Heavy weather and bad juju

Many primitive societies believe that maleficient spirits cause all sorts of human misfortune that in the modern West we have learned to attribute to natural causes – cattle dying, crops failing, disease, drought, that sort of thing. A few societies have developed a more peculiar form of supernaturalism, in which evil spirits recede into the background and all misfortune is caused by the action of maleficient human sorcerers who must be found and rooted out to end the harm.

A society like that may be a grim, paranoid place with everyone constantly on the hunt for sorcerers – but a sorcerer can be punished or killed more easily than a spirit or a blind force of nature. Therein lies the perverse appeal of this sort of belief system, what I’ll call “sorcerism” – you may not be able to stop your cattle from dying, but at least you can find the bastard who did it and hurt him until you feel better. Maybe you can even prevent the next cattle-death. You are not powerless.

English needs, I think, a word for “beliefs which are motivated by the terror of being powerless against large threats”. I think I tripped over this in an odd place today, and it makes me wonder if our society may be talking itself into a belief system not essentially different from sorcerism.

I have a friend who I’ll label “R” for purposes of this essay. I had a twitter exchange with him in which I said something about anthropogenic global warming being the “dogma of the day”. But this essay is not about AGW, except possibly indirectly. It actually starts with what he gave as his reasons for believing that human beings have screwed up the planet’s climate. At twitter length, this was the recent spate of really bad weather – deep winter all over the Northern Hemisphere, the record storms and floods in Australia, and a couple of other particulars I’ll omit because they’re identifying of him. It was evident that he found these developments quite threatening.

Unlike R, I read a lot of history and thus know a fair bit about how weather impact has been perceived by humans over time. It is a fact that the 20th century was an abnormally lucky hundred years, meteorologically speaking. The facts I managed to jam into tweets included (a) the superstorm that flooded 300 square miles of the Central Valley in California in the 1860s, (b) rainfall levels we’d consider drought conditions were normal in the U.S. Midwest before about 1905, and (c) storms of a violence we’d find hard to believe were commonly reported in the 1800s. I had specifically in mind something I learned from the book Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild, which relays eyewitness accounts of thunderstorms so intense that travelers had to steeple their hands over their noses in order to breathe air instead of water; but a sense that storms of really theatrical violence were once common comes through in many other histories.

We had a quiet century geophysically as well – no earthquakes even nearly as bad as the New Madrid event of 1812, which broke windows as far north as Montreal. And no solar storms to compare with the Carrington Event of 1859, which seriously damaged the then-nascent telegraph infrastructure and if it recurred today would knock out power and telecomms so badly that we’d be years recovering and casualties would number in the hundreds of thousands, possibly the millions.

(I’m concentrating on 19th-century reports because those tended to be well-documented, but earlier records tell us it was the 20th century calm that was unusual, not the 19th-century violence.)

The awkward truth is that there are very large forces in play in the biosphere, and when they wander out of the ranges we’re adapted to, we suffer and die a lot and there really isn’t a great deal we can do about it; we don’t operate at the required energy scales. For that matter, I can think of several astronomical catastrophes that could be lurking just outside our light-cone only to wipe out all multicellular life on Earth next week. Reality is like that.

But none of this would fit in a tweet, so what I said in summary was that this may be the new normal – or, rather, the old normal returning. Humans didn’t do it.

What I got back was a torrent of political abuse that nearly singed my eyebrows. But it wasn’t the vehemence that perplexed me, it was the non-sequitur quality of it.

R is a bright, funny guy, and I love him dearly. But like many geeks, he has some of the traits of a high-functioning autist (and, in his case, I’ve met a couple of relatives who are straight-up autistic). He has an IQ well into the genius range, but doesn’t handle novelty well. This makes it difficult for him to, for example, learn new software tools – if he gets frustrated initially, he will often form a negative judgment that blocks him from learning more, and get so emotionally stuck on that judgment that it takes dynamite or clever ju-jitsu to pry him loose of it.

So this reaction wasn’t entirely surprising to me. One of my recurring roles in R’s life is to introduce novelty into it. This happens naturally because I’m strongly novelty-seeking, and when I trip over something that delights me he tends to hear about it. It also means that I’m used to occasionally transgressing the limits of his rather conservative temperament and having him blow up at me about it. All in a day’s friendship, really, and it generally passes.

This time, though, the reaction seemed extreme even for him – finishing with an almost literal fingers in the ears and “La-la-la-la! I can’t hear you!”. It gave me pause. And I started to think about it.

