Defense Against Tyranny and Anarchy

Chapter 3 of Jonathan Rauch’s The Constitution of Knowledge (2021) is Booting Reality:  The Rise of Networked Knowledge.  Thomas Hobbe’s vision of humanity was dark, tribal anarchy.  The only way out appeared to be an absolute sovereign who can forcibly impose order and suppress the war of all against all.  Fortunately, humanity found a better way.  Rauch guides us through the early construction and fortification of the non-tyrannical solution.  It remains standing as a strong defense against those now attacking our castle of knowledge.

The revolutions of modern liberalism (economic, political, epistemic), which changed everything for the better, began in the mind one man, John Locke (1632-1704).  We spent 12 weeks here (12/17/19 – 3/31-20) excavating C. Bradly Thompson’s America’s Revolutionary Mind (2019).  Those ideas and the ones we’re examining now are vitally important to humanity; so, it’s well worth the effort and energy to study them.  After showing us how the defensive castle walls of knowledge and truth were erected, Rauch next defines the inner sanctum, the reality-based community, and then moves on to dissect the enemies now hurling fireballs at our outer walls.  We’ll examine those fireballs in chapters 5-7.

Locke’s idea revolution had three guiding principles:  1) Natural rights (life, liberty and property); 2) Government by consent; and 3) Toleration (no more bloody creed wars).  The key breakthrough was recognizing that knowledge is always provisional.  No one has final say.  Rauch relies on philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914). Peirce laid the groundwork to conceptualize knowledge not as the product of any individual or even group effort but rather as an emergent property of interactions across a social network.

Rauch concludes this chapter by pointing out our networked truth adjudication system provides three public goods:  1) Knowledge – distinguishing reality from non-reality; 2) Freedom – diversity of opinion; and 3) Peace – no violence or bullying.  Political conflict is increasingly a creedal war between contending realities. Thankfully, our current epistemic fortress prevents rival bands of scientists, journalists or lawyers from calling for their opponents to be killed or their ideas censored.

Next week, we get to the actual operating system of the reality-based community – The Constitution of Knowledge.

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Tribal Warfare

Chapter 2 of Jonathan Rauch’s The Constitution of Knowledge (2021) is ‘The State of Nature:  Tribal Truth’.  It articulates what should be undeniable – human nature is tribal.  The irrational left, however, denies or downplays this, stuck in the chapter’s subtitle of ‘Bias, groupthink, and the epistemic war of all against all’.  Elites believe tribalism (like meritocracy and rationalism) is a myth.  For example, here’s an article from 2 academics trying to dismiss tribal truth:

Repress human nature; what replaces it?  Coercive social engineering.  What is the alternative?  The Left should be careful what it wishes for:

Humans have an evolutionary history, a nature.  We are not solely the product of nurture.  Resisting that truth, pretending that humans are like silly putty, totally molded by social forces, is wrong and damaging The Constitution of Knowledge.  We’ve known this since Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and David Hume (1711-1776).  Humans are tribal and passionate.  “Reason is, and ought to only to be, the slave of the passions”.  Reason has utility, but it is not our essence.  Rauch uses 2 metaphors to make this point:

  1. Reason is like the navigator in the passenger seat, able to suggest directions but not to steer the car, our emotions and moral intuitions are in the driver’s seat.
  2. On abstract moral and intellectual questions, reason is like a press secretary, whose goal is to justify whatever position her boss has already taken.

Intelligence is no defense against false belief.  It makes it worse, as motivated reasoning and arrogance weaponizes the intellect, so it can impose false ideologies and deny human nature.  Stanovich will show us precisely how and why elites do this in our next book.  It’s getting worse.  I wrote here on 6/8/15 that society was becoming more tribal – with a growing and embittered underclass, a shrinking and angry middle class, and a plutocratic and apartheid elite.  That was over 6 years ago and it’s more so today.

The hypocrisy and self-serving, biased beliefs of the cognitive elite exacerbates tribal reality.   They continue to push us all into “affective polarization” – generating extreme emotional hostility towards opposing tribes.  Is there a way out of this nasty Hobbesian war?  Yes!  Next week, John Locke, Adams Smith and James Madison light the way through the brutal carnage.

