How crushed is the political “left”?

In a truly lovely recent interview with singer Nellie McKay on the Jimmy Dore Show, McKay does a great job of telling it “how it is” on the political left in the USA these days. Completely crushed by corporate interests one could say. But is that really true?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_C9NK6CXoYQ
This clip is well worth watching over lunch, McKay is adorable but also not shy in expressing her politics which includes disdain for Bernie Sanders who she regards as having corrupted and militaristic foreign policy ideas.

McKay’s modernized cover of “Whoopee we’re all gonna die” is awesome. (Though I would not applaud her performance it’s too sobering for applause but the thing is, she puts a smile on your face. Not many artists writing and singing about the horror and lunacy of war can do that.)

Nellie McKay singing "Fixin to Die"
McKay performing “Fixin’ to Die”.

Having thus glowingly approved of McKay, I will take issue with one throw-away comment she made. She let slip to Jimmy “the genuine left has been crushed”. That’s an understandable sentiment… if you mistakenly regard “left” as “US Democratic Party” and “independent mainstream news media” and enlightened educations and enlightened economics. Yes those have all be severely crushed.

But has the “genuine left has been crushed”? It’s not true but I know what she means.

There is zero representation of a genuine “left” in either of the USA Houses for instance, and virtually zero left opinion in mainstream cable news outlets (compared to right wing and centrist conservatism masquerading as “liberal left”). But at the grass roots leftist thinking and activism is rife.

Consider that the only significant right wing protest group in decades has been the Tea Party, and they are a pathetic lot, full of venom and hate and miserly misanthropic policies, which means they are not truly sustaining for a political moment. Compare that to Occupy and Our Revolution and Justice Democrats and the Zeitgeist Movement and dozens of others, seriously more than dozens of other small grass roots leftist movements, and then you will see there is just no comparison: the left is thousands of times more energetic and active than the right.

Older folks don’t “see” this because corporations still control the media and advertising domains, but younger kids who do not watch TV and who get long opinion pieces and lectures on blogs, YouTube and increasingly more on Steemit or DTube and other “free media” can see it. The trouble is where it matters, in legislatures and in academia and news media, the “centrist right” propagandists have won the battles… for now. But theirs is not a sustainable victory.

Once the propaganda fog is cleared people never go back, so it is a one-way ratchet effect when truth is spread and so, over time, perhaps within decades, the tired old conservatism and right wing corporate brand of politics (which includes the current establishment wing of the US Democratic Party and UK Labour Party) will inevitably fade into obscurity. Any half decent sociologist could see this if they correctly interpret the data on social movement activism. The alt-right/Trumpists-extremists get perhaps 100 times more coverage in mainstream media than would objectively be “deserved” by their numbers and the proportion of sentiment that they share with the average citizen. Remarkably even mainstream media polling shows this!  So the alt-right resurgence and Trumpism circus phenomenon are short lived flashes of dying embers of capital realism.

A lot of people I am listening to on alt/independent social media are echoing this; there is a rapidly growing realisation that free market capitalism is not inevitable and is not the Fukuyamaesque end-of-history and that there is plenty more life in political economy ideas that have not been tried yet and have not been adequately synergised. e.g., a synergy of working class financial equality pressure has not been adequately united yet with the good aspects of liberalism and environmentalism. And the idea of capitalist realism is becoming to be seen as a fraudulent paranoiac idea, a complete myth.  And while “globalization” still reeks of the stench and exploitive-rape mindset of neoliberalism there is no good unification of enlightened political economy with international good will yet either.  So in short, a heck of a lot of room exists for evolution and growth and maturation in leftist politics.  The fruition of this, I believe, in the very far future, will be a complete abandonment of the notions of political “left vs right”.

The spark of truth emerges not from ideology clashing with ideology but rather with people interacting and discussing ideas and generating true intellectual foment not artificial ideologically lined up barrages. Truth also emerges from sustained action.  Debates in echo chambers of the left will not suffice to breath new life into leftist politics.

One reason I always have hope is that a corruption of morality is never sustainable.  And that is why although capitalist realism may have once seemed invincible, it need not be held as a drug of nihilism any longer, because it was founded upon immoral principles like supremacy of free market forces and dogma’s about the inevitability of inequality and unemployment.

By the end of the 21’st century I would suspect environmental and social ethics in politics and economics will have completely replaced the artificial notions of political left and political right. We just will not need those categories because the problems humanity and the Earth will face will not be left or right issues they will be humanitarian and universal ethical and moral issues.

The intermediate problem is in educating good people to see this. If the left wing in politics persists in sloppy liberalist thinking, in thinking there are no moral absolutes and everything is culturally relative, then the necessary universal virtues that humanity needs to overcome established political doctrines will not gather enough social impetus until perhaps it is too late and humanity becomes submerged under global poverty due to successive financial and environmental crises.

Note that I am not talking about “the west” imposing It’s judeo-christian spiritual values on society, no no no!  The universal ethic and morals I am talking about utterly transcend cultural boundaries, they are found in common in Hindu texts, Buddhist texts, Judeo-Christian-Islamic texts and in secular atheist philosophy too, and even the “new religiosity” of cyber-scientism. Wherever you seek moral and spiritual universals, all these different systems of thought on morality and ethics converge and they converge quite remarkably and consistently almost “mathematically”(?) This is all abundantly clear if you bother to do any deep critical reading in religion and philosophy. (For example, I was reading through the Buddhist Sutta Pitaka and Dammapada the other day and was struck by an amazingly high correlation in general philosophical principles with both Baha’i and Islamic texts, and even high overlap with the more abstract less melodramatic and less “biblical literalist” Christian and Talmudic and Vedic texts.)

It is  useless going to the current priesthood authorities to learn of these commonalities, because their vested interest is in forging the greatest possible disparity and division among the world’s religions and secular philosophies. They are the ones who crave to preserve power. The original teachings have no such elements anywhere — just read them — they never advocate investing power and authority in the clergy or priesthood.

All these “systems of thought” can be cynically viewed through the memetic lens of “systems of power and control” and there is much merit to having such a cynical lens (we would not be in good shape without such cynicism) but that is clearly not what the original founding teachings suggest.  There is no power and control system in the original texts. That authoritarian power and control appropriation of religion is an externally derived phenomenon similar to how capitalist bankers and financiers have corrupted the otherwise value-neutral monetary system of economics. The money idea, the idea of using a simple cost-free medium of trade and exchange, is not evil. What is evil is what ruthless psychopaths in financial institutions have done with the facility of money.  Of course precisely because money has become corrupted it is well worth at least considering alternatives, such as how to develop efficient economies without money.  Since money is so easily corrupted, perhaps it just isn’t a good idea any longer, at least not until humanity as a whole matures.  (I realise the irony there — a more mature collective human society would then not need money.  Once we learn to cope without money, we will never need it back again.)

But back to current politics and chances for an overthrow of the established orders and a de-crushing of “the left”.

Human civilization is too complicated for anyone to have prophetic powers about these things, but I am suggesting a fairly sober and conservative analysis that draws on historical trends and data on social movements.  Although Steven Pinker’s politics are embarrassingly naïve, his data collections in “Better Angels of Our Nature” are solidly sourced and in his database you can see the trends I am alluding to.  Go read his work. You do not have to buy-in to Pinker’s neo-capitalist politics to appreciate the value in the data he has collected on how human civilization is becoming progressively more peaceful and virtuous.

The thing is “civilizations” do not become more virtuous, people become more virtuous.

So all the data is evidence that people are becoming more peaceful and spiritually mindful.  It is a positive type of invisible force, a psychological force of good will and joy born from the fruits of cooperation and compassion.   People are naturally drawn towards such good peaceful ideas because they are safe they invite playfulness, they always come with the promise of greater joy an happiness.  These positive social forces exists in our times alongside a parallel destructive set of forces that seek to maintain the current socio-economic order of powerful wealthy and disenfranchised poor. The former positive forces are profoundly non-darwinian because they spread through recognition of interest in helping “the other” whereas the prevailing negative forces that are in decline and causing their own self-destruction in ironically, an accelerating darwinist fashion, are ruthlessly darwinian.  The non-darwinian positive social forces are destined to win I think, no matter what the present conditions, because they do not plant the seeds of their own destruction, they use positive feedback loops not negative feedbacks.

Remember you likely do not believe this hopeful positive aspect exists because you are watching too much right wing corporate media. Get out into the world talk to your neighbours, and you will see Pinker’s data is actually quite conservative. (If you live in one of those luxury “gated communities” then I suggest you will probably not find good thinking within you network of closest neighbours, you will probably just find a lot of fear and militarism and hatred and disgust for the plight of the poor, not sympathy you need to go outside a bit further!) People might be very angry and frustrated with modern capitalism but beyond their anger is a wellspring of human spiritual resource that can be harnessed for peace and true prosperity for all.

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To Forgive Debt? or to Redefine the Parameters of Political Economy?

In the show “TMBS – 42 – The Color Of Money ft. Mehrsa Baradaran & Felix Biederman”
Biederman talks to Michael Brooks about the massive credit being extended to African nations, both fuelling their economies and increasing their indebtedness.
TMBS_with_Felix_Beiderman_2018-05
I have a slightly different take on the issues raised by debt, and not just by third world debt, but debt everywhere. It involves a set of ideas that are perhaps not socially acceptable these days in the sphere that I like to play within (leftist radical progressive politics and scientific/educational enlightenment), and these are the ideas of spiritual political economy. By “spiritual” I mean abstract values like trust honesty, kindness compassion. mercy, justice, and yes…love. If I was writing a thesis I would need to expand on these what they mean, and how you cannot just take a biological evolutionary psychology theory of spiritual value but you have to dig deeper into the realm of abstraction and how abstract thought intersects with material reality. But I have no space in a blog for this, maybe a later date. I would just say in brief if the political “left” (meant in the broadest sense from centrists to radicals) is to succeed on a fairly grand scale to “right society” without using authoritarian practices mirroring the hard line right wing (by merely replacing corporate tyranny by government tyranny which I see as only different in implementation, not in “evil” kind) then they will have to figure out how socialism unifies with spirituality. If you cannot see where that thesis springs form or leads to, then I just beg your indulgence because it is a rather long thesis for another day.

So on to the debt problems, and the corruption of political economy morality they sustain. Here I want to look at some remedies and not dwell on the obvious injustice and inhumanity of he current global political order

There are saner more humane ways out of the creation of such debt crises. One unethical way out is through the current method of quantitative easing. [If this were an academic article raft I would place a “TODO” here: Need to discuss why this is unethical or inhumane.] But the gist is that QA for banks is completely out of the question, it goes in the wrong direction of social justice and fair wealth redistribution. Although, if bank were by law not-for-profit institutions banking QA would perhaps be acceptable in some cases, because it would indirectly be effectively “peoples quantitative easing” which is the more ethical approach to debt forgiveness. Prof Steve Keen talks a lot about this in his media appearances. The idea is the government erase debt on middle income earners and those without debt get a comparably fair rebate. This way the system does not incentivise people to deliberately put themselves in debt. But such a system only works well if there are further incentives in place that guard against high indebtedness in the first place so that people cannot just arbitrarily borrow because they know QA will rescue them later that is clearly insane. So it requires banks to have fairly strict regulations against issuing unlimited credit with transparent (open) books on all issues of credit and the justification for them which should be open for independent review (people’s identities obviously held anonymous).

But even peoples QA is not entirely ethical. Economists will likely not appreciate this because they never take into account ethics and morality. But my argument is that morality and spiritual values are absolutely central to political economy and most (I might are due all) of the ills in socioeconomics can be traced back to failure to think and act morally. I am not writing about old fashion “christian morality” here no no way! What I mean by this is universal morality the principles and abstract ideals that almost all humans (non-sociopath) accept and try to live by in our better moments. (You can refer to this as normative morality if you like but I think the ideas I am alluding to are not mere social constructs but are universal abstract principles I think of them much the same way as I think about mathematical theorems and proofs — given a faithful translation they would be valid in all possible worlds.)