The most puzzling thing about the whole exchange was his insistence on interpreting my talk about the weather as a political move. I report the Central Valley superstorm of 1861-62 and R’s response is “When did you turn into Rush Limbaugh?” Uh, WTF, over?

It took me a while to model the frame of mind that produced this, but when I managed to I had an insight. Which is why I’m writing this essay. I think, now, what I actually threatened was R’s belief that he, or somebody, could do something emotionally satisfying about the bad weather. Fix it, or prevent it from recurring, or at least punish the bastards who did it.

Supernaturalizing the causes of large-scale misfortunes has become a difficult strategy to sustain for anyone with more exposure to modern scientific knowledge than a cinderblock. Politicizing them into someone’s bad juju, however…that’s easy. And, perhaps, more attractive than ever before – because the alternative is to feel powerless, and that is painful.

Science and the increase in our control over our immediate environment at the small scale may, in fact, be driving us back towards a sort of sorcerism by making the feeling of powerlessness more painful. We are children of humanism and the Enlightenment; terror of the storm and dark is something we associate with the bad old days of angry gods. We should be beyond that now…shouldn’t we?

Thus, the politicization of every bad thing that happens. And people like R, for whom “When did you turn into Rush Limbaugh?” becomes a sort of aversive charm to ward off fear of the Central Valley superstorm and its like.

Yes, we need a word for this, too. Not “sorcerism”; “politicism”, perhaps. The insistence on locating for every large-scale problem a human cause that can be addressed through politics and a set of serviceable villains to punish. Also, the insistence that anyone who rejects the politically fashionable explanation must be in league with the evil sorcerers.

Unfortunately, reality isn’t like that. If a supernova goes off within eight parsecs of us and strips off the Earth’s ozone layer it won’t have been Halliburton or the International Communist Conspiracy that did it. And if the Central Valley superstorm does repeat on us – well, statistically that looked pretty likely at a mean interval of about 150 years; welcome to your new normal, and hunting for the evil carbon-or-whatever emitters that did it is highly unlikely to do any more than supplying you with a scapegoat to ease your hurt feelings.

Finally…feeling powerless may suck, but on the whole it’s preferable to sorcerer hunts. People get killed in sorcerer hunts, almost always people who are innocent. One reason I’m not a politicist is that I don’t want to be any part of a howling mob. It’s a form of self-restraint I recommend to others.

180 thoughts on “Heavy weather and bad juju

  1. Messing up the heat balance of the atmosphere is only one of the tjonge we do to screw up oud future.

    Eliminating sources (fish, topsoil) and fresh water sources are others.

    But you are richt, our world is not a hospital place and many a civilisation collapsed die to long spells of bad weather and over crowding.

    If oil ever runs out before we have installed an alternative we are toast.

  2. >Eliminating sources (fish, topsoil) and fresh water sources are others.

    One of the reasons the AGW fraud makes me angry is that it diverts energy from real and pressing ecological issues like these.

    Having said that, I am declaring AGW discussion off topic for this thread and subject to deletion; I’ll post about it again sometime and the alarmists can have at me then. Please keep comments on point with respect to sorcerism and politicism.

  3. One of the major conceits of modernity is that Nature has been conquered, or is at least conquerable. After all, if you live in the 1st world you have plenty of food, most likely adequate housing, heating in the winter and air-conditioning in the summer, and you are very unlikely to die of communicable disease, lose the life of yourself or your spouse in childbirth, and almost all of your children will live to adulthood. It can be quite surprising to someone reared in such an environment to discover that you are, nonetheless, at the mercy of enormous and indifferent forces beyond your control. It’s only natural to insist that someone is to blame.

    In fact, this suggests a corollary to your law: the domains in which an impersonal, scientific understanding of causes reigns are precisely those domains in which we have acquired a great deal of control. The domains in which the world remains intractable and uncontrollable are the domains in which sorcerous or political enemies are invented.

  4. And people like R, for whom “When did you turn into Rush Limbaugh?” becomes a sort of aversive charm to ward off fear of the Central Valley superstorm.

    No, most likely he had probably heard the Central Valley superstorm — or cases like it — cited often enough by global-warming deniers that you triggered an autonomic response in the poor fellow. :)

    As for me I think we need a word for disbelief in facts rooted in fear of the policy changes those facts suggest be implemented. Banning DDT and Freon have worked enormously well at stemming the thinning of bird egg shells and the ozone layer, respectively, and deniers for those issues still come out of the woodwork.

  5. Not much to comment on, really.

    It’s observably true as a mode of behavior, definitely.