EDIT: Stay tuned – things are heating up now. Law can be a tribal weapon:

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Swift-Boat Them

I first encountered the phrase “swift-boat them” following The Grumpy Economist in a 2009 article smacking down leftist political hack Paul Krugman.  Cochrane concluded:

Krugman wants people to swallow his arguments whole from his authority, without demanding logic, or evidence.  Those who disagree with him, alas, are pretty smart and have pretty good arguments if you bother to read them. So, he tries to discredit them with personal attacks.

This is the political sphere, not the intellectual one. Don’t argue with them, swift-boat them. Find some embarrassing quote from an old interview. Well, good luck, Paul. Let’s just not pretend this has anything to do with economics, or actual truth about how the world works or could be made a better place.

The first chapter of our new project, the book The Constitution of Knowledge:  A Defense of Truth (2021) by Jonathan Rauch, is “A Terrible Statement Unless He Gets Away With It”.  The chapter title refers to Donald Trump’s 2004 interview response to a question on the George W. Bush vs.  John Kerry election.  Rauch’s obsession with Trump is distracting (Trump is denounced on 32 pages throughout the book).  But his overall conclusions are spot on.  Trump and the irrational right are a reaction to the much more menacing irrational, institutionalized left.  Rauch is a journalist with left myside bias.  I am a lawyer with right myside bias.  We both, however, clearly respect and pursue truth despite our biases.  Trump does not – he operates on an ‘all’s fair in politics and war’ basis – trolling and lying (swift-boating) are just tactics – weapons in the epistemic war of all against all.

Rauch’s book (and the next two I’ll cover) analyzes the current knowledge crisis.  He deems the process, norms, the entire system of knowledge production as “The Constitution of Knowledge”, paralleling the U.S. Constitution’s framework, which established our legal and economic systems.  He explains that America is now in an unprecedented truth calamity.  Cancel culture and disinformation are rampant.

Despite Rauch’s bias as a journalist (giving mainstream media a pass even though a lot of it is their fault), his analysis is mostly accurate.  Here’s an article pointing out the book’s shortcomings:

Notwithstanding its flaws, Rauch’s work is an important addition to the current controversial discourse on knowledge and truth.  That is why I’ll devote the next 7 weeks summarizing each chapter before moving on to 2 more books detailing the chill wind now blowing through reality.

Arnold Kling writes a good review of Rauch’s book:

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Happy New Year Over Produced Elites

Before diving into Rauch’s new book, I have to point out some interesting new year’s eve blog comments.

Scott Alexander’s links for December includes a tweet about the problem with highly educated people (#22). Freddie deBoer comments that he is obsessed with Peter Turchin’s concept of elite over production. Scott replies by distinguishing actual elites from want-to-be elites. Freddie replies by highlighting the unfocused rage and frustration in young people today. There are many other ‘well this is what I think’ comments but the last one from a fellow lawyer caught my attention.

Walter Sobchak points out that Turchin’s idea is not new. Joseph Schumpter’s Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (1942) is the same idea. The success of capitalism fosters values hostile to it. Intellectuals develop critiques of social matters for which they are not directly responsible. They try to stand up for a strata to which they themselves do not belong. Elites develop critical ideas against free markets and private property even though these are the institutions that allow them to exist. I wrote of elite over production here on 12/1/20 and believe the crux of today’s crisis is that Elites are ensconced in luxury distal beliefs – they have no stake in the truth of them.

Elite over production is not a newly discovered phenomenon. Schumpter taught us in the 1940’s that our educational system will eventually produce far too many educated people for the amount of challenging mental work to be done. Failing to reach their potential, elites turn against the system.

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Moral Progress

The final chapter of Steven Pinker’s Rationality – What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters (2021) answers the last question in the subtitle.  One might respond – ‘obviously rationality matters!  Why do you need to delve into 4 books to prove it?’  The answer is because rationality is now under attack by progressives who think reality is only oppression – us vs. them – a conflict theory mindset viewing the world simply as a struggle of the downtrodden, forever trying to rise to overcome their oppressors.

