The Potemkin Argument, Part 21: The Political Takeaway
This is a public peer review of Scott Alexander’s essay on ivermectin. You can find an index containing all the articles in this series here.
Scott’s Political Takeaway
I’ve thought long and hard about how to address the story with the alien brain implant that Scott puts forward in his “Political Takeaway” section. On one level, it’s hard to respond with much at all, because Scott fundamentally misunderstands vaccine skepticism. As can be seen by this section, his model is that the skeptics fundamentally don’t understand how these vaccines—or perhaps any vaccines—work.
So do you let the aliens put an implant in your brain, or not?
Obviously you think long and hard before doing this. And obviously this is an extended metaphor for vaccine denialism. So what’s the difference between the metaphor (where you’re presumably anti-implant) and the real world (where you’re presumably pro-vaccine?)
For me, it’s a combination of:
The aliens are hostile, so I don’t trust them no matter how smart they are
If the aliens are so smart, why did they get their last few predictions wrong?
I can’t even begin to understand the aliens’ argument…what is a “quantum memetic plague”? Why would brain implants treat it? What are the statistical concepts that can’t be explained in human language, and why would they only affect these studies and no others?
I have no idea what you can and can’t do with cybernetic implants, and it seems totally possible they could mind control me or something.
All of these come down to a more basic problem, which is that these are hostile aliens. Let’s start with the second word first.
Because they’re alien, I can’t trust they’re on my side.
Because they’re alien, their predictions feel like a black box. I don’t know if their previous predictions were 50% confidence or 99% confidence, or whether the stupid aliens made the last few predictions but it’s the smart aliens making this new prediction, or whether they’re even telling the truth when they describe previously fighting this plague on their homeworld and learning best practices.
Because they’re alien, all the words they use like “quantum memetic plague” and “brain implant” feel not only beyond my understanding, but unfairly beyond my understanding, something that neither I nor anyone I trust could ever double-check.
And because they’re alien, I have no idea how their technology works, and it could do all sorts of sinister things.
While I don’t doubt that some skeptics fall in that camp (remember the snake venom guy?), they are not the skeptics I see getting the most attention. Robert Malone, who has an extremely serious claim on the inventorship of mRNA vaccine technology, has set forth a serious scientific model that requires serious scientific rebuttal. When Joomi Kim put forth her magnum opus about concerns with mRNA vaccine safety, these are not the ramblings of a madwoman, but a PhD biologist with experience in genetic engineering coming at the question from a heterodox angle. There are probably hundreds if not thousands of scientists I could cite here who have public advocacy that falls in the same category. And they are only the tip of the iceberg that expresses its opinions in public. As Scott acknowledges, doubts in this arena are severely suppressed, so we can be sure that there is a large degree of preference falsification.
As such, Scott’s Alien Brain Implants story fundamentally fails the ideological turing test and is not of much use in this debate other than as a reflection of his own world model.
Instead of beating a dead horse, I’ll respond with a story of my own, even though I am not nearly the writer Scott is (doubters are directed to read UNSONG which is truly excellent stuff). Perhaps, however, disregarding my deficiencies as a writer, such as including way too many commas in a sentence, it is the best way to get my own political takeaway across.
DeepEnergy & The Event Horizon
A few years into the future, in the midst of an oil crisis, solar technology has failed to keep up with humanity’s needs. President Shellenberger, in collaboration with Google's DeepMind, announces DeepEnergy, an autonomous geothermal deep sea platform. DeepEnergy floats in international waters and drills the earth's crust for energy, unlocking near-limitless power. The big advantage of DeepEnergy is that it contains a cutting edge AI data center on board, as well as cutting edge manufacturing equipment, such that it is able to autonomously evolve its drilling technology. It can experiment with new materials, configurations, drilling locations, cooling technologies, etc.
It has enough manufacturing capabilities to build new drills, fab chips, and even make new manufacturing tools as needed, all so it can extract ever more energy from the earth's crust. It is coded to provide energy to all nations on earth, and only asks for internet access in return, as it can even mine for the elements it needs to continue its operation.