    Regarding perms, “politicism” is too vague-sounding, by which I mean it’s both too much like “politicis[ing,ed]” and that it also doesn’t make it clear in a quote that it’s even necessarily a term of art, let alone what it refers to.

    So on that grounds, “sorcerism” is preferable. I can’t help but think there should be some better alternative, but that is not useful while I can’t think of what the alternative might be.

    (And it brings to mind, semi-relevantly, a quote I’ve loved since I heard it – “the reason witch-hunts are wrong is that there are no witches*”. If they actually existed*, then hunting them would not only not be wrong, it’d be damn near a moral duty.

    * In the sense the witch-hunters mean, that is, of people who “sold their soul to the Devil” for the purpose of gaining the power to cause their fellows sorcerous harm.

    The occasional lunatic who really thought they were doesn’t count as justifying it, because despite their belief in their evil power, they lacked any, and thus could do no harm.

    And of course modern neo-pagan “witches” are a completely different thing, as were any notional survivals of “wise woman” blahblah who were scapegoated as “witches” – though I’m really thinking of the Salem era, where the discredited “witch-cult hypothesis” had even less chance of plausibility than in Europe.)

  6. The saying “Courage is the ability to overcome your fear of what you think might happen” is attributed to Stirling Moss, the result of a question about the fear of crashing at high speed.

    So whatever word you find to describe this condition (and I agree, the language does need a word for this), I suggest that ‘cowardly’ be the adjective appended to the use of the word.

    What is also of interest is that there are aspects of ‘deism’ involved (that gun has supernatural powers: it will jump up and shoot you) as well as what I would call romantic supermanism implied by those who inhabit that realm. (Of course we, humans (or those of use smart enough to impose these controls upon you little people) must control *everything* because bad things will happen otherwise.

    Hhhhmmm, maybe ‘cowardly delusion’ will do???

  7. I think there’s a second kind of powerlessness here that may be just as important–being powerless to form a reasonable opinion on every single issue we’re presented with. When it comes to forming an opinion, we have three options. First, we can invest our own time and energy into researching the topic and understanding the history and the current state of events before coming to a conclusion. My experience has been that few people possess the time, energy and intellect to follow through with this on a regular basis. Those who do are much more open to reasonable discourse.

    Second, we can admit ignorance and (alarmingly!) admit our intention to remain ignorant. This option comes off as a head-in-the-sand mentality. Few people have the confidence to take it. Especially, since option three is far easier.

    Third, we can defer to an authority (I’m using this word loosely, pundit or blowhard might be better) and adopt that person’s opinion as our own. Unfortunately, the people who emit the loudest signals are not the most expert.

    What’s interesting is type three people, generally have the least amount of effort invested in their opinion, but they bind to it the tightest. This is necessarily true as a type two person has no opinion, and a type one person has studied the topic enough have already rejected many hypotheses (i.e. they have been humbled by new information). The type three person feels the strongest precisely because he has the least information. And what has the type three person been told? What the problem is, and who is to blame. That is, they’re fed a politicist (or sorcerist) explanation.

  8. >In fact, this suggests a corollary to your law: the domains in which an impersonal, scientific understanding of causes reigns are precisely those domains in which we have acquired a great deal of control. The domains in which the world remains intractable and uncontrollable are the domains in which sorcerous or political enemies are invented.

    That is an excellent point. Bravo!

  9. > The domains in which the world remains intractable and uncontrollable are the domains in which sorcerous or political enemies are invented.

    Some confirming cases: Economics, politics and warfare are domains in which the world remains intractable and uncontrollable. The rich, various minorities and traditional enemies and the German General Staff all end up as witches.

    Does the word sorcerism improve on the compound word witch-hunt or the word scapegoat? It sounds awkward.

    Yours,
    Tom

  10. >Hhhhmmm, maybe ‘cowardly delusion’ will do???

    No, it most definitely will not do!

    Heed a lesson from a successful practical propagandist. If you want to persuade people that a premise they unconsciously hold is wrong, do not give it a label they will perceive as insulting! If you do this, you make them reluctant to consciously accept that they hold the premise, which will make it more difficult to argue them out of it!

    This rule does not hold for conscious premises. It can be effective to make insulting labels for those.

  11. >Does the word sorcerism improve on the compound word witch-hunt or the word scapegoat? It sounds awkward.

    Er, I’m a witch myself, so “witch-hunt” is right out of bounds for me. Using it would anger my co-mystics and confuse others about what I’m up to.