Rationality (mistake theory) is incompatible with that cynical conflict worldview.  I’ve covered many books that directly challenge leftist orthodoxy (e.g. The Coddling of the American Mind (2018) and Cynical Theories (2020)).  Now we are turning to books that defend truth and reason on their own terms.  Pinker and others argue that rationality matters because it improves lives and makes the world a better place.  He begins by pointing out how irrationality can kill and hurt people, then how rationality gave humanity extraordinary material progress, and finally how rationality drives moral progress.

Many unjust, cruel practices have declined because of reasoned moral arguments against them (e.g. slavery, religious persecution, torture, subjugation of women and homosexuals, etc.).  Humanity is still getting better morally but identity politics and an institutionalized “us vs. them” mentality is now impeding moral progress.  As we turn the calendar to a new year, it’s a good time to reflect on the big picture of justice, morality and knowledge.  But in order to see things clearly, we need to do the work – hedgehog down into what’s really happening.  Fortunately, there are insightful authors who can help us.  In the new year, we begin a tour of the information battlefields in humanity’s never-ending epistemic war.  Jonathan Rauch will be our first tour guide in 2022.  Happy New Year from the War Chest.

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What Is Wrong With You People?

Here are some links, “sign-posts” along our knowledge journey:

Arnold Kling alerted me to the “epistemic crisis”, in which we are currently immersed, and The Aristocracy of Talent (2021) was the final book in a Meritocracy debate we explored here 8/3/21 – 11/2/21.  Elites today “lack virtue and moral balance”.

Chapter 10 of Rationality (2021), What’s Wrong with People?, explains that elites are blind to their own bias, in addition to being morally vacuous (oh they virtue signal like crazy – but it’s just fake wokeness; playing the “social justice game”, as Kling puts it).  Pinker begins this chapter with a recap of cognitive fallacies and then zeros in on the motivated reasoning of elites.  It’s what makes them so wrong.  They will not admit it, but wokeness is just a status weapon being wielded by the irrational and immoral, grasping for power and status, unable to obtain it via rational means.  Check back here in a few months, after we’ve excavated the thoughts of Rauch, Stanovich and Galef, if you’re not convinced yet.

Elites remain in denial, wallowing in motivated reasoning and myside bias, militantly shunning the rationality train.  Pinker writes:

The obvious reason that people avoid getting onto a train of reasoning is that they don’t like where it takes them.  It may terminate in a conclusion that is not in their interest, such as an allocation of money, power, or prestige that is objectively fair but benefits someone else.  As Upton Sinclair pointed out, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it”.

Pinker points out two kinds of belief – reality (testable) vs. mythology (distal beliefs – non-falsifiable).  Elites are ensconced in luxury distal beliefs – they have no stake in the truth of them.  He concludes the chapter by urging a reaffirmation of reality.  Pinker’s fixation on Donald Trump (and Rauch’s as we’ll see) is distracting because the illiberal, irrational right is not really a threat to society.  The real danger is from the condescending illiberal left now in power.  Trump’s lying, trolling and attempts to “flood the zone with shit” is an angry reaction on behalf of the working class, who are fed up with all the woke nonsense – they’re sick and tired of being ignored or openly disparaged as deplorables.

Reality is a public good, which is now being damaged by the “Tragedy of the Rationality Commons”, as Pinker and others dub it.  A tiny minority of us (the Rationality Community) can see what’s wrong with people.  Rationality is not just a cognitive virtue, it’s a moral one as well.  Understanding that should be the basis of norms and mores for our whole society – not just the hobby of a club of blogging rationalist enthusiasts. 

Next week, we’ll finish Pinker’s book and then start the New Year off with The Constitution of Knowledge.  Merry Christmas from The Estate Planning War Chest!

EDIT: Elon Musk explained recently: Wokeness is “divisive, exclusionary and hateful it basically gives mean people a shield to be mean and cruel, armored in false virtue.” What is wrong with people?

-> wokeness

We’ll continue to shine the light on the woke mind virus infecting academia and journalism.

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The Tools of Reason

Chapter 9 of Rationality (2021) brings us to the 7th and final of Pinker’s tools of reason – Correlation and Causation.  The tools of reason explored in chapters 3-9 are not the “master’s tools” – they’re everyone’s, despite leftist’s complaints to the contrary.  Next week, we’ll move to the conclusion on why so many minds today are irrational (it’s because of myside bias).  That will springboard us into 3 more books that are essential to understanding what’s wrong with people these days.

