different types of localities?

Obviously, when it comes to death by homicide, locality counts far more than ancestry.

The shooting of Michael Brown, and the riots that followed, in Ferguson in 2014 led to a massive increase in anti-police activism and police pulling back from urban African-American communities. What were the consequences of that?

Source: CDC Leading Cause of Death reports.

Source: Health US 2017, Data Finder, Table 29.

The consequences were thousands of extra deaths, extra violent deaths, as African-American males killed each other in increased numbers. Those lost black lives were many, many times greater than the number of African-Americans killed by police. Especially they were many, many times greater than the number of unarmed African-Americans killed by police.

Is there a problem with police violence in the US? Absolutely, and it affects people, particularly poor people, of all ancestries. It also varies enormously by region, far more than by ancestry of the person killed (or of the police who killed). The way to tackle it is to build a coalition of citizens to have better trained, more accountable police.

For every egregious case of an unarmed African-American man killed by police there is an equivalent case of an unarmed Euro-American man killed by police. The problem is with police procedures, police training, and police accountability.

To turn it into a problem of race is to turn these issues into a posturing falsity, a matter for performative outrage not remotely based on the truth. Effective solution can only come from working what is the case, not posturing falsehoods about what is going on.

Urban African-Americans have reason to be angry with police forces that fail to protect and serve them. The real police failing is all those unsolved homicides (pdf) in those urban localities which lead to more (pdf) homicides. But that is a failure of police to effectively connect with those communities. To have enough detectives, enough forensic services, enough police who know the local area.

The police are not the great danger. The lack of effective policing is what costs thousands of black lives every year.

It is precisely because black lives matter that the BLM movement is not worthy of our respect. For what they do is not based on taking the violent deaths of thousands of African-American males in the cities of the US seriously.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

The World's Taiwan Problem

The current pandemic has somewhat elevated Taiwan's standing on the world stage, as it was both early in warning of the dangers of what became the Covid-19 pandemic and remarkably effective in dealing with it. The latter apparently because of previous experience with SARS, having good information flows from China and pervasively not trusting the Beijing regime. Having a Vice President and former Minister of Health who was a epidemiologist probably also helped.

The New Zealand Foreign Minister, Winston Peters, has suggested that perhaps Taiwan should join the WHO, given its excellent performance in dealing with Covid-19 and (it turned out) accurate early warning. The Beijing regime has responded in what is increasingly familiar style, that New Zealand should "stop making wrong statements". The Beijing regime had previously threatened Australia's trade with China when Morrison Government ministers suggested an open enquiry into the origins of the virus was a good idea. Threats that have been at least partly followed through with. Revealingly, it has done so despite itself ending up voting for such an enquiry at the World Health Assembly.

The Beijing regime's long-term strategic policy is to, in effect, re-establish an updated version of the longstanding Zhongguo (Central State aka Middle Kingdom), tributary systems. In the various iterations of this system, the ruling regime in China is acknowledged to be of the highest status, the Chinese realm is the central realm, and all other regimes and realms are of lesser status and defer to the Chinese regime and realm. Trade operates within a framing that confirms and upholds this formal hierarchy.

Australia and New Zealand are each being admonished, and Australia punished, for failing to conform their proper place as tributary trade partners in such a structure. A structure that is, of course, very much under construction. But these rather remarkable diplomatic performances by the Beijing regime and its representatives are part of building such a structure. 

The Belt-and-Road initiative is the infrastructure arm of this long-term strategic aim. 

The existential shock of Soviet collapse
The Beijing regime's self-maintenance is deeply tied in with this strategic policy. The collapse of the Soviet Union was the existential shock for the Beijing regime. Its entire domestic and foreign policy is built around avoiding a similar outcome. The sought dominance within (Afro-)Eurasia both displays the vigour of the regime and will allow it to quash any embarrassing or threatening external pressure or example.

In effect, the Beijing regime's policy is that the US can have the Americas, China will be the hegemon everywhere else, the hegemon of Afro-Eurasia. Of course, in a globalised world, how unthreatening open and democratic states in the Americas would be long term is an interesting question. But that is more where the long-term logic of the Beijing regime's strategy of self-maintenance might lead, not a matter of its existing strategic aims. 