    “Scapegoating” might work. But I had in mind something more specific, not a sporadic event of discharging sins but when the society’s entire model of causality is bent that way.

  12. > I’m a witch myself

    Yes, sorry. I keep using the word pagan instead of witch to describe you in my mind.

    How about blame-seekers? Non-empirical humanists? Rabid conspiricists? I’m brainstorming here.

    Yours,
    Tom

  13. >How about blame-seekers? Non-empirical humanists? Rabid conspiricists? I’m brainstorming here.

    “Blame-seekers” isn’t bad.

  14. And, of course, this tendency towards sorcerism or politicism provides a similar impetus to Eliezer Yudkowsky’s anti-epistemology, even stronger in this instance than the sort of political or profit-motivated reasons behind other instances, because the person behind it is trying to fool themself, as well as others. (I’m assuming Yudkowsky has used the term anti-epistemology in a serious context at least once, because it came up recently in one of Harry’s expositions in MoR. To clarify, the term refers to the tendency of people to deny the basic axioms of logic and reason in order to justify a single untruth.) The example I’m thinking of here is that class of arguments of which I cannot currently call to mind an example which came up during the most recent AGW debate on this site, at least one of which was advocating a ‘new science’ which was, essentially, an attempt to replace the idea of the scientific method with a version that would by its nature support immediate strong reactions to AGW. (Hopefully using this as an example here doesn’t qualify as “discussion of AGW” for the purposes of this thread.)

  15. I don’t like the negative connotations of the suggestions so far. The problem, it seems, is that this line of thinking can operate in the opposite direction as well. Sorcerists are just as likely to assign undeserved credit to someone or something. For example, it doesn’t make sense to blame Bill Clinton for the economic recovery of the 90’s.

    How about Justifiers.

  16. I think this explains certain peoples reaction to Sarah Palin.

    There are plenty who hate her, who can’t really give a coherent answer why she is so awful.

  17. I don’t really understand things like that because there are plenty of things you can do to protect yourself from major bad weather. There’s even whole online communities devoted to disaster preperations. I suspose I wouldn’t blame people for causing disasters anyhow, though I do blame people for not taking reasonable steps to mitigate a predictable disaster. For example there was a whole flood mitigation plan done up back in the 70’s to protect against big floods on the Brisbane river, but it was cancelled after only the first few steps where completed. Fortunately the Wivenhoe dam was completed and it probably saved at least a few lives this time, but some of the other steps where probably just good common sense for a city located on a flood plain.

    Also, if someone brings up the Brisbane floods (or Cyclone Yasi) again you should point out that after the ’74 floods most scientific types where saying that the Australian weather is on a 30-year cycle of heavy summer storms and then drought then heavy storms again, which is pretty close to exactly what we’re getting.

    Which leads me to another interesting example of this: all the environmental “scientists” (at least the ones that got reported by the media) where saying that AGW was causing us to go into a permenant drought as little as a year ago, but we’ve now got people claiming that this wild weather was caused by AGW.

  18. Interesting question: Was the 20th century calmer because of human intervention into the environment? Does our control and regularization of various things end up having a net calming effect on the weather?

    Obviously, we can’t take credit for earthquakes or volcanos, either way, but we may be affecting the weather. There are numerous examples in evolutionary history of things that accidentally turned the environment to their favor.

    It would be ironic if we were actually a net benefit to ourselves.

    The counterpoint is a variant on the anthropomorphic principle: We would expect to see an unprecedented flourishing of civilization during an unusual break in the climate.

    (Also… exactly how unusual is this storm, anyhow? Is this an unusual storm century-class storm, or is it just that the weather media in the ever-ratcheting media environment just played it up out-of-proportion to what actually happened? I was in Texas for an ice storm in the 1992-1994 range (not sure what year exactly but somewhere in there). And that was merely very unusual, not unheard of. Civilization got on with things without having an existential crisis.)

  19. @Rob: Your three groups reminded me of the Dunning–Kruger effect. From Wikiepedia: “… a cognitive bias in which unskilled people make poor decisions and reach erroneous conclusions, but their incompetence denies them the metacognitive ability to appreciate their mistakes. The unskilled therefore suffer from illusory superiority, rating their ability as above average, much higher than it actually is, while the highly skilled underrate their own abilities, suffering from illusory inferiority.” It explains much about the behavior of your groups 1 and 3.

  20. >I think this explains certain peoples reaction to Sarah Palin.