The most helpful book review of Rationality on Amazon is titled:

Pinker < Galef, Rauch

We’ll get to both Jonathan Rauch’s The Constitution of Knowledge (2021) and Julia Galef’s The Scout Mindset but Pinker’s work should not be overlooked.  And Keith Stanovich’s The Bias That Divides Us (2021) is the cognitive crown jewel for knowing why so many people with advanced degrees are wrong and irrational.  Pinker cites Stanovich often in his book.  Maybe the Amazon reviewer’s title should be:

Pinker < Galef, Rauch < Stanovich

Pinker’s contribution to the issue is that he’s a good teacher, patiently explaining complex concepts on an intuitive level.  For example, the imagery of rubber bands, tacks and rods on pg. 249 makes the concept of regression easy to grasp.  He begins his chapter on correlation and causation with a Thomas Sowell quote:

One of the first things taught in introductory statistics textbooks is that correlation is not causation.  It is also one of the first things forgotten.

I studied ‘but for’ causation in law school and thought I understood it.  Reading pg. 256-281 reminds me that causation is a much more complicated (and uncertain) thing than most realize.  Pinker’s closing comic strip succinctly concludes the chapter.

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You Sure About That?

Chapter 7 of Rationality (2021), Hits and False Alarms (Signal Detection and Statistical Decision Theory),explains why we are forced to apply a cutoff when deciding whether an observation is a signal (real) or noise (messiness in the observation).  Sometimes there is a great cost in being wrong.  The tools of rationality can minimize the unavoidable risk and damage of being wrong.  Pinker combines the previous chapters on estimating the probability that something is true (Bayesian reasoning) and then deciding what to do about it (rational choice – cost benefit analysis).

Important decisions (those with a great moral cost for being wrong) require a high “response bias”, jargon for the common-sense idea that it is better to err on the side of caution when a lot is at stake and you’re not sure.   Judge William Blackstone (1723-1780) said “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer”.  Pinker writes:

Blackstone’s 10:1 ratio is arbitrary, of course, but the lopsidedness is eminently defensible.  In a democracy, freedom is the default, and government coercion an onerous exception that must meet a high burden of justification, given the awesome power of the state and its constant temptation to tyrannize.  Punishing the innocent, particularly by death, shocks the conscience in a way that failing to punish the guilty does not.  A system that does not capriciously target people for ruination marks the difference between a regime of justice and regime of terror.

He makes this point on criminal law but it also applies to economic law (property rights).  It’s yet another reason for limited government, free markets and an absolute minimal level of coercive wealth redistribution.

Chapter 8 of Rationality (2021), Self and Others (Game Theory), explains that in the game of life, rational (and moral) actors sometimes have no choice but to do things that make themselves and everyone else worse off.  Economic actors who control wealth are now locked in a Nash Equilibrium.  The rich and the poor have sorted themselves permanently into their classes.  Government cannot coercively interfere in the game without terrible moral and economic costs.

Next week, we move on to the final tool of rationality, correlation and causation.

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What’s the Alternative?

Let’s take a brief break from our exploration (and defense) of rationality and look at the big picture.  I’ve been researching and writing on the same thing (why it’s rational and moral for my clients to control the wealth they do) since 10/9/14.  Stealing their wealth in order to pass it out to others is wrong.  Seven years of Bayesian updates to my Schelling Fence has made me confident and secure about that.  I’ll keep looking for a rational counterargument but haven’t found one yet.

A recurring theme among thinkers who attack successful concepts like rationality, meritocracy and classic liberalism is that they have no good suggestions for what would replace them.  Knock out Meritocracy – what’s the alternative?  Tear down liberalism – what replaces it?  They cannot tell you because there is no good answer – I’ll keep looking.

Here’s an article responding to Patrick Deneen of Notre Dame (whose insightful ideas I discussed here 3/28/17 – 6/6/17 and 2/20/18 – 4/24/18):

Liberalism (free markets, limited government, freedom of speech, the rule of law, etc.) works and works well.  It’s not perfect.  It has flaws but it’s what we got, flaws and all.  Even if you don’t read that whole Rod Dreher article – the door dialogue at the end is pretty funny.  It illustrates the ‘there is no alternative to liberalism, meritocracy and rationality’ point nicely:

“Hey mister, that front door you have is in pretty bad shape. It’s not going to keep the bad guys out.”