These strategic aims also entail that the US give up its alliance structure outside the Americas. Something of a sticking point, perhaps.

Taiwan as contradiction
But there is a much more direct sticking point. Taiwan. The entire logic of the Beijing regime's self-maintenance strategy, and wider strategic aims, entail the actual (rather than merely notional) incorporation of Taiwan within the control of the Beijing regime. Since it is clear that this is not going to happen voluntarily, the entire logic the Beijing regime's self-maintenance strategy, and wider strategic aims, entail (at some point) attacking and conquering Taiwan.

The People's Republic has a history of border wars. With the Soviet Union, with India, with Vietnam.  One could perhaps put its intervention in the Korean War in the same pattern. A history that includes incorporating "historical" China by force, with the conquest of Tibet following a border conflict.

If you do not understand that, whatever your view of proper policy towards "China" (i.e. the Beijing regime) is, it involves taking a view on the proper response to the overwhelming likelihood of the Beijing regime attempting, sooner or later, to militarily conquer Taiwan, you are deluding yourself.

There are two circumstances likely to trigger such an attempt. First, the Beijing regime perceives itself to be in some imminent or chronic existential crisis and uses some event to trigger the attack, rallying nationalist sentiment behind it. This is the Danubian monarchy attacking Serbia in July-August 1914 scenario, except with added coherent nationalism.

Second, the Beijing regime is sufficiently confident in its strength, and ability to face down the US, that it uses some event (perhaps manufactured) to trigger the attack as a way of firmly establishing its hegemonic position and unravel the US alliance system.

Either way, the logic of the Beijing regime's self-maintenance and strategic framework is that such an attack will happen sooner or later. (If the Beijing regime does not collapse first: not a likely scenario, it currently has, despite similar signs of institutional sclerosis in its politics, nothing like the stress points the Soviet Union had in the mid 1980s, not least because its economic growth prospects are so much better.)

Those who think strategic thinking is just some silly, dangerous game, and everything is ultimately driven by economics, are the most common adherents to the path of "what, we worry?" self-delusion. In 1914, Britain and Hohenzollern Germany, aka the Second Reich, had far more in common and were far more economically, socially, culturally and familiarly intertwined, than the US and the People's Republic currently are. How did that work out for them? 

Folk in the US, insulated by two huge oceans from any other potentially threatening states, may deem Taiwan to be dispensable. It is, after all, still formally part of China.

Actually, that is not correct. There are two states who both claim to be the legitimate state of China who both agree that Taiwan is part of that state but do not agree that they are members of the same state. Taiwan is not, and has never been, part of the People's Republic, and has armed forces to defend and maintain that not-being-part-of.

A vibrant democracy off the coast of Asia
Apart from that, abandoning Taiwan means tossing away a vibrant and successful democracy, Taiwan is, in practice, part of the US alliance structure and seen to be such. Abandonment of Taiwan could easily unravel much of the US alliance structure, especially in Asia. Both because of the example to other allies and because of the geographic shift in Chinese power projection involved. 

As a citizen of a vibrant and successful democracy of over 20 million people on a large island(s) off the coast of Asia, I am in favour of defending Taiwanese democracy. 

The logic of the self-maintenance and strategic aims of the Beijing regime entail the unravelling of the US alliance structure and the conquest of Taiwan. That the latter would likely be a huge step to the former raises the risks, but also the opportunities, from the military conquest of Taiwan. (And to not see such as being "territorially expansionary" is engaging in contemptible word games.)

Military conquest of Taiwan is inherent in the strategic aims of the Beijing regime, given that voluntary incorporation of Taiwan in a state (the People's Republic) that it has never been part of, is unlikely. No amount of economic entanglement or interchange with the US specifically, or the rest of the world in general, is going to change that. Especially as most of such entanglement strengthens the Beijing regime, by giving it more economic growth to play with and more people and institutions with incentives to defer to it. 