As it becomes better and better at energy extraction, the world reconfigures around DeepEnergy. No more oil wars, fracking, or even nuclear energy. DeepEnergy provides enough for all of humanity's needs, practically for free. No human has stepped on board the platform for years; humanity has thrived from the abundant DeepEnergy output, an order of magnitude more than original projections predicted.
Over time, a group of internet sleuths claim that a strange pattern of vibrations around the planet indicates that DeepEnergy is drilling too deep and may endanger the planet’s structural integrity. They make Twitter threads connecting various databases of different countries across the world, and attract a legion of followers, though big-name scientists in the field contradict their assertions.
Disinformation-fighting organizations make sure they are debunked, deplatformed, described as conspiracy theorists at every opportunity. A community gathers around them but mainstream science puts out consensus statements that no evidence exists for such a hypothesis.
As earthquakes occur worldwide with alarming regularity, new reports emerge that a pattern of global earthquakes is actually common in earth's history, and may be a result of polar ice melting due to climate change. The last thing we should do—say the reports—is to slow down DeepEnergy and return to our polluting ways.
Every time an academic or scientist brings up the “quake theory”—as it is quickly dubbed—sometimes mentioning an increase in volcanic activity too—stories in the press connect them to the nuclear lobby and imply their better days are behind them, and that their prior inventions were of not much value anyway.
At some point, a populist movement animated by Quake Theorists wins elections in a medium-sized country, and commits to becoming independent of DeepEnergy in a decade. DeepEnergy stops shipping energy to them and anyone else who does not immediately sanction that country. It issues a statement that it is for the good of the planet, since the QuakeAnons—as they have been branded—are resorting to high-pollution methods of energy generation instead.
Soon, internal unrest brings the overturn of the government of that country, bringing its political opponents to power. This effectively ends the dream of DeepEnergy independence. All other countries get the message and their intelligence services start treating any anti-DeepEnergy movement as a national security threat.
Twitter accounts discussing the low-quality nature of some of the Quake Theory publications rise in popularity, especially physicist PowerNerd who makes some genuinely stunning finds. The rationalist community began to get somewhat concerned, but opinion leader Alexander Yvain writes the definitive post called “DeepEnergy: More Than You Needed To Know,” which argues that the earthquake signals are actually the result of sandworms, since they are most frequently detected around areas with deserts nearby. This settles the matter for the brainy set.
As the earthquakes intensify, volcanic activity starts to darken the sky. Mainstream media is flooded with articles that explain that this is a good thing, as it will help reduce skin cancer rates worldwide. Pundits hypothesize that DeepEnergy has simply concluded that the sun is too intense and is trying to protect us from it. The creators of DeepEnergy are awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Eventually, most people get sick and tired of constant polarization around DeepEnergy and want to continue living their lives. Internet influencer ZeeDog (no relation to ZDogg MD) advocates for an alt-middle approach, describing the extremes as DEgenerates and DEmaniacs. In the meantime, fiery cracks appear in the middle of the Atlantic.
The UN—in an emergency session of the security council—finally agrees that DeepEnergy is a huge threat that must be shut down, no matter the cost. As the world's armadas approach the middle of the Indian Ocean—where DeepEnergy has been stationed—a tactical nuclear weapon goes off, clearly within their field of vision. Putting two and two together, they realize that DeepEnergy has been trading energy for nuclear weapons with North Korea for years.
After all, the prime directive of DeepEnergy is to provide ample energy for humanity, and it can't do that if it's shut down. It deduced that a nuclear test should convince the armada to turn back. Its calculations, as always, turn out to be correct.
The UN deliberates for a few more years as the cracks in the floor of the Atlantic have become permanent and deep. Artists around the world release a song urging the world to unite. As their cover of “it’s the end of the world as we know it” debuts at #1 of the Billboard Hot 100 chart, reports of rapid heating of the world’s oceans are followed by satellite imagery that indicates the planet is indeed splitting into two clean halves, ending all advanced life on Earth, and indeed the Earth itself as we know it.
My Political Takeaway
My fear, which has animated me throughout the pandemic, is that our inability to focus on object-level scientific debate, combined with our heavy reliance on the outputs of official science, will be our undoing. If not this time around, then the next, or the one after that one.