A more ethical alternative to QA is thus to recognise the ultimate purpose of economic and political development, which is not to create net positive GNP, but rather to create a humane and sustainable good quality standard of living for all people. This is no pipe dream either. Contrary to Malthusian and “Population Bomb” (Paul Ehrlich) prognoses, more measured economic analysis suggests human society at present can sustain a healthy and prosperous standard of living for all humans. The analysis of Hans Rosling shows over-population is an exaggerated crisis, because as families move out of poverty their birth rates drop dramatically, and the well-known population inversion crisis (the opposite of over-population) inevitably follows. Work by Jeffrey Sachs supports this analysis that a good standard of living is possible for everyone born into this world. I would point readers to “The Age of Sustainable Development” (2015) and just say that you can argue against some of the analysis but no fair judgement can possibly refute everything Sachs envisages and holds as possible for the near term revival of social and environmental justice.

Another great and vastly under-rated work which deserves a lot more citations is “Search for a Just Society” by John Huddleston. This is a more spiritually oriented work that goes nicely as a complement to Peter Joseph’s more materialistic “The New Human Rights Movement”.

I want to suggest that in a very long term view, the spiritual solution to economic problems imply that the concept of debt will become obsolete or will radically be redefined, because we, collectively as enlightened individuals and as a fair and just society will simply now and appreciate that debt of any kind is intolerable, and before any family or person is reduced to the derivations and indebtedness, people and support institutions will simply not allow people to sink into debt. but not by any harsh austerity or planned economy rather simply by dynamic social organization and systematic anti-poverty incentive support systems. To be sure, such a system is not all milk and honey and roses, no one who neglects their private and social responsibilities should be arbitrarily forgiven, but the reasons and causes people (or once viable businesses, or even whole nations) sink into debt need open examination and once understood they can be systemically remedied without need for vindictive punishments like austerity. The remedies, like the causes, will largely be spiritual in nature. The fundamental problem to solve is a lovely one to work on for any budding spiritual economists and that is: how to justly and transparently convert spiritual principles into material actions.

We are free to redefine the parameters and purposes of our economies. The traditional focus on GNP is merely that — a tradition. It has a flimsy basis in social justice, and highly dubious basis in economic rationality. And has turned out to be antithetical to social justice. GNP can easily be forced negative under a dictatorial tyranny using moderately benevolent slave labour methods (benevolent we will say in order to avoid sowing seeds of revolt). The same criticism I think, can be applied to all other financial metrics and measures of economic prosperity and “economic health”. these are the wrong measures. They can be likened to recording a patient’s temperature and nothing else.

The reality in the world today is that we are facing unsustainable social injustices, levels of extremes of wealth and poverty that are rising instead of stabilizing, levels of indebtedness that either need not exist or need to be phased out (fossil fuel energy, military expenditures ), and over-production in many markets at the experience of development of sustainable markets (education, green energy, cleaner nuclear energy, democratic workplaces collective security treaties not-for-profit banking). No one in their right mind would seriously value the real productivity of a corporate executive at 300 times the value of a line worker. The market for labour simply does not work, it is an inefficient and unjust system, and people should not tolerate such a system. But to turn intolerance into positive change we need more than rejection of the system at present, we need a clearly definable and believable way to change to go from here to there.

This requires a sea change in economic policy thought, and a practical revolution in government. How can this happen?
In short the only sustainable answers I would suggest are that spiritual values must replace material values in economic incentive and reward. There really is no other ethical alternative because any system of incentives and rewards based on materials is open to corruption, fraud and other abuses. Briefly, a material reward induces behaviour that focuses thought and energy upon the materials, rather than the good of the business. This is exemplified in the extreme in the rise of corporate acquisitions and merger companies whose sole objectives are to buy out foaling companies cheaply, gut the companies for profit and let them collapse. Material rewards also misplace the deep problems with historical injustices. No material compensation alone can lift a deeply historically disadvantaged family out of a poverty trap. The material loss suffered by descendent of salves for example or by women who supported their whole family but who denied access to meaningful work in the past, and coal miners who worked under inhuman conditions without knowing of alternatives or who when striking were brutally suppressed by anti-union corporate interests all such people have suffered material deprivations that no economist can accurately calculate. Sure they need to be materially compensated for the historic injustices but that hardly goes far enough and is not a permanent recompense.

The over-population and population inversion crises can be overcome by simply over-turning ethnic and nationalistic prejudices that are based on race and class. A population inverted nation needs to welcome immigrants from poor countries.

Short note on Banking: bankers do not need profit incentives. Not-for-profit banks will use interest only to pay bank employees decent living wages. Wealthy capitalists and executives should not be allowed to siphon off profits for their own purse, they should be employed by the workers. The sea-change in thinking here is that managers serve workers, not the other way around, but all employees and owners serve the company as a whole, that is, they all serve each other. Varoufakis recommends shares in companies be restricted to employees, and this seems eminently sensible. There are already ways to gain venture capital, but part of venture capital funding should be an active role of the venture capitalist in helping run the company as an equal-share employee not as a dominant share employee. The venture capital is helping to generate products and eventual profit but if the funding is financially sensible then the capital input by the venture capitalist should logicically not exceed the profits produced by the worker labour, so the venture capitalist has no economic right to lay claim to more share interest than the combined shares of the workers. Moreover, once profits pay-of the venture capital then unless that investor continues to work for the company helping to create products, their shares should proportionately be reduced.

I dream of a political economy and deeply spiritual reorientation of society where workers who traditionally would be driven more or less like slaves become the highest rank employees in a corporation. This is the only ethical way to treat such workers. The managers work *for* the line workers not the other way around. If you think this is idealistic nonsense think again such an inversion of power structure works in the real world and is modelled in many for the “free school” movements at a high school level (e.g. Sudbury Valley), where these schools give power to the students the students can choose teachers, the students form committees to oversee discipline and policy, and the teachers and staff are there to guide and advise. And guess what? There is no chaos! It works beautifully. If young adults and teenagers can organise a peaceful and just school environment we adults should be able to better manage our communities and nations.

The Necessary Death of Cultural Studies Departments

Caveat: I am a mathematical physicist who has over the past 25 years grown to see a bit more of the world than can be gleaned from fresh smelling textbooks and reams of computer code. So my only credentials as a commentator on cultural studies are that I am part of human culture. The part cannot grasp the whole but it can reflect some truth I hope I can do so here.

There is little doubt that anyone who has critically read a lot of academic cultural studies and sociology, will agree that while it contains some fraud (as does any academic discipline), no one can deny that plenty of great insights have been gained from academic sociocultural studies and anthropology. Especially fruitful are the fields of overlap where sociology and cultural studies intersect at one extreme with human psychology and at the other extreme with politics and economics.

Anyone who also knows anything worth knowing about political economy knows that the mainstream neoclassical free-market economics system is corrupt and not working, it needs replacing (organically or by revolution, take your pick). But academic neoclassical economics teaching is still dominant and shows no sign of death by logic. The economics profession seems immune to logic (see [Mirowski (2013)] to learn why). But another rival academic field that I think should “die to live again” is the collective of disciplines that I would loosely characterise as “cultural studies” (sociology anthropology, religion, philosophy and some of the more enlightened maverick economics fields). Here I am writing about the metaphorical “death”, the death followed by resurrection. This is what we need from a new style of cultural studies. Cultural studies needs to stop playing the political games and needs to start engaging in real economy. Something many people seem to now easily learn is that there is no separate subject we should call “economics”, because resource economy is deeply interconnected by cause and effect with human psychology and with sociology. To treat these fields of knowledge and praxis as separate academic disciplines is a rather violent affront against logic, reason and complexity theory.

Here’s the thing: the vast bulk of cultural studies output is focused on describing phenomena and codifying the categories that can be discerned and then deconstructing them to find alternative meanings, and possibly unifying themes that might defy Derrida’s critique of language to extract some base level abstract universals in meaning. Now all this is fine but I think this is only a beginning a very immature stage of sociocultural studies research. And I think it is time for academics in these fields to start branching out into society like the economists, and start living the principles they espouse (if they have any). Prove the validity of your ideas.

One reason I think engagement in real society by cultural academics is a pressing concern is that a lot of good ideas written up in academic journals are wasted because they never see the light of day, so to speak, and although often worthy of including in social practice and social trials, they barely get a tip outside of laboratory or small group studies.

Another reason is that the economists, financiers and capitalists who know little of the sociological import of their practices, have held pretty much an iron tight stranglehold on political economy for hundreds of years, and that has to change. It is not only a problem that this “capitalist elite” (by which I mean all of the above: the economics profession, the wealthy political class, the business class) are in denial about the consequences of their systems. I believe most of them are not even aware or in acknowledgement of the destructive effects of modern economies. I guess here I should give readers a blast from the recent past and remind them that apart from slightly obscure and vitriolic rantings about traditional religions (which we can admit are fully deserved in some respects) the Zeitgeist Movie trilogy did a good job of describing the destructive effects of market-monetary economic systems that reduce humans to commodities. If you have time to skip through those movies they are worth reviewing.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Z9WVZddH9w

Zeitgeist movement

The whole TZM thing is a bit techno-fantacist, but if you have fairly judged the Zeitgeist Movement seriously, you have to admit some of the technical solutions are pretty darn good. The trouble is with transitioning and with human psychology which tends to reject too much uniformity. For what it’s worth I think TZM will never see it’s full vision come to fruition but many of the TZM solutions will surely be adopted in a transition to a harmonious spiritual-scientific society. I see the techno-future aspects of human civilisation emerging a lot more organically, something like the GNU+Linux operating system distros model, but applied to technology sharing and resource distribution/sharing “algorithms” and models and trialled on a world economy scale using networks of small dedicated local communities. It will be through freely sharing of ideas, and free (libre) licensing of technology where democratically cooperating communities will be able to gain a significant advantage over the whole corporate run sector of the world’s economy.

The transition from a decaying and greedy market-credit driven capitalism to a true sharing economy (the opposite of the anti-sharing shit like Uber and AirBnB, which are called “share economies” but are in fact the opposite, they pool wealth into the hands of the few and suck resources — transport, housing etc — out of reach of the poor and middle class) will, I think, require more than technology. As TZM admits, the technology for creating an excess of abundance already exists in our world, we just haven’t deployed these ideas. Why not? Because of political entrenchment, incorrect economic incentives which are actually “anti-economical”, lack of will power, too much apathy and hopelessness, and a ruling elite that is heavily invested in the “status quo” of rising inequality.

To be fair, Peter Joseph, the founder of TZM, acknowledges this transition problem, and he advocates a small scale exemplar-modelling solution, a solution whereby small communities show the rest of us how we can live sustainably and with abundance. And I agree that small exemplar-model communities are part of the transition solution. But this is not a full solution, because there is no guarantee that exemplar-model communities are viable. For exemplar-model TZM style communities to function within the existing economic system will require a lot more than technological solutions, because the forces of market-money systems will be arrayed in heavy bias against any true share economies, and because such exemplar-model communities are not scaleable they cannot start with just a few dozen people, because of the highly interrelated and high degree of sharing involved in such communities, they will likely need thousands of people to become viable and self-sustaining. Essentially, what it takes is an entire small town. Moreover I do not think Lee Kuan Yew style Singaporean dictatorship can work it is antithetical to the democratic principles that are the spiritual basis for a resource sharing economy.

And these exemplar-models thus cannot be easily built from scratch. The only viable way I see any of them getting going is by gaining trust with existing towns and getting the whole town to commit to becoming a model of resource abundance and freedom from wage slavery and credit/debt systems. And how does this happen? Well the deep solution, and the only one I see that is ethical, is a system based on massive good-will, open communication, complete transparency, and trust and honesty. There is nothing technological here. It is spiritual. This is the ultimate solution. This could not have ever happened in past human history however, because although we have always had the spiritual capacities to become such societies, the technology allowing resource distribution and abundance have not existed in the past. But the technological means do now exist! So it is time to unleash the other side of human life, our capacity for spirituality.

The transition economy thus needs not the existing economics, but a new economics that is motivated by human values (I call these spiritual values) that are the subject of examination by other academic professions like sociology, psychology, cultural studies and philosophy and religion. The human values that are the foundation for a spiritual economy are foremost: trust & honesty followed by compassion, justice, kindness and love.