The Soviet case
It was not economic entanglement or interchange that brought down the Soviet Union. It was institutional sclerosis combined with increasing economic stagnation.

Gorbachev had to spend so much to pay off institutional interests that blocked much of his economic reforms (reforms very much driven by the example of China) that he was forced to use glasnost as a weapon to achieve perestroika. Given the constraints Gorbachev faced on taxing, cutting spending or borrowing, the yawning budget deficit had to be paid by printing money at accelerating levels in an economy where prices could not respond, so people stopped producing for the formal (taxable) economy. With the resulting economic and fiscal collapse, there were no levers left for the Soviet government, the military having been discredited by the attempted coup, and the constituent Republics simply left.

Part of Gorbachev's problems was that his economic reforms did not work as intended. Likely because people misunderstood the Chinese economic reform process. It was not a top-down process, but a bottom-up process with things that worked in one locality being tried out elsewhere, which meant that discovery processes were built into it. Something that is much less a feature of top-down reforms.

Beijing's dilemmas
The Gorbachev scenario is not the situation that confronts the Beijing regime. It got its economic reforms without needing to politically open up. On the contrary, it uses economic growth as a regime-supporting strategy and technological advance to improve its mechanisms of control. Yes, it is clear that the Chinese Communist Party has an increasing internal institutional sclerosis problem, as can be seen by the continuing high level of capital wastage.

President Xi puts himself forward as the indispensable manager and spokesperson of those institutional interests. But such institutional defence feeds the aim of self-maintenance through Afro-Eurasian hegemony, through the creation of a new tributary system that establishes Xi and the regime as the dominant centre surrounded by layers of protective insulation. 

A functionally independent democratic and successful Taiwan is an affront to the claims, to the pretensions and to the survival dynamics of the regime.

Hence the world's Taiwan problem. The logic of the regime's outlook on the world makes a military attempt to conquer Taiwan close to inevitable, the longer the regime persists. One can accept such a military incorporation or seek to frustrate it but, either way, the only coherent positions regarding "China" have to be based on taking one or the other position. Failing to think that through will just mean sleepwalking into the crisis when it comes, though plenty of the great and good seem to be adopting precisely such attitudes.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Pandemic epistemology: discovery, feedback, ideological pomposity and banana peels.

I was going to forbear from posting on the Covid-19 pandemic, but this post by Arnold Kling prompted some more general observations about social dynamics.

He refers to a podcast by biologists Heather Heying and Bret Weinstein where they, in his words: 
... cite instances in which odd corners of the Internet are outperforming mainstream science and mainstream journalism. This comes through most in the last few minutes of [t]he podcast.
Those most against federalism or free speech (and there tends to be overlap in antipathy to each) tend to systematically under-rate the importance of discovery processes. This includes under-rating the dispersed nature of effective discovery processes. 

People are not all one thing. Someone can be batshit crazy in one area of life (a colloquialism with a bit more bite nowadays) and incredibly perceptive in another.  Sir Isaac Newton was deeply interested in alchemy and the weirder end of biblical exegesis. This does not stop him being a source of amazing breakthroughs in physics and mathematics (and, for that matter, coin production). 

Not only does one not preclude the other--being so wrong about X does not preclude being highly perceptive about Y--being willing to consider wild and wacky possibilities may actually help one be brilliantly creative, provided there is the requisite attention to evidence and careful reasoning (or whatever effectiveness constraints operate in the relevant domain). 

The discovery value of gentiles
So, those alienated from the mainstream whatever, for good or bad reasons, may well be more inclined to pick up things that the mainstream is blind to or weak on. In his excellent Nobel memorial lecture (seriously, if you haven't watched it, you really, really should) on how to do social science, Paul Krugman talks about the importance of "talking to the gentiles". Yes. (See also his essay here.)

Which is why the current penchant for identifying the gentiles, the "evil" infidels, and driving them out of public spaces is so dangerous. Our global civilisation is in utterly uncharted waters for our species and the last thing we need to be doing is seriously damaging our discovery processes, which is precisely what this penchant for cancelling the heretics does. Such burn-the-witch hunts are patently prestige-and-dominance plays but they are profoundly dangerous and destructive prestige-and-dominance plays. 