“Yeah, you’re right about that. It’s been bothering me for a while. What do I do?”

“I would take down that door right now. It’s crap.”

“What, and leave my front door wide open? Are you serious?”

“I didn’t say you had to leave it wide open. You need a stronger, better door.”

“I know. So what do you have for me? Are you selling doors?”

“Not as such. Why do you ask?”

“Because you’re telling me that my door is weak and I need to take it down. What are you proposing that I put up instead? I can’t just leave my house wide open.”

“You are operating from a defensive crouch. Is your name David French?”


“A defensive crouch! The days of being in a defensive crouch behind flimsy doors are over!”

“Damn right I’m being defensive. I want to defend my house from the bad guys. You are telling me that my front door is in bad shape, and I agree. You are telling me to take it down. You want me to take down weak protection for no protection at all. What sense does that make?”

“There will be a better door, in time, when we learn again how to build doors like they did in the 13th century. Now those were some strong doors!”

It goes on… but you get the point.  SHUT THE FRONT DOOR!  Back to Rationality Tuesday.

EDIT: Lest we let our guard down, the anti-meritocracy coercive wealth redistributionist minds persist:

I’ll be moving on to myside bias in the coming months, which explains why respected mainstream academics are so blindly biased….. and quite wrong about confiscating my clients’ wealth so it can be handed out to others through an inefficient, bloated bureaucracy.

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Bayesian Belief

I encountered Bayes Theorem in an undergraduate statistics course but never grasped its importance until this 9/12/16 article from Scott Alexander:

Scott’s blog used to have this as its slogan:

“P(A|B) = [P(A)*P(B|A)]/P(B), all the rest is commentary.

You read the formula as:  The probability of A given B is equal to the probability of A times the probability of B given A, all divided by the probability of B (the base rate).

After studying Chapter 5 of Steven Pinker’s Rationality (2021), Beliefs and Evidence (Bayesian Reasoning), you understand Bayes Theorem at a gut level.  He begins the chapter with a hat tip to the Rationality Community, “a heartening exception to the disdain for reason”. avers “you may want to learn about Bayes rule if you are a professional who uses statistics, a computer programmer, or a human being”.  It’s that important of a thing to know. 

Baysian reasoning is the essence of human cognition in a world of uncertainty and yet frequently flouted in everyday thinking.  Pinker explains how people neglect the base-rate or actively ignore certain information as “thought taboos”.  Bayes rule tells us how much credence we should give a hypothesis before we look at the evidence.  Prior credence is knowledge accumulated from all our experiences in the past.  In fact, the information from one round of looking at evidence can supply the prior probability for the next round, a cycle called Bayesian updating.  It’s the mindset of someone who wasn’t born yesterday.

Surprising new scientific findings have low probability of truth because our cumulative scientific understanding is not worthless.  That’s why an undergraduate physics textbook is 90% true, while the contents of a primary research journal of physics is 90% false.  Bayes taught us that we should be suspicious of new knowledge.  Pinker quotes Carl Sagan at the beginning of the chapter:  “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”.

In chapter 6 of Rationality, Risk and Reward (Rational Choice and Expected Utility), Pinker unfortunately recounts the frequently made but fallacious moral argument for coercive wealth redistribution on pg. 182, while discussing happiness:

The psychological meaning is obvious:  an extra $100 increases the happiness of a poor person more than the happiness of a rich person11 (This is the moral argument for redistribution:  transferring money from the rich to the poor increases the amount of happiness in the world, all things being equal.)

Pinker should know better.  Endnote 11 cites a 2008 academic paper on the economics of subjective well-being (happiness).  But Game Theory from the 1940s established that in a competitive, free world, THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS OVERALL MARGINAL UTILITY/HAPPINESS! 

Read my 7/27/21 post.  That’s not my opinion.  It’s the mathematical formalization of von Neumann and Morgenstern.

Next week, we plow through more statistical knowledge before arriving at Pinker’s chapter on Game Theory.

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