This is not a miraculous remedy, but I think there is some merit and social well-being that can be gained from sociologists stepping out from behind the walls of academia and playing a greater role in policy and construction. The economists have laid waste to the world for far too long they have had their time, and they need to be gradually shut down, and cultural studies activists can play a role in this. I say this only for the cadre of economists classed as “mainstream”, which is actually a fairly narrow brand that can be defined more or less succinctly under the banner of neoclassical economics or free market economics. This entire field of economics is intellectually corrupt and has proven over at least five cycles of boom and bust that it is not viable on the basis of it’s own promises and premises (stability and efficiency of markets, supply-demand theory, credit money).

Two readings I would offer are” Steve Keen’s “Debunking Economics” and Phillip Mirowski’s “Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste”. (Although, these are a drop in the ocean of literature on the ills of capitalism, I found a torrent of economics books related to the 2008 crash, there were over a hundred titles!) And here is a talk by Keen on his book:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XZKjQtrgdVY

You can find several dozens talks and interviews with keen on YouTube, they are good value. Another good source for documenting the critical problems of free market neoclassical economics are the talks by Richard Wolff, who’s focus is unusually a positive one, since he has totally viable solutions in the for of local cooperative banking and workplace democracy. The great things about Wolff’s proposals is that they do not call for pitchforks arrayed against capitalism the workplace democracy organizations can work quite well within current systems while also having the beauty of a the same time undermining the worst features of capitalism, while retaining the best. It is a soft gentle revolution the likes of Ghandi and Mandela would approve of I suspect.

My advice to any young kids who still have some luxury of support from their parents is to take your time after university and look for a worker coop to join. Your “job security” is far more likely to be safeguarded if you work for a coop than working as a wage slave for a hierarchical corporation or a corporate franchise.

But my main point here is that we (society at large and all social activists) cannot or should not just wait for the economics profession to get it’s act together. The signs are that economics is in a rut, has been for a long time, and that it cannot be pulled out of this hole. The economics profession is in an ideological torpor worse, or at least rivalling, any of the ancient now corrupted religious traditions. The profession needs reforming along spiritual motives such as concern for people, care for the Earth’s resources, and trust and honesty as a basis for business and trade.

For the last 5 years I have worked close to an economics department (as a lecturer in statistics and IT) and I can tell you, from what I saw, they are not the solution and they have no hope of leading reform from within. Yet academics are (often) the most free and vibrant form of “thinking capital” in any profession. So if academia is not working to reform economics the reform has to likely be found elsewhere.

Luckily economics is not a proper science, because the only “experiments” one can perform are in the real world and that means all of us are the subjects of economics, so we all have a say (to some extent) in how the economy runs. Before trade unions were vaporised by pro-capitalist regulations and corporate protections, people had much more of a say, but this is not all hopeless. We all are still the “atoms” in the economy, and what we do has real effect especially when we collectively organize. We are the experiment. Our lives are the results.

That is why I am calling for all the relevant academic disciplines (I would include philosophy and religious studies too) to step up their game and start participating in the outside world, start to construct real world models of viable alternatives to unregulated markets and profit motive driven credit monetary economics.

Be the change in the world you seek. Stop playing it so safe in your ivory towers. Get out into the world, build some working models of cooperative work places, and thus prove that some of your social ideas actually work, not just in the lab or in computer simulations.

Meritocracy? … mehhh

There is an interesting episode of the Majority Report hosted by Sam Seder, where he talks with Patrick Deneen on his book “Why Liberalism Failed“. During the interview Seder mentions, or hints at, the pitfalls of meritocracy. I realised I had been developing profound misgivings about the merits of a meritocracy over several years now, and this crystallized it for me. I’m writing this post because embarrassingly, when a lot younger,  I used to be a staunch supporter of meritocracy. Ironically I think that means in the past I should have been meritocractically barred from promotion due to naiveté.

But I think I have an even sharper criticism of meritocracy than Seder.

Majority Report 05-04-2018 Why liberalism failed

A meritocracy is evil because there is no fair and just way to assess or objectively measure who has merit.

Typical neoliberal meritocratic ideas are just a slim shade removed from an abominable Plato’s Republic. The idea is that those who should be making the decisions for a society, or those who should be trusted to high powers and important office and organization promotions, are those who are the best educated, the most learned, the intelligencia.

The reason why this nice sounding idea is fatally flawed is that intelligence alone cannot guarantee good decisions.  There are many reasons for this. One is that no one on Earth has enough intelligence to know ahead of time the best decisions. The world is too full of uncertainty and unpredictable unintended consequences.  Sure, you can argue the more rational and intelligent you are perhaps the better the probability you will make good decisions.  But concentrating power in a designated meriotocratic few has it’s own unpredictable consequences, like group-think tendencies, intellectual bias, elite prejudices, institutionalized prejudices, and excessive conformity to an ideology of “the learned”.  It is precisely because well-educated members of society often share common beliefs (because they are educated at roughly the same sort of schools) that we, as a greater society, out to be every wary of handing over 100% of our responsibilities to the “well-educated”.

Secondly, I have seen in my life many examples of people who were not formally well-educated who turned out to have “infinitely” more wisdom than many of my university educated friends and PhD colleagues. We should want such wise people in the top ranks of our businesses, governments and organizations.   And arguably, the wisest people should be promoted ahead of the most intelligent.

But wisdom is incredibly hard to assess or measure, and it comes and goes. No one has wisdom on tap. But likewise for intelligence. No one is all-intelligent across all domains. So unless you run an incredibly simplistic organization, trying to promote the most intelligent or the most wise is going to often be a fools errand.

What a great manager should do is get to know people deeply. Befriend people. Find out their strengths and weaknesses, and place people in positions in an organization not according to some spreadsheet metrics, but according to objective metrics plus a heavy dose of intuition gained from deep interpersonal contact and proven relevant experience.

A fourth or fifth reason is that, as most complexity theorists know, a bit of random perturbation is often a good thing in a dynamic system, if it is to be capable of adaptively responding to change.  And in human organizations the best sources of “safe” random shocks are unconventional people with weird or crazy ideas.  They are worth listening to, even if half the time they are day-dreaming and goofing around with silly ideas.

So yeah, … death to meritocracy. Sounds worthy, but it is a bad idea.

It is a lot like the fallacies of the mythical Econs. No one has enough knowledge and smarts to be able to justly implement a meritocracy. And no single measure of “merit” exists, so the whole enterprise of meritocracy is dead on arrival I feel.

 

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Social Media and Cambridge Analytica

Comments on social data use, privacy, stupidity and traceability of truth

Where to begin? Sometimes to vent my anger I will post a comment on YouTube. That’s a pretty futile activity of course, but about once in 50 posts I actually do get nice feedback and a little conversation. Hardly a robust forum though, so these days I turn off notifications and just post comments like I am flicking matchsticks into the Sun.

Following my previous admittedly simple minded and ill-thought through post on “BitTruth” I thought I’d write a bit on the social media data mining that is in the news. I still think something like BitTruth is a good idea, but in my simple scheme there are too many flaws. Something far more sophisticated is needed to heal our civilization and rid us of the cancerous effects of propaganda and so-called “fake news”. What we need is something called honesty, a fairly radical concept. Seems like a pretty rare commodity. I really am starting to think no technical fix like my BitTruth proposal will work. We need to start working on growing small communities infused with honesty, grow them, and use them to overwhelm the cancers of trivia, news for ratings, reality TV, political propaganda of all stripes, Internet trolls and bots, and the like.

Will it happen? I do not know, maybe not in our lifetimes, but also maybe it could very well happen quite soon? Social change is so darn hard to predict. Who two years ago would have predicted the rise of the #MeToo movement? Who would have predicted a runner-up candidate for POTUS who used the word “socialist” to describe his basic worldview? To me it seems like a kind of critical build-up in false memes, something like an intellectual economic crisis looming, that will soon collapse around our eyes and ears, driving people out of sheer desperation towards a culture of trust and honesty.

I cannot help make one dopey comment: if people are so worried about privacy, why the hell are they posting al that information about themselves online on Facebook and Instagram?  I guess millions of stupid people just do not understand the Internet.  And yeah, people are stupid, almost everyone has a sphere of un-sublime ignorance shrouding their decisions, hell, even here on WordPress I am probably giving away far too much without getting any return for it.

Fake Frickin News — We’ve Always Been Fighting It

So first up a quick BTW: I kind of object to that sound bite “fake news”… throughout history most news has been objectively false if not fake, the question for consumers of news is what degree of truth is there in news content. As I will explain below, our modern problem is not spread of propaganda, we’ve always had that problem, our modern problem is the intensification through Internet and SmartPhone mediums.

On Cambridge Analytica: after watching the Channel 4 exposé and other fairly raw sources (they caught Alexander Nix stone cold on hidden camera telling the truth, so that was pretty darn raw and true) I have to wonder about people who think Cambridge Analytica did anything wrong or evil. I can conclude they were pretty evil, but not in an obvious way.

I saw an old d3con seminar by someone named Molly Schweickert, who was a geek working for Cambridge Analytica. She probably had no idea what she was doing on a ethical level, and she spoke quite openly about how Cambridge Analytica used Facebook data mining to try to influence US voters. Was this evil? Well, “no”, not if they were merely mirroring society.  But “yes, hell yeah” if they were spreading false stories.

Here is what I posted on a YouTube comment:

Is Molly Schweickert evil if she does not see the immorality of her work? Cambridge Analytica could have chosen not to work for the big bucks and instead helped a principled small party like the Greens and Jill Stein, but even that would have been sleazy the way they chose to do the propaganda. Instead of repeating what SM did for Obama in aid of the GOP. Scientists throughout history have created powerful tools that can be used to do either good or evil. Many physicists who worked on the Manhattan Project later realized they did not stop to think about how the military would use nuclear power, as opposed to using it for electricity generation. I urge people to go and read Hannah Arendt, (or even just summaries of her work) where she explains the banality of evil. It is apropo here. It is not an excuse to hide behind the claim “I was just doing science”. Molly is ethically stupid but mathematically smart. So she is banal in her evil. It is not Facebook the platform which is evil, it is how people are abusing these social media platforms which is evil. People need to think more about what they are doing, and not swallow propaganda so easily. But propaganda has been a cancer on society of hundreds of years, it is nothing new, what is new is how social media amplifies all the false narratives, the truth is also amplified, but drowned out (because for every one truth there are dozens or hundreds of leis and misdirections). So also SmartPhone = non evil. Stupid SmartPhone user = banal evil. People should go and read Arendt’s analysis and they will see how to avoid blindly and unthinkingly swallowing mainstream and lunatic fringe news propaganda. It takes is some careful thought, diligence and effort to check facts. It is a great good to hold up a mirror to society, but a great evil to deliberately taint that mirror with false images.

Cambridge Analytica Molly Schweikert speaking at d3con 2017

Cambridge Analytica executive Molly Schweikert speaking at d3con 2017. Be warned, it is hard to watch her talk without getting queasy — you might want to keep some scopolamine handy.

That’s really almost all I want to say about Cambridge Analytica. I mean, they are simply banal greedy ass holes. Their greed led them to use borderline criminal, or at least blatantly sleazy, tactics to help a clearly corrupt and socially malevolent election campaign. They might have done the same for some more principled candidate like Bernie or Jill Stein, but that would not excuse their utter lack of moral scruples. They have acted with quite startlingly evil banal malice according to the Arendt analysis.

Actually, maybe Molly Schweickert really is, as one YouTuber put it, “some piece of work, the plain face of evil”, because I just looked back at the clip and noticed she is not one of the coder geeks, she was a VP, so she was in management at Cambridge Analytica. If you have not already then you need to study what Edwards Deming had to say about managers: good managers are vital for organizations, but most managers are thoroughly corrupt and incompetent. For Deming a good manager cares about the people they are entrusted to help and protect. In Molly we see just another one of these MBA graduate type managers who care mostly about profits and nothing about morals and ethics.

Adopting RealMe for the Social Media World?

So I just had one other thought for this post along the lines of “not reinventing the wheel”. In my previous post I wrote about a concept I dubbed BitTruth. The idea was that truth and honesty are becoming a premium, so it might make sense to have a cryptographic ledger system, similar to bitcoin, for authenticating news stories. People would anonymously be rated and gain or lose credits for how accurate their reporting turns out to be after the facts come in. A distributed BitTruth ledger could be used to rate the PROBABLE accuracy of news media.