As an aside, I very highly recommend the online lectures available via the Center for Academic Research and Training in Anthropogeny (CARTA) at the University of California. Top scholars in the various fields germane to the study of our origins as a species lecturing to other scholars as cross-disciplinary exercises (so easily followable by a lay audience, because very discipline is a lay audience to other scholarly disciplines). It is fascinating, and profoundly informative. 

Problems with models
Arnold Kling also observes that:
... I bristle when someone says that based on a computer simulation, a certain policy for dealing with the virus can save X lives. I presume that there are some key causal assumptions that produce the results, and I want to know what those assumptions are and how they relate to what we know and don’t know about the virus.
The most widely-used models don’t differentiate the population by age. Blinded by these models, policy makers focus excessively on maintaining hospital capacity and inadequately on protecting the elderly.
We tend to selectively over-rate models. That their assumptions are often opaque helps with this process and can make their use rather too close to using maths and computing to replicate what previous ages did with sheep entrails.

Models in themselves are very weak discovery processes, as they discover the implications of the assumptions of the model, not reality. They have their uses, in working out what our assumptions imply and making our thinking more systematic. Alas, it is very easy to see them as doing something in themselves, without the testing against reality. Genuine discovery power always comes from exploring reality, which models do when they are tested against reality. If used for that, models can be profoundly useful, by forcing us to be consistent and systematic in our thinking. (Krugman discusses the importance of models for clear thinking in this essay.)

[A nice discussion of the performance of the Imperial College and University of Washington models is here.]

We know a lot more about the Covid-19 virus in late April than we did in late January. It is perfectly reasonable  to question whether decisions made early in the pandemic are still valid given what we now know. Particularly, how well the models used in those decisions have stood the test of reality. Unfortunately, there are all sorts of status considerations now built into those decisions, which may well be inhibiting effective use of the expanded knowledge. 

Having good feedback is vital to systems functioning properly. It is likely that much of the chronic health problems advanced societies are increasingly prone to are due to people developing  damaged or suppressed feedback regarding what we eat and drink. Aided and abetted by damaged, suppressed or pathological feedback systems in the provision of health and nutritional information. 

Feedback and incentives are deeply intertwined in human systems. Here is a question to think about: do the revenues of Western health departments go up if we get sicker or healthier? What incentives does that create? Then ask yourself if the answer to those questions, and considering what incentives health departments face, what the actual feedback systems they operate within are, affects how we might think about the response of those same health departments to the current pandemic. Such as what we did, and did not, have stockpiles of. Remembering that in most Western countries, health departments have (much) bigger budgets than defence departments.

Addiction to conflict narratives
The mainstream media sees itself as our central, and indispensable, information system. How well does it perform at that, really? Is mainstream media not somewhat addicted to conflict narratives, as they provide easy and "exciting" framings to present "news"? What does that do to the the signal-to-noise ratio in mainstream news?

Consider two doctors who own and run various clinics in California talking about their experience of* [now available here] the pandemic and what they, as relevant experts, glean from the available data and talking to their colleagues. This is a discovery briefing. The journalists the doctors are briefing, however, are not in discovery mode, as is revealed by the tone and content of their questions. They are in identifying-conflict mode. Discovery is messy, identifying conflict simplifies and excites. They don't want messy discovery, they want simple, exciting conflict.

[ADDENDA: *YouTube took down the video of two doctors briefing journalists and reporters about their clinical experience of Covid-19. There is an obvious irony for such a link in an essay on feedback and discovery.]

Moreover, it is a very easy shift to go from being addicted to conflict narratives to moralising about (and then within) those conflict narratives. It is very easy to turn conflict narratives into goodies-versus-baddies stories, with the journalists and reporters both identifying "the goodies", and identifying with and as "goodies". They then become part of the conflict narratives themselves, and the signal-to-noise ratio gets way worse.