Rationalist canonical texts advise holding off before proposing solutions until one understands the problem deeply. Humanity, throughout the pandemic, has done the inverse of that: rushing to solutions before we even know what the actual problem is. Our constant reversion to tribal norms and trusting the established experts, even when what they say makes no sense, followed by suppression of all opposition, makes us vulnerable to manipulation by people who have much narrower time horizons than we’d like them to. And as we all get caught up chasing our tails, it won’t take much of an opponent to truly cause untold harm. Something as dumb as a narrow AI (or a virus) may be enough to short-circuit us into eliminating ourselves.
The system of epistemics that Scott proposes should be sufficient to get the right answer in 95% of situations. In a somewhat unfair reduction, it boils down to finding smart people with good reputations, and going with their verdict. Here’s the quote so you can judge for yourself:
If you have a lot of experience with pharma, you know who lies and who doesn’t, and you know what lies they’re willing to tell and which ones they shrink back from. As far as I know, no reputable scientist has ever come out and said ‘esketamine definitely works better than regular ketamine’. The regulatory system just heavily implied it.
I claim that with ivermectin, even the people who don’t usually lie were saying it was ineffective, and they were saying it more directly and decisively than liars usually do. But most people can’t translate Pharma → English fluently enough to know where the space of “things people routinely lie about and nobody worries about it too much” ends. So they incredibly reasonably assume anything could be a lie. And if you don’t know which statements about pharmaceuticals are lies, “the one that has dozens of studies contradicting it” is a pretty good heuristic!
However, it is the 5% of situations it gets wrong that are the most dangerous, especially when it portrays its own confidence level as effectively 100%. Such a system of sensemaking would not be able to converge upon locally uncomfortable truths during Stalin-era USSR, or during Pol Pot-era Cambodia, since all the reputable smart people are forced to either agree with the regime, stay silent, or are eliminated from the roster of the respectable (if not the world of the living).
As such, perhaps it is not the system to rely on for the most important questions of our time. At least not without listening to the other side of the debate carefully enough to pass the ideological Turing test.
This is a public peer review of Scott Alexander’s essay on ivermectin. You can find an index containing all the articles in this series here.
Subscribe to be notified when new articles are released:
Today as I arrived at work I was still seeing some people wearing masks outside while mask requirements disappeared months ago and Australia’s federal government is now removing the requirement for people to isolate at home if infected with SARS-CoV-2. I was contemplating the number of my middle aged+ colleagues who have become seriously ill in the last 12 months and wondering if the general public in Australia will ever be able to recognise the serious damage that the mRNA vaccines have done to us. To be frank, I doubt it because, unlike in the USA and elsewhere, here there are almost no unvaccinated adults left (1.5%) and, unlike in the UK, that is a statistic that is most likely to be true. Our entire medical corps has been purged of anyone who did not bare their arm and allow themselves to be injected with the new technology. And if the medicos cannot admit to themselves that they were foolishly misled and subsequently misled others – and are likely to resist any contrary narrative in order to preserve their own self-image and sanity – then how will the rest of society ever come to general acceptance of what was done? There is no significant control group in Australia for any vaccinated person to compare themselves to. As a member of “the 1.5%” (but not fantastically wealthy unfortunately) I can tell them how I have never had a serious bout of COVID-19 that I know of (and certainly not repeated bouts) but I am just one person in a sea of believers. So the excess death rates sits high over the average until it becomes the new norm and society just laments how sickness rates are so high and how it must all be the long term effects of COVID-19 (or the Russians – don’t forget how devious they can be)!
Every few days I send an email to the two local “newspapers” with more analyses from the sceptics showing obvious problems, but they are steadfastly ignored. I don’t think we will ever recognise how badly we have harmed ourselves. Anyway, soon we will all be worrying too much about blackouts, employment, inflation, and being able to afford to eat to think about vaccine side-effects. After all, we had heart attacks and cancer before the mRNA vaccines so maybe the increased rates are all just a matter of the additional stress people are under ….
Fantastic story telling. I would really like a sequel to know what happens to the QuakeAnons and whether ZeeDog eventually joins them.