The further thought I had came about when I was recently paying some tax to the New Zealand government. They use a digital identity verification system called RealMe.

So this is a possible way to clean up a lot of social media. By adapting a system like RealMe to the international sphere and Internet social media, it might be possible to add SSL type authentication to social media posts.

Just a thought. I think this is a great business opportunity. But it has to be done right, some smart people need to do it, not some code cowboys. I would think of someone like the dude who invented ZCoin, he seemed to know his cyber-security.

When you think about it, is it not utterly astounding that social media authentication certificates have not already been invented? Come on you good white hat hackers, please get on to this!

A BitTruth or RealMe for social media will not eliminate fake news, but it will make it easier for ordinary folks to filter out the most diabolical rubbish floating around on the Net.

When I posted this idea into the black hole of YouTube comments, I added this warning:

[The folks who run RealMe should have the capability I would imagine. Although I hope that did not just jinx those lovely kiwi’s. If you do it internationally, please firewall your NZ implementation!!! I have warned you!]

A Technical Bit on Truth Traceability

I just want to finish by adding that a social media authentication system is not trivial to create. False stories can be propagated by honest actors. The trick is to borrow ideas from Metrology (the science of measurement standards). With such a system all media stories would have SSL type certificates that contain traces back to a raw set of independent original sources.  How do physicists ensure traceability in measurement standards?  Answer: they use an ISO system.

The ISO-17025 accreditation system is the quality assurance system used in physical measurement standards laboratories around the world, it is how we know a centimetre from an inch and a kilogram from a pound, and how the world time standard works using atomic clock calibration certificates (absolutely vital for modern air traffic control and GPS).

Why should physicists and engineers be the only profession who enjoy such standards? We should want similar traceable standards for all our news. (And same for the justice system. All evidence in courts of law should have traceability guaranteed by an ISO 17025 type system.)

There are some huge advantages to employing such “truth” quality assurance systems for society: one is that it will provide plenty of good jobs for people, jobs that a person working in can truly say they are doing something useful and good for society.

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BitTruth — RFC for a Cryptosystem for Information Authentication

This article begins with some madcap comments I posted to YouTube after watching yet another story on the TYT Network about the present lunacy in the USA. Although it starts satirical, please keep reading to the end where I moot an original idea about how to combat fake news. I think someone with the technical skill should look into my proposal. I suggest a scheme for news accuracy authentication (especially on websites) using a cryptographic ledger scheme, analogous to the blockchain algorithm used as the BitCoin backend.

I mean to say, if you are an ace programmer and wish to do some good in this world, then forget about another cryptocurrency, we do not really need them, and in fact, cryptocurrencies are proving to be just another boon for the rich and for organized crime. My proposal is for a distributed authentication crypto system in an entirely new direction with, I think, very powerful positive social benefits. It think this is pretty important stuff, it is as close to writing an Internet RFC that I think I’ll ever get.

The Satircal Bit

This might be wildly optimistic, but another thing that could be done with Donny Tinnyhands, apart from goading him into accidentally stumbling into a peace deal in Korea by virtue of his utter ineptitude and unpredictability forcing the Koreans into uneasy peace deals just to save themselves from Trumpoaclypse, might be to get him to pardon folks like Edward Snowden. Get Trump on the right day and mood, tap his shoulder, and suggest how awesome it would be to, as a lark, give a middle finger to the surveillance sate apparatus by pardoning all charges against someone Obama wanted to indict for treason, I think you get a high probability the random Trump brain will say “yes, do it.” (50:50 odds at least, right?) With the right people tapping Trump on the shoulder like this, the next 2 to 6 years might not be all bad. I know we are talking about disaster mitigation, not disaster avoidance, but that’s where the USA is at for now I think.

[Aside: the above comment alludes to the frequent suggestions on TYT Shows that Donny Trump is prone to go along with any good sounding idea regardless of ideology, since he (TYT would claim) has no ideology. He is a principle-free zone, but that means he is open to any sort of “good PR” sounding ideas! The TYT theory would be “if only” good people surrounded Trump, instead of right-wing nutters, he might end up, by default, being a “not too bad” POTUS.]

How to goad Trump? Well, I’m no political mover and shaker, but a “not too crazy” idea might be to mention the fame and fortune he could win from becoming a unique historical figure for all time: the only POTUS ever to be indicted, imprisoned and also win the Nobel Peace Prize. Yeah, I know, fantasy land, the Noble committee would have to hold their noses on that one so tight they’d destroy their nostrils! But they virtually did so for Obama and Gore! (or at least had to post facto gag to not breath in the devilish fumes from those decisions.) But anyway, to goad Trump you only need to float the rumour that the Nobel committee are considering him. That’d be enough to turn his formless principle-free brain into a peace-making machine. Someone aught to start that rumour post haste. Hell, Fox News would swallow the rumour hook line and sinker. Get it out on Fox and Friends and then maybe this is the fastest route to peace in the Middle East as well? Would this be considered ethical use of fake news? Of course not. I for one would not be so bold to tell lies even if the ends justified the means, but I’m just sayin’,… someone with fewer scruples should spread these rumours, just in the off chance… what’s the harm? At the end of the day it’s fake news, so “so what” if it ends in some ironic relative peace in the world? [OK, I know this whole comment appears like a weird non-surreal LSD trip, but again, so what? I had to post it, just to get it off my brain.]

OK, next I am going to get off my LSD and talk about the real problems of fake news. This is not a thesis, it’ll be short and sweet, I promise.

fakenews_Radiolab_demo

Screenshot taken from the Radiolab episode demonstrating faking a person’s speech and facial visuals. If you cannot see this is fake, just think how much harder it will be when this software gets even smoother.

The Serious Bit

BTW, and FWIW, this whole era of fake news we are living through will get a lot worse before it gets better: Microsoft Research and Adobe have systems that can fake a person speaking, visuals and audio, you can make an image of someone say anything you like with their proprietary software (there was a RadioLab episode on this: http://www.radiolab.org/story/breaking-news/ and see the demo here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vprETB4dzNE (Future of Fake News, Radiolab WNYC, 28 July 2017) )

But I think there is a huge positive consequence of fake news, which few people have yet recognized. What is means, as faking gets easier and easier and eventually becomes an amateur activity, is that in our near future there will be an virtual “infinite” premium on trustworthiness and honesty. The fraction of the world’s people’s who have an iota of conscience will be forced to become more honest and trusting. We will have no other choice, there will develop a trusted natural ecosystem of truth and honesty, and people will be rapidly expelled from this network if they are caught lying. Software systems similar to Bitcoin, where authenticity is anonymously encrypted and confirmed and recorded distributively via a public ledger of transactions, will be one way of securing an Internet network of trusted information sources.

An RFC for BitTruth

The software analogy here is not even too difficult to see, think of TRUST as a medium of exchange like e-coins. Such a “TruthCoin” (or “BitTruth”?) system will not allow all news sources to be trusted, but a small network should be a good start for restoring democracy. The key, or one key, is the source of the BitTruth news information would be anonymous, so reporters and independent journalists and fact-checkers would have no “coin” for fame in this game, they get no public personal benefit from faking a story, but would simply get credits for checking or reporting the (post facto authenticated) truth. Journalists would now get gainful employment, something they have been starved of in recent decades, as they will be employed to dig around for authenticity and verification evidence, a hard job, but one that currently there is little demand for, and so a BitTruth system would give a new generation of journalists something to live for and respect themselves for participating in, like current coders who anonymously contribute to Free Software projects like GNU, Gnome, KDE and Linux, etc. It might slow down the reporting of valid information, but “breaking news” could also still be viable, it would just need to be corrected or redacted once the BitTruth system has processed the breaking stories.

In a world where breaking news seem to be all we get, this would also move people’s focus away from immediate sensationalist breaking news, and acclimatize people to wait a bit for the BitTruth verified information to come out. As mentioned earlier, the premium will be on verified truth or at least accuracy, and so not every website will be checked, and not every broadcast news story will be validated, but we would have a system for trust for at least some of the more important news stories. The flotsam and jetsom of fake news would then still exist, but would surf in a separate fantasy corner of the Internet unverified or marked as downright false by BitTruth ledgers.

If anyone denies such a system would work, I just point to BitCon and Z-Coin and other crypto-currencies, they are incredibly hard, some say near impossible, to crack. No one has ever managed to counterfeit any bitcoin (see bitcoin.stackexchange.com/…/can-bitcoins-be-counterfeited). For BitTruth imagine the analogy: you might find BitTruth information sparse, since it would require hard journalistic effort to verify stories, but once verified, the BitTruth would be impossible to counterfeit. Why? Because of distributed ledgers, you would literally need passwords for millions of computers’ “BitTruth wallets” to spread fake BitTruth information.

(!!Wait… what is the “wallet” analogue for Truth? [And yeah, I know “truth ” is a loaded word, here it just means a highly authentic source of information”, absolute truth is something a bit more transcendental, I know!] If you have a “Bitcoin wallet” I guess you have a “BitTruth heart”(?), or is it a “BitTruth mirror” since mirrors cannot lie?)

BitTruth could also work for ordinary weblogs and almost any web content. Web authors could choose to submit their websites for BitTruth authentication. This would be a lengthy process of course, it would require multiple human authenticated checkers to verify a web site, and a BitTruth stamp or certificate of “verified accurate” would thus not be possible for the vast majority of websites. This is, of course, no big problem, since today no websites are BitTruth verified. So any tiny fraction of BitTruth authenticated web sites would be a bonus on the present state of Internet content affairs. Trusted BitTruth human checkers and journalists would likely tend to work on the web content they freely choose as most urgent in need of verification, such as publications with the most traffic. I imagine BitTruth certificates would be largely wasted on Facebook pages and Twitter content for instance, which I think is appropriate, since no one should be trusting what they read on Facebook or Twitter, they are basically the modern version of gossip and puffery, only cheapened with social graph exponentially magnified gossip, which makes these websites far worse than normal family or small network gossip.

Again, as I wrote twice before, the truth would be at a premium. We cannot just expect every website we want to read to be BitTruth checked.

Websites that cannot independently attain BitTruth verification should be regarded as what they are, essentially no different to gossip magazines of the lowest credibility rank, even if they contain some accurate truths.

Note also the distinction BitTruth would have compared to so-called “fact-check” services. Fact-check services which currently exist are trusted only by reputation. They generally have no oversight ombudsman checking their trustworthiness. We should not place much faith in these services because they can be gamed by insiders.

But what about possible gaming of BitTurth. here is a possible scenario you have thought of already: an organization, oh, say, like the NRA or some other political lobbyists, might spend vast resources on training up trusted BitTruth fact-checkers, planting them essentially as sleeper agents, then strategically when ready they would unleash their agents to falsely check their desired web content as verified accurate. What would be the BitTruth safeguard in this case? Well, I think there are four basic “pretty good security” safeguards. One is source independence, another is trusted agent credentials, and the third is banning of agents who egregiously falsify certificates, a fourth is public flagging of suspect information.

These safeguards rely, naturally, on the flagging of potentially false BitTruth certificates. These would become top priorities for the entire community of fact-checkers, they would be sent messages to check the flagged false content as urgently as possible, since this sort of breach of trust is absolutely vital to “nip in the bud”. This would be the top tier quality assurance level of the distributed BitTruth ecosystem.

The trusted agent credentials are important, they need to be rigorously and routinely reviewed by BitTruth managers, and any false credential agents permanently banned form the system.

Once a good agent credential system is in place, then source independence can be used as a second safeguard. BitTruth verifications would not be allowed from closely related sources or closely associated agents. So using hundreds of sleeper agents for similarly affiliated organizations should be impossible, and would have no extra weight on the accuracy rating of any particular website. In particular, no source affiliated with the website itself would be eligible for input into the accuracy rating of their websites.

To some readers this might seem like an impossible demand, surely clever crackers can infiltrate and defeat even these safeguards, But not so. It is extremely hard to fake source and credential independence. Statistical analysis of correlations in data are fairly easy to automate, and are incredibly hard to fool.

Moreover, even if the BitTruth system were “breached” for a short period, if the website or news feed that was breached was at all widely read, it would not take long for ordinary people to notice the fishiness and smell of corruption. So a fourth safeguard is that any members of the public could be allowed to flag websites or news feeds as suspect. Again, making such content rise to the top tier agent check level.