There is a reason why public trust in the media has become so disastrously varied. The Donald's approval rates as US President were rather poor and are now consistently mediocre, in accordance with my view that he is demonstrably an electorally weak candidate. (He seems rather obviously personally high in (dis)agreeability; a wildly unusual characteristic for a senior elected political figure, though rather more common among those highly effective in other spheres of life.) And a disagreeable President makes an unusually potent figure in conflict narratives. Even more so in moralised conflict narratives. The noise-to-signal ratio in mainstream media coverage of The Donald's Presidency has rarely been less than toxically high.

Shifting to US public opinion of the media, the standing of the media as a source of news is relatively good among Democrat voters, poor among independent voters and abysmal among Republican voters. In terms of operation as a shared feedback system, this is a disastrous pattern. Not only is the mainstream media not trusted by large parts of the US populace, but the mainstream media are so often patently participants in their adopted goodies-versus-baddies conflict narratives, which actively encourages them to be generators of more noise and less signal. To be actively hostile to the processes of discovery -- seeking to block information which undermines the goodie-v-baddie narrative they have inserted themselves into while elevating information that feeds it -- against more careful considerations of significance and accuracy. 

Ben Goldacre's book Bad Science provides depressing chapter and verse on how very bad the media can be in reporting science, just from problems of not understanding science and statistics, limitations in human cognitive patterns, and the media's addiction to conflict and 'ghee whiz' narratives. Indeed, the media tend to be particularly bad on nutrition as that combines (1) obvious public interest, (2) deeply vested corporate and other interests, (3) the benefits of publicity for scam artists, along with all the above problems that reporting on science already has.  

The media's self-insertion into goodie-versus-baddie conflict narratives, and already poor performance in science reporting, is not a good pattern in general, and particularly not in a heavily science relevant matter such as a global pandemic. 

Discovery and feedback
Discovery and feedback systems matter. Both in response to short term events and in long term prospects for our civilisation and our species. Does this help or hinder discovery processes?, help or hinder effective feedback systems?, are good questions. And if you are not even asking the questions, that is a problem. Indeed, there is an excellent likelihood you are part of the problem.

If you are asking and answering the questions in terms of a goodies-versus-baddies narrative, you are probably not really asking the questions and are very likely to be part of the problem. As Bret Weinstein observes (at 23minutes), utopianism (which tends to be a goodie-versus-baddie narrative set to a maximum) is perhaps the most disastrous idea Homo sapiens have ever had precisely because it is so intrinsically hostile to discovery and feedback. This is a result of absolutely prioritising a single value (for, as he says, that then creates "incredibly large costs for every other value") and because they "tend to imagine they know what the future state should look like", short-circuiting (indeed, typically blocking) open discovery processes. This combination is compatible with ruthless selection for what works for seizing and monopolising power and disastrous selection in who gains power and how they use it. As a series of tyrannies, and millions of corpses, demonstrate.

The Hurley model of humour says that humour comes out of our cognitive error identification mechanisms. This is why ideologues are so often humourless--they are unable to accept the possibility of error. (Cue that great definition of a fanatic--a person who can't change his mind and won't change the subject.) Extremists have a crippled epistemology that blocks discovery and feedback.

Ideologies tend to be pompous, they inflate themselves beyond the possibility of error, particularly errors of significance. They are the cognitive equivalent of the pompous fat man unable to see the possibility of the banana peel. The slipping-on-a-banana peel joke works so much better if the pompous man is fat because he is less likely to see the banana peel, his pomposity takes up more space, and he is more likely to bounce (boing, boing, boing ...).

Admit it, you laughed.

It was better if he was a man, because when the trope was established, male pomposity had further to fall. And if your reaction is to point-and-shriek "fat shaming!" un-ironically, you just outed yourself as a humourless ideologue.

The more morally grand one's vision of what one is about, the more entitled one can feel to suppress the views of those who disagree. (Herbert Marcuse's iconic essay on repressive tolerance rests on belief that some group reliably has such knowledge.) But such suppression automatically involve suppressing any discovery that might thereby be revealed. One's sense of moral conviction, precisely because it is so emotionally powerful and because moral concerns have inherent trumping value over other concerns, can be a profound barrier to discovery and to effective feedback.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Making sense of the Arab explosion

Pastoralist peoples exploding out of the their lands and conquering farming peoples is a recurring feature of human history.