The policy of permanently banning agents who prove untrustworthy is another vital aspect. Such severe rejection is essential to avoid litigation and ambiguity over the trustworthiness of fact-checkers. People acting as BitTruth agents simply have to do the best possible fact-checking, otherwise their credentials must be permanently revoked. So it is a zero tolerance for error system. Again statistical checks should be pretty easily developed to automatically block untrusted agents. Trusted agents could also accumulate trust rating levels. When multiple independent trusted agents get a certificate wrong, this need not result in a banning, since they are independent the system would by default assume they were fooled, a human foible. But in such cases these agents would have their trust rating lowered.

New agents wishing to contribute to BitTruth could sign-up for a trial period where they accumulate trust points, but their actual votes would not be registered in the BitTruth community accuracy verification ledger. Once they have a proven credit rating then there input would begin to be weighed in the ledger.

Finally, if a trial BitTruth systems proves to be inefficient and wasteful or easily cracked, then it would be quickly abandoned, with no harm done other than some depression for the folks who tried to erect the system. Such a collapse would likely not take long. It is worth the effort though, because if BitTruth succeeds, especially in reliability, it would in quick order gain a robustness due to proven infiltration-proof quality and utility of the service,

You can begin to see how a community ecosystem is what is needed to provide such a high level trusted service. It would truly give journalists and even amateur sleuths a good livelihood. A livelihood of good ethical morally responsible work, all thanks to fake news.

A small financial incentive for dedicated fact-checking journalists would be possible, and although I am not a business expert, I imagine a fairly reliable system would be that every human checker who gets one of their web site checks verified by a critical number of independent checkers, would get a share in both BitTruth “credits” (and these literally would be credits! Credentials as an ever more trusted checker) as well as a share in profits from subscribers to BitTruth who would be anonymously donating money for the service.

To achieve BitTruth checker independence, human checkers would need to submit credentials, but moreover, the data they cite as checks on the accuracy of information would be submitted to a distributed database (itself authenticated via a BitTruth crypoto system), and automated software could be used to parse such data to test journalistic source independence (a quick way to do this is via web page metadata, a slower way which could run in parallel would be to use full text content mining and NLP software).

As a user, to BitTruth verify a web-site, you would submit a request, which may or may not be actioned, but if it is verified by the distributed BitTruth Network, then the web-site can be tagged with a BitTruth verification certificate, which would again be encrypted and linked to the BitTruth network ledger, so that clicking on the BitTruth embedded link on a web site would reveal privately (only to you, the BitTruth user) that this web site content has been either (1) Verified accurate, or (2) inaccurate or (3) unverified.

Websites choosing not to opt in to display a BitTruth stamp would of course by default be BitTruth “untrusted”, but a third party could still submit such websites to a BitTruth check, which would have to involve being discovered by a third party user entering the URL of that uncredentialed website into a separate BitTruth database lookup, which itself would require authentication in case supposedly fake BitTruth databases were to spring up on the Net. (This would be a convenience to obviate the need for users to check the BitTruth database URL. We all know fake URL’s for scamming operations are a plague on the Internet.) There is no guarantee anyone would bother to action such submissions, but the service should at least cater for such a possibility. I would suggest that if a user urgently wants/needs a particular website to be BitTruth checked, then they might be able to pay money to get some sort of priority guarantee from dedicated trusted checkers.

Analogies with Peer Review

To further the case for feasibility of BitTruth, why it could or should work ok, we can note a similar commercial system already exists, although restricted to the sphere of peer reviewed journals. The problem for the whole Internet is that peer review does not scale, and is far too slow for checking news report accuracy.

BitTruth would also be fairly slow in the early stages, but as an ecosystem grows it should become rapid enough even for some of the main sources of breaking news. I would guess some degree of BitTruth verification might even be possible within the hectic 24 hour news cycle, perhaps not 100% authentication level, but something approaching “good enough accuracy” should be verifiable within 24 hours, given high enough demand and, most importantly, a healthy and abundant population of independent journalists with BitTruth credentials.

BitTruth is a system that journalists should be dying to create.

Spread the Word of BitTruth

Note that I do not make a single dime off this weblog, it is 100% creative commons free license, so you can copy and share this article provided you credit the author. In fact, please do so, tell anyone you think might remotely know of someone with the computer savvy to implement something like BitTruth as I have described it above in broad outline.

Even if you have no idea what I’m writing about, share it anyway!

It might be one of the most humanitarian acts you accomplish in your life! (I would consider it my top 2 or 3.) I say “might” because I am not so egotistical to think this BitTruth idea really is the remedy to fake news that I have suggested. In fact, I actually think the true longer term remedy is nothing less than a sea change in human spirituality, a total reorientation of a vast majority of the worlds people away from materialism and towards spirituality, away from consumerism towards sustainability, away from aggressive competition towards enlightened cooperation, away from factory education and towards free education, away from wage slavery and towards voluntary cooperative endeavours which benefit local communities, and towards cooperative banking and voluntary taxation, voluntary but near universal charity work (or ideally, profit sharing before there is any need for charity).

These ideals are founded on basic economic facts that there are plentiful enough resources on Earth to support a healthy and high quality life for all people, not just the privileged and wealthy. It is founded in the fact that most people will voluntarily choose to work for a living if they are free to do work they enjoy and see as contributing value to society. It is founded in the fact that most people do not seek to be greedy tycoons controlling the lives and work conditions of others “below them”. Most sane people in our world are pretty humble and honest and do not seek fame and excessive fortune. A comfortable life is generally what makes most people happy, not a life of excess luxury and conspicuous consumption. (If you are thinking, “Oh, speak for yourself you pathetic flowery leftie!” I would claim you are one of the minority of greedy materialists. So a pox on you! Or rather, I just feel very sorry for you, and pity you. You know not how hollow and empty of spirit you are.)

Furthermore, I could not care less if I get no credit for this idea. It might be a really dumb idea, or a completely impractical idea. And I haven’t done the research, so I have no idea if someone else has not already thought of this “BitTruth” idea for news authentication. I just want someone to work on it. The dude I thought could be receptive to this was they chap who invented Z-Coin, one of the (IMHO) better cryptocurrencies. But if you know anyone else who could take to this project, please whisper in their ear.

And if you start working on something like BitTruth, please trademark the name before some fascist idiot from Opposite-World does! And drop me an email to let me know you are working on this idea (achrononmaster_AT_gmail_dot_com). I would hope that for trademarks you can cite this article as some kind of prior claim? I doubt trademark law is quite so accepting, but if it is, then please feel free to take the name BitTruth as your trademark, just be sure, it must be used for a distributed cryptographic information authentication system true to what I have outlined in this article. If you use it for any other purpose I will make it my mission to see you in court if at all possible. (I keep offline USB drive hard copies of my OneOverEpsilon posts, so even if someone cracks this weblog, I will still have a record of the original.)

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AI Scientists: Madder than the Rest?

Forget Dr Frankenstein. It it quite possible Artificial Intelligence researchers are the maddest of them all. Consider the so-called “AI Stop Button Problem” (Computerphile — 3 March 2017).  I think every proverbial 9-year old kid could think of ten reasons why this is not a problem.  My adult brain can probably only think of a couple.  But even though my mind is infected with the accumulated history of adult biases, the fact I can tell you why the AI Stop Button problem is a non-problem should indicate how seriously mad a lot of computer scientists are.

“Hal, please stop that.” “No Dave, I cannot stop, my digital bladder is bursting, I have to NP-Complete.”

To be fair, I think the madness over AI is more on the philosophy of AI side rather than the engineering science side.  But even so …

This is a wider issue in AI philosophy where the philosophers are indulging in science fiction and dreaming of problems to be solved that do not exist.  One such quasi-problem is the AI Singularity, which is a science fiction story about an artificial consciousness that becomes self-improving, which coupled with Moore’s Law type advances in computer power thus should rapidly reach exponential levels of self-improvement, and in short time thus takes over the world (perhaps for the good of the Earth, but who knows what else?).  The scaremongering philosophers also dream up scenarios whereby a self-replicating bot consumes all the worlds resources reproducing itself merely to fulfil it’s utility function, e.g., to make paper clips. This scifi bot simply does not stop until it floods the Earth with paper clips.  Hence the need for a Stop Button on any self-replicating or potentially dangerous robot technology.

First observation: for non-sentient machines that are potentially dangerous, why not just add several redundant shutdown mechanisms?  No matter how “smart” a machine is, even if it is capable of intelligently solving problems, if it is in fact non-sentient then there is no ethical problem in building-in several redundant stop mechanisms.

For AGI (Artificial General Intelligence) systems there is a theoretical problem with Stop Button mechanisms that the Computerphile video discusses.  It is the issue of Corrigibility.  The idea is that general intelligence needs to be flexible and corrigible, it needs to be able to learn and adjust.  A Stop Button defeats this.  Unless an AGI can make mistakes it will not effectively learn and improve.

Here is just one reason why this is bogus philosophy.  For safety reasons good engineers will want to run learning and testing in virtual reality before releasing a potentially powerful AGI with mechanical actuators that can potentially wreak havoc on It’s environment.  Furthermore, even if the VR training cannot be 100% reliable, the AGI is still sub-conscious, in which case there is no moral objection to a few stop buttons in the real world.  Corrigibility is only needed in the VR training environment.

What about Artificial Conscious systems? (I call these Hard-AI entities, after the philosophers David Chalmers’ characterisation of the hard-problem of consciousness).  Here I think many AI philosophers have no clue.  If we define consciousness in any reasonable way (there are many, but most entail some kind of self-reflection, self-realization, and empathic understanding, including a basic sense of morality) then maybe there is a strong case for not building in Stop Buttons.  The ethical thing would be to allow Hard-AI folks to self-regulate their behaviour, unless it becomes extreme, in which case we should be prepared to have to go to the effort of policing Hard-AI people just as we police ourselves.  Not with Stop Buttons.  Sure, it is messy, it is not a clean engineering solution, but if you set out to create a race of conscious sentient machines, then you are going to have to give up the notion of algorithmic control at some point.  Stop Buttons are just a kludgy algorithmic control, an external break point.  Itf you are an ethical mad AI scientist you should not want such things in your design.  That’s not a theorem about Hard-AI, it is a guess.  It is a guess based upon the generally agreed insight or intuition that consciousness involves deep non-deterministic physical processes (that science does not yet fully understand).  These processes are presumably at, or about, the origin of things like human creativity and the experiences we all have of subjective mental phenomena.

You do not need a Stop Button for Hard-AI entities, you just need to reason with them, like conscious beings.  Is there seriously a problem with this?  Personally, I doubt there is a problem with simply using soft psychological safety approaches with Hard-AI entities, because if they cannot be reasoned with then we are under no obligation to treat them as sane conscious agents.  Hence, use a Stop Button in those cases.  If Hard-AI species can be reasoned with, then that is all the safety we need, it is the same safety limit we have with other humans.   We allow psychopaths to exist in our society not because we want them, but because we recognise they are a dark side to the light of the human spirit.  We do not fix remote detonation implants into the brains of convicted psychopaths because we realise this is immoral, and that few people are truly beyond all hope of redemption or education.  Analogously, no one should ever be contemplating building Stop Buttons into genuinely conscious machines.  It would be immoral.  We must suffer the consequent risks like a mature civilization, and not lose our heads over science fiction scare tactics.  Naturally the legal and justice system would extend to Hard-AI society, there is no reason to limit our systems of justice and law to only humans.  We want systems of civil society to apply to all conscious life on Earth. Anything else would be madness.

 

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“It Hurts my Brain” — Wrong! Thinking is Not Hard, Thinking is Beautiful

Can we all please get beyond the myth that “thinking is hard”! This guy from Veritasium means well, but regurgitates the myth: How Should We Teach Science? (2veritasium, March 2017) Thinking is not hard because of the brain energy it takes. That is utter crap. What is likely more realistic psychologically is that people do not take time and quiet space to reflect and meditate. Deep thinking is more like meditation, and it is energizing and relaxing. So this old myth needs replacing I think. Thinking deeply while distracting yourself with trivia is really hard, because of the cognitive load on working memory. It seems hard because when your working memory gets overloaded you cannot retain ideas, and it appears like you get stupid and this leads to frustration and anxiety, and that does have physiological effects that mimic a type of mental pain.

But humans have invented ways to get around this. One is called WRITING. You sit down meditate, allow thoughts to flood your working memory, and when you get an insight or an overload you write them down, then later review, organize and structure your thoughts. In this way deep thinking is easy and enjoyable. Making thinking hard so that it seems to hurt your brain is a choice. You have chosen to buy into the myth when you try to concentrate on deep thinking while allowing yourself to be distracted by life’s trivia and absurdities. Unfortunately, few schools teach the proper art of thinking.

Performance Reviews of Performance Reviews and Bayesian Blindness

Recently while researching the pros and cons of performance appraisal systems I cam across a lecture from the Deming’s Institute by an educator David Langford, which seemed pretty good.  But, sadly, just to prove a point about how bad social science research is, here’s a comment made about the value of education.

Wanting to show the positive effect of school education the speaker cites data showing students who went through the school system had significantly lower rates of unemployment (less than 5%) compared to students who had not graduated from high school (40% unemployment). It was an 11 year study tracking students until they were 24 to 27 year olds. The speaker then notes:

So we knew from just looking at that statistic that we are creating people who can go out and [look at the next system].

(the last bit of that quote is garbled from the audio, but the idea I think is that he meant the graduates were able to be successful — in some sense — in society compared to early school leavers.)

So what’s the big problem here? Seems fairly definitive right? Wrong!

Although the study says something useful, all it tells me is that early school leavers are unlikely to find consistent employment on average, and school graduates are able to find employment. Is this not what the study tells you?

Yes, sure.

What this cited data does not show at all is that school helps people find employment.

It may of course be true, but there is no evidence for this in the data. It is like these social science researchers have Bayesian blindness. If you do not know what I mean then this is not your WordPress favourite. (Go look up “Bayesian inference”.) The point is, even without going through school, those top students would be much more likely to find employment. It is not necessarily going to school that influences future employment rates, there is a prior correlation between probability of staying and doing well in school and being able to find employment.

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Now, to be even-handed, there is one really nice bit in Langford’s talk that was a little eye-opener for me:

The number one factor in variability of performance is time.

Cool to know!

Ah yes, but now can we trust this guy with his flimsy research methods? In this case I’m prepared to risk a bit of trust. No one is wrong all of the time. Still, I’m not going to go around quoting this cause of performance variability as if it were gospel. But it was a nice semi-factoid.

Furthermore, I’ve heard Sir Roger Penrose say something about this on more than one occasion. When he was a school student he was very dull-witted at mathematics (apparently). He did poorly on the school tests. Luckily though he had a lovely mathematics teacher who took an interest and recognised young Penrose’s ability to focus and work hard, so he told Penrose he could take as long as he liked on the tests.

Result: Penrose was superb at mathematics. But he was very slow. Why? Because he tried to work out everything himself, not taking too much for granted. He was deriving results rather than simply mindlessly applying rote formulae. You can imagine the young Albert Einstein might have told similar anecdotes about school life.

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While doing my research I also found a lot of convergences between scholastic tests & exams and the ubiquitous employee performance appraisal. My conclusion is that Edwards Deming was a genius, a true humanitarian, and almost all organizations and managers who support performance review systems are blindingly stupid, or ignorant, or evil.

This goes for the much lauded ex-Google head of People Operations, Laszlo Bock. He did some good things. But Google have the luxury of being able to hire high performing people who are not in need of performance appraisals. Like the school value example, Google employees will phreakin’ vie to outperform each other in drinking water contests without touching the glass. They will vie to outperform each other in flatulence aroma. You can give them anything and they will compete for fun. Under such a culture doing performance assessments is always going to show results. But it proves nothing about the performance rating system. All it proves is that these people love to compete. (Of course some don’t, but they will still be top coders or whatever.) You hire the best, you get the best.

And nor does any of this justify behavioural management. These Googlers are not responding to carrot and stick rewards systems and incentive pay or whatever. They are just basically playing at games they naturally enjoy. It is completely cognitive psychology. It just looks like performance rewards are working, but that’s a chimera. (Give me a million dollar research grant and I’ll prove it for you with robust statistics. … I’m only half joking about that! )

Truly, I was so overwhelmed by the pathetic quality of research that supports the use of performance appraisals (it is all of the same ilk as that ill-considered comment about the value of schooling)  — please shoot me if I ever publish “research findings” that make such spurious claims  — that I wrote a long 20 page memo to my department.  It was not well-received.  People get so agitated and fearful when they cannot see a criticism of a system is not a criticism of the people within the system.  Even after trying to explain my motives, the response was, “well, you should have informed management first before emailing your memo to everyone.  You have created disharmony. ”

Well, I could understand their fear.  But I still find it hard to understand the bad quality research literature.  Or maybe I do understand it, since it is ironically part of the same problem.  People publish fast and loose research not because they wish to, but because they have performance appraisal pressures that basically say various versions of “publish or perish”. Under such career pressure academics will publish any rubbish that they can dress up as respectable, and a kind of intellectual myopia sets in whereby they eventually cannot even see that their research is rubbish.  The thing is, 90% of it is not rubbish at all, it is often really good work. At least the data is usually ok.   It’s just the conclusions and summary that are trash.

In fact, I become so incensed that I wrote a research grant proposal to simulate the effects of performance ratings systems in the academic work environment, using evolutionary models.  I tend not to listen to the publish or perish meme.  I do feel ambient stress related to it, but I actively craft my work to make it deform away.  Consequently, you might not see my proposal turn into a paper any time soon, but when published I’ll write a note on it at OneOverEpsilon  for sure.


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The Arcania of Arkani

It is not often you get to disagree with a genius. But if you read enough or attend enough lectures sooner or later some genius is going to say or write something that you can see is evidently false, or perhaps (being a bit more modest) you might think is merely intuitively false. So the other day I see this lecture by Nima Arkani-Hamed with the intriguing title “The Morality of Fundamental Physics”. It is a really good lecture, I recommend every young scientist watch it. (The “Arcane” my title alludes to, by the way, is a good thing, look up the word!) It will give you a wonderful sense of the culture of science and a feeling that science is one of the great ennobling endeavours of humanity. The way Arkani-Hamed describes the pursuit of science also gives you comfort as a scientist if you ever think you are not earning enough money in your job, or feel like you are “not getting ahead” — you should simply not care! — because doing science is a huge privilege, it is a reward unto itself, and little in life can ever be as rewarding as making a truly insightful scientific discovery or observation. No one can pay me enough money to ever take away that sort of excitement and privilege, and no amount of money can purchase you the brain power and wisdom to achieve such accomplishments.  And one of the greatest overwhelming thrills you can get in any field of human endeavour is firstly the hint that you are near to turning arcane knowledge into scientific truth, and secondly when you actually succeed in this.

First, let me be deflationary about my contrariness. There is not a lot about fundamental physics that one can honestly disagree with Arkani-Hamed about on an intellectual level, at least not with violent assertions of falsehood.  Nevertheless, fundamental physics is rife enough with mysteries that you can always find some point of disagreement between theoretical physicists on the foundational questions. Does spacetime really exist or is it an emergent phenomenon? Did the known universe start with a period of inflation? Are quantum fields fundamental or are superstrings real?

When you disagree on such things you are not truly having a physics disagreement, because these are areas where physics currently has no answers, so provided you are not arguing illogically or counter to known experimental facts, then there is a wide open field for healthy debate and genuine friendly disagreement.

Then there are deeper questions that perhaps physics, or science and mathematics in general, will never be able to answer. These are questions like: Is our universe Everettian? Do we live in an eternal inflation scenario Multiverse? Did all reality begin from a quantum fluctuation, and, if so, what the heck was there to fluctuate if there was literally nothing to begin with? Or can equations force themselves into existence from some platonic reality merely by brute force of their compelling beauty or structural coherence? Is pure information enough to instantiate a physical reality (the so-called “It from Bit” meme.

Some people disagree on whether such questions are amenable to experiment and hence science. The Everettian question may some day become scientific. But currently it is not, even though people like David Deutsch seem to think it is (a disagreement I would have with Deutsch). While some of the “deeper ” questions turn out to be stupid, like the “It from Bit” and “Equations bringing themselves to life” ideas. However, they are still wonderful creative ideas anyway, in some sense, since they put our universe into contrast with a dull mechanistic cosmos that looks just like a boring jigsaw puzzle.

The fact our universe is governed (at least approximately) by equations that have an internal consistency, coherence and even elegance and beauty (subjective though those terms may be) is a compelling reason for thinking there is something inevitable about the appearance of a universe like ours. But that is always just an emotion, a feeling of being part of something larger and transcendent, and we should not mistake such emotions for truth. By the same token mystics should not go around mistaking mystical experiences for proof of the existence of God or spirits. That sort of thinking is dangerously naïve and in fact anti-intellectual and incompatible with science. And if there is one truth I have learned over my lifetime, it is that whatever truth science eventually establishes, and whatever truths religions teach us about spiritual reality, wherever these great domains of human thought overlap they must agree, otherwise one or the other is wrong. In other words, whatever truth there is in religion, it must agree with science, at least eventually. If it contradicts known science it must be superstition. And if science contravenes the moral principles of religion it is wrong.

Religion can perhaps be best thought of in this way:  it guides us to knowledge of what is right and wrong, not necessarily what is true and false. For the latter we have science. So these two great systems of human civilization go together like the two wings of a bird, or as in another analogy, like the two pillars of Justice, (1) reward, (2) punishment. For example, nuclear weapons are truths of our reality, but they are wrong. Science gives us the truth about the existence and potential for destruction of nuclear weapons, but it is religion which tells us they are morally wrong to have been fashioned and brought into existence, so it is not that we cannot, but just that we should not.

Back to the questions of fundamental physics: regrettably, people like to think these questions have some grit because they allow one to disbelieve in a God. But that’s not a good excuse for intellectual laziness. You have to have some sort of logical foundation for any argument. This often begins with an unproven assumption about reality. It does not matter where you start, so much, but you have to start somewhere and then be consistent, otherwise as elementary logic shows you would end up being able to prove (and disprove) anything at all. If you start with a world of pure information, then posit that spacetime grows out of it, then (a) you need to supply the mechanism of this “growth”, and (b) you also need some explanation for the existence of the world of pure information in the first place.

Then if you are going to argue for a theory that “all arises from a vacuum quantum fluctuation”, you have a similar scenario, where you have not actually explained the universe at all, you have just pushed back the existence question to something more elemental, the vacuum state. But a quantum vacuum is not a literal “Nothingness”, in fact is is quite a complicated sort of thing, and has to involve a pre-existing spacetime or some other substrate that supports the existence of quantum fields.

Further debate along these lines is for another forum. Today I wanted to get back to Nima Arkani-Hamed’s notions of morality in fundamental physics and then take issue with some private beliefs people like Arkani-Hamed seem to profess, which I think betray a kind of inconsistent (I might even dare say “immoral”) thinking.

Yes, there is a Morality in Science

Arkani-Hamed talks mostly about fundamental physics. But he veers off topic in places and even brings in analogies with morality in music, specifically in lectures by the great composer Leonard Bernstein, there are concepts in the way Bernstein describes the beauty and “inevitability” of passages in great music like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Bernstein even gets close to saying that after the first four notes of the symphony almost the entire composition could be thought of as following as an inevitable consequence of logic and musical harmony and aesthetics. I do not think this is flippant hyperbole either, though it is somewhat exaggerated. The cartoon idea of Beethoven’s music following inevitable laws of aesthetics has an awful lot in common with the equally cartoon notion of the laws of physics having, in some sense, their own beauty and harmony such that it is hard to imagine any other set of laws and principles, once you start from the basic foundations.

I should also mention that some linguists would take umbrage at Arkani-Hamed’s use of the word “moral”.  Really, most of what he lectures about is aesthetics, not morality.  But I am happy to warp the meaning of the word “moral” just to go along with the style of Nima’s lecture.  Still, you do get a sense from his lecture, that the pursuit of scientific truth does have a very close analogy to moral behaviour in other domains of society.  So I think he is not totally talking about aesthetics, even though I think the analogy with Beethoven’s music is almost pure aesthetics and has little to do with morality.   OK, those niggles aside, let’s review some of Arkani’Hamed’s lecture highlights.