Likely expansion of the Indo-Europeans
The Indo-Europeans did so with great historical consequences, expanding into Europe, the Iranian plateau and North India. They were the first of a recurring waves of steppe conquerors: Huns, Turks, and Mongols most famously. The Maghreb also generated at least two waves of Berber conquest across the Maghreb and into Spain.

The Arabian Peninsula produced the most startling, and also profoundly historically momentous, such wave of pastoralist conquest, the conquests of 632-750. But it did this only once. Only once was the Arabian peninsula the source of a major wave of conquest.

And the traditional story of how this happened, which is the Muslim traditional narrative, makes remarkably little sense. A story whose surviving textual sources start two centuries after the stated death of Muhammad in 632.

Mecca is an enormously implausible starting point. There is a dramatic paucity (pdf) of historical references to Mecca. (For the problems of the historicity of Mecca, see herehereherehere and here.) It is a small settlement with a single well and no agricultural hinterland, that was not on any major trade route and well away from any imperial frontier.

Yathrib (Medina) is a bit better, but not much. It is larger, has an agricultural hinterland and is on a trade route. But is still too far away from the relevant frontiers and has no history of major political organisation. The Hejaz generally, particularly the section that Medina and Mecca are in, makes little sense as a breakout centre as there is simply not enough there. The most recent waves of conquest in the Arabian Peninsula, those of the al-Saud, go towards the Hejaz, not away from it.

Building a new history out of contemporary sources
This lecture by Peter von Sivers on the interactions between Christian theological controversies and struggles with what was happening with the Arabs in Northern Arabia, creates a hugely more plausible context. The action moves to the frontiers with the Roman ("Byzantine") Empire and Sassanian Empire. Both Empires had had Arab buffer-client states (Ghassanids and Lakhimids) that had been either much reduced or effectively eliminated by their Imperial sponsors by the start of the last and greatest of the Roman-Sassanid Wars, which lasted from 602 to 628. A decades-long struggle that exhausted both empires and left the Sassanian Empire mired in civil war and instability but the Arabs largely unaffected.

The unification of these former buffer states--areas used to significant political organisation and familiar with the practices, strengths and weaknesses of the exhausted Imperiums--into a single Arab kingdom provides a far more plausible basis for the Arab breakout.

Tom Holland's discussion of the broader similarities between the processes on the borders that saw the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the C5th with the Arab conquest of over half the Eastern Empire in the C7th fits nicely into this picture.

As does Dan Gibson's argument that Petra is the origin city, not Mecca. As indicated by the fact that the Qibla (direction of prayer wall) of all the original mosques point to Petra, not Mecca. (Of course, a self-published scholar does not have the same cachet.)

Nevertheless, Petra (a major trade and religious centre) is in the right place, has the right history and fits the descriptions of the city of the Prophet's birth.

That the Umayyads choose Damascus as their capital, and their successors, the Abbasids, built Baghdad as theirs, also emphasise the far greater strategic importance and value of Northern Arabia.

If we add in Prof. Fred Donner's lecture on trying to contextualise (i.e. assemble a history based on contemporary evidence) early Islam, we also get a picture compatible with what von Sivers and Holland are arguing (and, for that matter, Dan Gibson). Islam becomes a religion assembled out of the needs of imperial control to justify, first the Arabs as a ruling people, and then the Abbasids  ruling as a Muslim dynasty.

A process started by the Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan (r.644-705) who builds the original Dome of the Rock in 691-2, which contains the earliest Quran verses and the first explicit reference to Muhammad.

The written-down two centuries later, hundreds of miles away, traditional story of the origins of Islam and the Islamic conquests makes remarkably little historical sense. But we seem to be groping towards a picture, based on contemporary evidence, that makes a lot more sense.

It still leaves the Arab breakout and its consequences as a most extraordinary eruption into history. But not a nonsensical one.

[Cross posted at Skepticlawyer.]