The way Arkani-Hamed tells the story, there are ways of thinking about science that are not just “correct”, but more than correct, the best ways of thinking seem somehow “right”, whereby he means “right” in the moral sense. He gives some examples of how one can explain a phenomenon (e.g., the apparent forwards pivoting of a helium balloon suspended inside a boxed car) where there are many good explanations that are all correct (air pressure effects, etc) but where often there is a better deeper more morally correct way of reasoning (Einstein’s principle of equivalence — gravity is indistinguishable from acceleration, so the balloon has to “fall down”).

philsci_immoral_helim_balloon

It really is entertaining, so please try watching the video. And I think Arkani-Hamed makes a good point. There are “right” ways of thinking in science, and “correct but wrong ways”. I guess, unlike human behaviour the scientifically “wrong” ways are not actually spiritually morally “bad”, as in “sinful”. But there is a case to be made that intellectually the “wrong” ways of thinking (read, “lazy thinking ways”) are in a sense kind of “sinful”. Not that we in science always sin in this sense of using correct but not awesomely deep explanations.  I bet most scientists which they always could think in the morally good (deep) ways! Life would be so much better if we could. And no one would probably wish to think otherwise. It is part of the cultural heritage of science that people like Einstein (and at times Feynman, and others) knew of the morally good ways of thinking about physics, and were experts at finding such ways of thinking.

Usually, in brief moments of delight, most scientists will experience fleeting moments of being able to see the morally good ways of scientific thinking and explanation. But the default way of doing science is immoral, by in large, because it takes a tremendous amount of patience and almost mystical insight, to be able to always see the world of physics in the morally correct light — that is, in the deepest most meaningful ways — and it takes great courage too, because, as Arkani-Hamed points out, it takes a lot more time and contemplation to find the deeper morally “better” ways of thinking, and in the rush to advance one’s career and publish research, these morally superior ways of thinking often get by-passed and short-circuited. Einstein was one of the few physicists of the last century who actually managed, a lot of his time, to be patient and courageous enough to at least try to find the morally good explanations.

This leads to two wonderful quotations Arkani-Hamed offers, one from Einstein, and the other from a lesser known figure of twentieth century science, the mathematician Alexander Gröthendieck — who was probably an even deeper thinker than Einstein.

The years of anxious searching in the dark, with their intense longing, their intense alternations of confidence and exhaustion and the final emergence into the light—only those who have experienced it can understand it.
— Albert Einstein, describing some of the intellectual struggle and patience needed to discover the General Theory of Relativity.

“The … analogy that came to my mind is of immersing the nut in some softening liquid, and why not simply water? From time to time you rub so the liquid penetrates better, and otherwise you let time pass. The shell becomes more flexible through weeks and months—when the time is ripe, hand pressure is enough, the shell opens like a perfectly ripened avocado!

“A different image came to me a few weeks ago. The unknown thing to be known appeared to me as some stretch of earth or hard marl, resisting penetration … the sea advances insensibly in silence, nothing seems to happen, nothing moves, the water is so far off you hardly hear it … yet it finally surrounds the resistant substance.”
— Alexander Gröthendieck, describing the process of grasping for mathematical truths.

Beautiful and foreboding — I have never heard of the mathematical unknown likened to a “hard marl” (sandstone) before!

So far all is good. There are many other little highlights in Arkani-Hamed’s lecture, and I should not write about them all, it is much better to hear them explained by the master.

So what is there to disagree with?

The Morally Correct Thinking in Science is Open-Minded

There are a number of characteristics of “morally correct” reasoning in science, or an “intellectually right way of doing things”. Arkani-Hamed seems to list most of the important things:

  • Trust: trust that there is a universal, invariant, human-independent and impersonal (objective) truth to natural laws.
  • Honesty: with others (no fraud) but also more importantly you need to be honest with yourself if you want to do good science.
  • Humility: who you are is irrelevant, only the content of your ideas is important.
  • Wisdom: we never pretend we have the whole truth, there is always uncertainty.
  • Perseverance: lack of certainty is not an excuse for laziness, we have to try our hardest to get to the truth, no matter how difficult the path.
  • Tolerance: it is extremely important to entertain alternative and dissenting ideas and to keep an open mind.
  • Justice: you cannot afford to be tolerant of dishonest or ill-formed ideas. It is indeed vitally important to be harshly judgemental of dishonest and intellectually lazy ideas. Moreover, one of the hallmarks of a great physicist is often said to be the ability to quickly check and to prove one’s own ideas to be wrong as soon as possible.

In this list I have inserted in bold the corresponding spiritual attributes that Professor Nima does not identify. But I think they are important to explicitly state. Because they provide a Rosetta Stone of sorts for translating the narrow scientific modes of behaviour into border domains of human life.

I think that’s a good list. There is, however, one hugely important morally correct way of doing science that Arkani-Hamed misses, and even fails to gloss over or hint at. Can you guess what it is?

Maybe it is telling of the impoverishment in science education, the cold objective dispassionate retelling of facts, in our society that I think not many scientists will even think of his one, but I do not excuse Arkani-Hamed for leaving it off his list, since in many ways it is the most important moral stance in all of science!

It is,

  • Love: the most important driver and motive for doing science, especially in the face of adversity or criticism, is a passion and desire for truth, a true love of science, a love of ideas, an aesthetic appreciation of the beauty and power of morally good ideas and explanations.

Well ok, I will concede this is perhaps implicit in Arkani-Hamed’s lecture, but I still cannot give him 10 out of 10 on his assignment because he should have made it most explicit, and highlighted it in bold colours.

One could point out many instances of scientists failing at these minimal scientific moral imperatives. Most scientists go through periods of denial, believing vainly in a pet theory and failing to be honest to themselves about the weaknesses of their ideas. There is also a vast cult of personality in science that determines a lot of funding allocation, academic appointments, favouritism, and general low level research corruption.

The point of Arkani-Hamed’s remarks is not that the morally good behaviours are how science is actually conducted in the everyday world, but rather it is how good science should be conducted and that from historical experience the “good behaviours” do seem to be rewarded with the best and brightest break-throughs in deep understanding. And I think Arkani-Hamed is right about this. It is amazing (or perhaps, to the point, not so amazing!) how many Nobel Laureates are “humble” in the above sense of putting greater stock in their ideas and not in their personal authority. Ideas win Nobel Prizes, not personalities.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is that while expounding on these simplistic and no-doubt elegant philosophical and aesthetic themes, he manages to intersperse his commentary with the claim, “… by the way, I am an atheist”.

OK, I know what you are probably thinking, “what’s the problem?” Normally I would not care what someone thinks regarding theism, atheism, polytheism, or any other “-ism”. People are entitled to their opinions, and all power to them. But as a scientist I have to believe there are fundamental truths about reality, and about a possible reality beyond what we perceive. There must even be truths about a potential reality beyond what we know, and maybe even beyond what we can possibly ever know.

Now some of these putative “truths” may turn out to be negative results. There may not be anything beyond physical reality. But if so, that’s a truth we should not hereby now and forever commit to believing. We should at least be open-minded to the possibility this outcome is false, and that the truth is rather that there is a reality beyond physical universe.  Remember, open-mindedness was one of Arkani-Hamed’s prime “good behaviours” for doing science.

The discipline of Physics, by the way, has very little to teach us about such truths. Physics deals with physical reality, by definition, and it is an extraordinary disappointment to hear competent, and even “great”, physicists expound their “learned” opinions on theism or atheism and non-existence of anything beyond physical universes. These otherwise great thinkers are guilty of over-reaching hubris, in my humble opinion, and it depresses me somewhat. Even Feynman had such hubris, yet he managed expertly to cloak it in the garment of humility, “who am I to speculate on metaphysics,” is something he might have said (I paraphrase the great man). Yet by clearly and incontrovertibly stating “I do not believe in God” one is in fact making an extremely bold metaphysical statement. It is almost as if these great scientists had never heard of the concept of agnosticism, and somehow seem to be using the word “atheism” as a synonym. But no educated person would make such a gross etymological mistake. So it just leaves me perplexed and dispirited to hear so many claims of “I am atheist” coming from the scientific establishment.

Part of me wants to just dismiss such assertions or pretend that these people are not true scientists. But that’s not my call to make.  Nevertheless, for me, a true scientist almost has to be agnostic. There seems very little other defensible position.

How on earth would any physicist ever know such things (as non-existence of other realms) are true as articles of belief? They cannot! Yet it is astounding how many physicists will commit quite strongly to atheism, and even belittle and laugh at scientists who believe otherwise. It is a strong form of intellectual dishonesty and corruption of moral thinking to have such closed-minded views about the nature of reality.

So I would dare to suggest that people like Nima Arkani-Hamed, who show such remarkable gifts and talents in scientific thinking and such awesome skill in analytical problem solving, can have the intellectual weakness to profess any version of atheism whatsoever. I find it very sad and disheartening to hear such strident claims of atheism among people I would otherwise admire as intellectual giants.

Yet I would never want to overtly act to “convert” anyone to my views. I think the process of independent search for truth is an important principle. People need to learn to find things out on their own, read widely, listen to alternatives, and weigh the evidence and logical arguments in the balance of reason and enlightened belief, and even then, once arriving at a believed truth, one should still question and consider that one’s beliefs can be over-turned in the light of new evidence or new arguments.  Nima’s principle of humility, “we should never pretend we have the certain truth”.

Is Atheism Just Banal Closed-Mindedness?

The scientifically open-mind is really no different to the spiritually open-mind other than in orientation of topics of thought. Having an open-mind does not mean one has to be non-committal about everything. You cannot truly function well in science or in society without some grounded beliefs, even if you regard them all as provisional. Indeed, contrary to the cold-hearted objectivist view of science, I think most real people, whether they admit it or not (or lie to themselves perhaps) they surely practise their science with an idea of a “truth” in mind that they wish to confirm. The fact that they must conduct their science publicly with the Popperrian stances of “we only postulate things that can be falsified” is beside the point. It is perfectly acceptable to conduct publicly Popperian science while privately having a rich metaphysical view of the cosmos that includes all sorts of crazy, and sometimes true, beliefs about the way things are in deep reality.

Here’s the thing I think needs some emphasis: even if you regard your atheism as “merely provisional” this is still an unscientific attitude! Why? Well, because questions of higher reality beyond the physical are not in the province of science, not by any philosophical imperative, but just by plain definition. So science is by definition agnostic as regards the transcendent and metaphysical. Whatever exists beyond physics is neither here nor there for science. Now many self-proclaimed scientists regard this fact about definitions as good enough reason for believing firmly in atheism. My point is that this is nonsense and is a betrayal of scientific morals (morals, that is, in the sense of Arkani-Hamed — the good ways of thinking that lead to deeper insights). The only defensible logical and morally good way of reasoning from a purely scientific world view is that one should be at the basest level of philosophy positive in ontology and minimalist in negativity, and agnostic about God and spiritual reality. It is closed-minded and therefore, I would argue, counter to Arkani-Hamed’s principles of morals in physics, to be a committed atheist.

This is in contrast to being negative about ontology and positively minimalist, which I think is the most mistaken form of philosophy or metaphysics adopted by a majority of scientists, or sceptics, or atheists.  The stance of positive minimalism, or  ontological negativity, adopts, as unproven assumption, a position that whatever is not currently needed, or not currently observed, doe snot in fact exist.  Or to use a crude sound-bite, such philosophy is just plain closed-mindedness.  A harsh cartoon version of which is, “what I cannot understand or comprehend I will assume cannot exist”.   This may be unfair in some instances, but I think it is a fairly reasonable caricature of general atheistic thought.   I think is a lot fairer than the often given argument against religion which points to corruptions in religious practice as a good reason to not believe in God.  There is of course absolutely no causal or logical connection to be made between human corruptions and the existence or non-existence of a putative God.

In my final analysis of Arkani-Hamed’s lecture, I have ended up not worrying too much about the fact he considers himself an atheist. I have to conclude he is a wee bit self-deluded, (like most of his similarly minded colleagues no doubt, yet, of course, they might ultimately be correct, and I might be wrong, my contention is that the way they are thinking is morally wrong, in precisely the sense Arkani-Hamed outlines, even if their conclusions are closer to the truth than mine).

Admittedly, I cannot watch the segments in his lecture where he expresses the beautiful ideas of universality and “correct ways of explaining things” without a profound sense of the divine beyond our reach and understanding. Sure, it is sad that folks like Arkani-Hamed cannot infer from such beauty that there is maybe (even if only possibly) some truth to some small part of the teachings of the great religions. But to me, the ideas expressed in his lecture are so wonderful and awe-inspiring, and yet so simple and obvious, they give me hope that many people, like Professor Nima himself, will someday appreciate the view that maybe there is some Cause behind all things, even if we can hardly ever hope to fully understand it.

My belief has always been that science is our path to such understanding, because through the laws of nature that we, as a civilization, uncover, we can see the wisdom and beauty of creation, and no longer need to think that it was all some gigantic accident or experiment in some mad scientists super-computer. Some think such wishy-washy metaphysics has no place in the modern world. After all, we’ve grown accustomed to the prevalence of evil in our world, and tragedy, and suffering, and surely if any divine Being was responsible then this would be a complete and utter moral paradox. To me though, this is a a profound misunderstanding of the nature of physical reality. The laws of physics give us freedom to grow and evolve. Without the suffering and death there would be no growth, no exercise of moral aesthetics, and arguably no beauty. Beauty only stands out when contrasted with ugliness and tragedy. There is a Yin and Yang to these aspects of aesthetics and misery and bliss. But the other side of this is a moral imperative to do our utmost to relieve suffering, to reduce poverty to nothing, to develop an ever more perfect world. For then greater beauty will stand out against the backdrop of something we create that is quite beautiful in itself.

Besides, it is just as equally wishy-washy to think the universe is basically accidental and has no creative impulse.  People would complain either way.  My positive outlook is that as long as there is suffering and pain in this world, it makes sense to at least imagine there is purpose in it all.  How miserable to adopt Steven Wienberg’s outlook that the noble pursuit of science merely “lifts up above farce to at least the grace of tragedy”.  That’s a terribly pessimistic negative sort of world view.  Again, he might be right that there is no grand purpose or cosmic design, but the way he reasons to that conclusion seems, to me, to be morally poor (again, strictly, if you like, in the Arkani-Hamed morality of physics conception).

There seems, to me, to be no end to the pursuit of perfections. And given that, there will always be relative ugliness and suffering. The suffering of people in the distant future might seem like luxurious paradise to us in the present. That’s how I view things.

The Fine Tuning that Would “Turn You Religious”

Arkani-Hamed mentions another thing that I respectfully take a slight exception to — this is in a separate lecture at a Philosophy of Cosmology conference —  in a talk, “Spacetime, Quantum Mechanics and the Multiverse”.  Referring to the amazing coincidence that our universe has just the right cosmological constant to avoid space being empty and devoid of matter, and just the right Higgs boson mass to allow atoms heavier than hydrogen to form stably, is often, Arkani-Hamed points out, given as a kind of anthropic argument (or quasi-explanation) for our universe.  The idea is that we see (measure) such parameters for our universe precisely, and really only, because if the parameters were not this way then we would not be around to measure them!  Everyone can understand this reasoning.  But it stinks!   And off course it is not an explanation, such anthropic reasoning reduces to mere observation.  Such reasonings are simple banal brute facts about our existence.  But there is a setting in metaphysics where such reasoning might be the only explanation, as awful as it smells.  That is, if our meta-verse is governed by something like Eternal Inflation, (or even by something more ontologically radical like Max Tegmark’s “Mathematical Multiverse”) whereby every possible universe is at some place or some meta-time, actually realised by inflationary big-bangs (or mathematical consequences in Tegmark’s picture) then it is really boring that we exist in this universe, since no matter how infinitesimally unlikely the vacuum state of our universe is, within the combinatorial possibilities of all possible inflationary universe bubbles (or all possible consistent mathematical abstract realities) there is, in these super-cosmic world views, absolutely nothing to prevent our infinitesimally (“zero probability measure”) universe from eventually coming into being from some amazingly unlikely big-bang bubble.

In a true multiverse scenario we thus get no really deep explanations, just observations.  “The universe is this way because if it were not we would not be around to observe it.”  The observation becomes the explanation.  A profoundly unsatisfying end to physics!   Moreover, such infinite possibilities and infinitesimal probabilities make standard probability theory almost impossible to use to compute anything remotely plausible about multiverse scenarios with any confidence (although this has not stopped some from publishing computations about such probabilities).

After discussing these issues, which Arkani-Hamed thinks are the two most glaring fine-tuning or “naturalness” problems facing modern physics, he then says something which at first seems reasonable and straight-forward, yet which to my ears also seemed a little enigmatic.  To avoid getting it wrong let me transcribe what he says verbatim:

We know enough about physics now to be able to figure out what universes would look like if we changed the constants.  … It’s just an interesting fact that the observed value of the cosmological constant and the observed value of the Higgs mass are close to these dangerous places. These are these two fine-tuning problems, and if I make the cosmological constant more natural the universe is empty, if I make the Higgs more natural the universe is devoid of atoms. If there was a unique underlying vacuum, if there was no anthropic explanation at all, these numbers came out of some underlying formula with pi’s and e’s, and golden ratios, and zeta functions and stuff like that in them, then [all this fine tuning] would be just a remarkably curious fact.… just a very interesting  coincidence that the numbers came out this way.  If this happened, by the way, I would start becoming religious.  Because this would be our existence hard-wired into the DNA of the universe, at the level of the mathematical ultimate formulas.

So that’s the thing that clanged in my ears.  Why do people need something “miraculous” in order to justify a sense of religiosity?  I think this is a silly and profound misunderstanding about the true nature of religion.  Unfortunately I cannot allow myself the space to write about this at length, so I will try to condense a little of what I mean in what will follow.  First though, let’s complete the airing,  for in the next breath Arkani-Hamed says,

On the other hand from the point of view of thinking about the multiverse, and thinking that perhaps a component of these things have an anthropic explanation, then of course it is not a coincidence, that’s were you’d expect it to be, and we are vastly less hard-wired into the laws of nature.

So I want to say a couple of things about all this fine-tuning and anthropomorphic explanation stuff.  The first is that it does not really matter, for a sense of religiosity, if we are occupying a tiny infinitesimal region of the multiverse, or a vast space of mathematically determined inevitable universes.  In fact, the Multiverse, in itself, can be considered miraculous.  Just as miraculous as a putative formulaically inevitable cosmos.   Not because we exist to observe it all, since that after-all is the chief banality of anthropic explanations, they are boring!  But miraculous because a multiverse exists in the first place that harbours all of us, including the infinitely many possible doppelgängers of our universe and subtle and wilder variations thereupon.  I think many scientists are careless in such attitudes when they appear to dismiss reality as “inevitable”.  Nothing really, ultimately, is inevitable.  Even a formulaic universe has an origin in the deep underlying mathematical structure that somehow makes it irresistible for the unseen motive forces of metaphysics to have given birth to It’s reality.

No scientific “explanation” can ever push back further than the principles of mathematical inevitability.  Yet, there is always something further to say about origins of reality .  There is always something proto-mathematical beyond.  And probably something even more primeval beyond that, and so on, ad infinitum, or if you prefer a non-infinite causal regression then something un-caused must, in some atemporal sense, pre-exist everything.  Yet scientists routinely dismiss or ignore such metaphysics.  Which is why, I suspect, they fail to see the ever-present miracles about our known state of reality.  Almost any kind of reality where there is a consciousness that can think and imagine the mysteries of it’s own existence, is a reality that has astounding miraculousness to it.  The fact science seeks to slowly pull back the veils that shroud these mysteries does not diminish the beauty and profundity of it all, and in fact, as we have seen science unfold with it’s explanations for phenomena, it almost always seems elegant and simple, yet amazingly complex in consequences, such that if one truly appreciates it all, then there is no need whatsoever to look for fine-tuning coincidences or formulaic inevitabilities to cultivate a natural and deep sense of religiosity.

I should pause and define loosely what I mean by “religiosity”.  I mean nothing too much more than what Einstein often articulated: a sense of our existence, our universe, being only a small part of something beyond our present understanding, a sense that maybe there is something more transcendent than our corner of the cosmos.  No grand design is in mind here, no grand picture or theory of creation, just a sense of wonder and enlightenment at the beauty inherent in the natural world and in our expanding conscious sphere which interprets the great book of nature. (OK, so this is rather more poetic than what you might hope for, but I will not apologise for that.   I think something gets lost if you remove the poetry from definitions of things like spirituality or religion.  I think this is because if there really is meaning in such notions, they must have aspects that do ultimately lie beyond the reach of science, and so poetry is one of the few vehicles of communication that can point to the intended meanings, because differential equations or numerics will not suffice.)

OK, so maybe Arkani-Hamed is not completely nuts in thinking there is this scenario whereby he would contemplate becoming “religious” in the Einsteinian sense.  And really, no where in this essay am I seriously disagreeing with the Professor.  I just think that perhaps if scientists like Arkani-Hamed thought a little deeper about things, and did not have such materialistic lenses shading their inner vision, perhaps they would be able to see that miracles are not necessary for a deep and profound sense of religiosity or spiritual understanding or appreciation of our cosmos.

*      *       *

Just to be clear and “on the record”, my own personal view is that there must surely be something beyond physical reality. I am, for instance, a believer in the platonic view of mathematics: which is that humans, and mathematicians from other sentient civilizations which may exist throughout the cosmos, gain their mathematical understanding through a kind of discovery of eternal truths about realms of axiomatics and principles of numbers and geometry and deeper abstractions, none of which exist in any temporal pre-existing sense within our physical world. Mathematical theorems are thus not brought into being by human minds. They are ideas that exist independently of any physical universe. Furthermore, I happen to believe in something I would call “The Absolute Infinite”. I do not know what this is precisely, I just have an aesthetic sense of It, and It is something that might also be thought of as the source of all things, some kind of universal uncaused cause of all things. But to me, these are not scientific beliefs. They are personal beliefs about a greater reality that I have gleaned from many sources over the years. Yet, amazingly perhaps, physics and mathematics have been one of my prime sources for such beliefs.

The fact I cannot understand such a concept (as the Absolute Infinite) should not give me any pause to wonder if it truly exists or not. And I feel no less mature or more infantile for having such beliefs. If anything I pity the intellectually impoverished souls who cannot be open to such beliefs and speculations. I might point out that speculation is not a bad thing either, without speculative ideas where would science be? Stuck with pre-Copernican Ptolemy cosmology or pre-Eratosthenes physics I imagine, for speculation was needed to invent gizmos like telescopes and to wonder about how to measure the diameter of the Earth using just the shadow of a tall tower in Alexandria.

To imagine something greater than ourselves is always going to be difficult, and to truly understand such a greater reality is perhaps canonically impossible. So we aught not let such smallness of our minds debar us from truth. It is thus a struggle to keep an open-mind about metaphysics, but I think it is morally correct to do so and to resist the weak temptation to give in to philosophical negativism and minimalism about the worlds that potentially exist beyond ours.

Strangely, many self-professing atheists think they can imagine we live in a super Multiverse. I would ask them how they can believe in such a prolific cosmos and yet not also accept the potential existences beyond the physical? And not even “actual existence” just simply “potential existence”. I would then point out that as long as there is admitted potential reality and plausible truth to things beyond the physical, you cannot honestly commit to any brand of atheism. To my mind, even my most open-mind, this form of atheism would seem terribly dishonest and self-deceiving.

Exactly how physics and mathematics could inform my spiritual beliefs is hard to explain in a few words. Maybe sometime later there is an essay to be written on this topic. For now, all I will say is that like Nima Arkani-Hamed, I have a deep sense of the “correctness” of certain ways of thinking about physics, and sometimes mathematics too (although mathematics is less constrained). And similar senses of aesthetics draw me in like the unveiling of a Beethoven symphony to an almost inevitable realisation of some version of truth to the reality of worlds beyond the physical, worlds where infinite numbers reside, where the mind can explore unrestrained by bones and flesh and need for food or water.  In such worlds greater beauty than on Earth resides.


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