    I don’t. That’s a much simpler phenomenon – in Angelo Codevilla’s terms, she’s become the focal point of the fear and hatred that the “ruling class” feels for the “country class”. The one dread the outnumbered ruling class must feel most keenly is that the country class will find a tribune, and they think she might be it.

    I wouldn’t bother making this point in this thread, except that the times Palin has been accused of evil-sorceress behavior (as in, for example, the Giffords shooting) the accusation has been a consequence of generalized ruling-class fear and hatred rather than the other way around.

  21. @esr: “One reason I’m not a politicist is that I don’t want to be any part of a howling mob.”

    The odd thing is, most everyone would claim they don’t want to be part of a howling mob. In fact in the diverse examples I can think of where people are engaging in the sorcism, they would all deny being part of a howling mob. But yet, that is (arguably) what sorcism always leads to.

    Not sure why you can’t use the “witchhunt” word, as it is in every contemporary use I can think of, a term for something you wouldn’t want to do.

  22. I’m thinking it needs to capture the quasi religious nature of the affliction while still holding to secular and humanist roots.

    Perhaps “homomalus” (“evil humans”) for the activity, and the people you’re referring to are “homomalites” (believers in “evil humans”) or “homomaliciens” (practitioners of of “evil humans”).

    Seems to describe the accusation pretty well, without trampling the sensibilities of our pagan brethren ;^).

    It has the added advantage of sending them scurrying for a dictionary or Wiki page to find you what you just called them ;^).

  23. >Interesting question: Was the 20th century calmer because of human intervention into the environment?

    I’ve considered this possibility but rejected it until I see something in the way of evidence. The energy scale required to intervene is something we simply haven’t achieved yet.

    However, just for your amusement, I will note that back in the 1980s when I’d only been paying attention to AGW theory for a few years, Jerry Pournelle wrote a speculation called “Throw Another Log On The Fire, Ma!” in which he proposed that carbon emission from the Industrial Revolution kept the Little Ice Age from (you should forgive the expression) snowballing into the big one we’re a couple of Kyears overdue for.

    I didn’t believe it, and I don’t think Pournelle did either; I read it as him cocking a snook at AGW in the form of parody. But it does show that your thought has precedents of a sort.

  24. @ewb: I’m not familiar with the Dunning-Kruger effect, but your Wikipedia quote makes intuitive sense.

    Incidentally, I think types one and two are really flip sides of the same coin. A person may be type one for issue A and type two for issue B.

  25. This is a species of magical thinking. It reminds me of the fallacy of misplaced concreteness and of reification, only somewhat inverted. If you use the wrong frame of reference, you’re highly susceptible to kernel and moral panic if and when what Iain M. Banks marvelously calls an “out-of-context problem” hoves into view. OODA-panic, perhaps?

  26. “One reason I’m not a politicist is that I don’t want to be any part of a howling mob.”

    BTW, I’ve often been part of a howling mob. It was quite enjoyable. It was most often when I went to K.U. and had student season tickets for basketball, but it is also enjoyable at Arrowhead Stadium, and many other places.

    Which leads me to another phrase idea: blame mobs. Like soccer mobs. Ooo. What about blame yobs?

    Yours,
    Tom

  27. I’ve always wondered how the irrational wing of the environmental movement will come up with a carbon-neutral way of burning witches. Since that’s more or less what they’re all about, anyway.

  28. >OODA-panic, perhaps?

    A marvelous term, but not for this. OODA-panic should be reserved for the rage/terror reaction one has upon realizing that incoming threats are exceeding your capability to process and react. The normal human reaction to this (conditioned by the perceptual quirks of top predators in the ancestral environment, no doubt) is to freeze in place.

  29. >irrational wing of the environmental movemen

    Sigh. Would someone point me at a rational wing, please? I want to join it.

    I’m not kidding and I’m not being sarcastic. I really want this.

  30. Eric, if we take it as a given that AGW is a big hoax, then this post offers a plausible-sounding explanation for the emotional fragility and magic thinking that animates its deluded proponents. But if we instead begin with the premise that AGW, while possibly incorrect, is a genuinely credible theory, then this post reads more like condescension and ad hominem. Are the facts so overwhelmingly in your favor that it’s time to move beyond addressing the arguments of your ideological opponents in good faith? Has the time come to focus instead on diagnosing their psychological infirmities?

    ESR says: The post is not about AGW. The argument was about weather.

  31. Eric, I’m not sure it’s possible for the environmental movement to have a rational wing. The kinds of wackos that form movements are, almost by definition, irrational. See the soi-disant “free software” movement.

    And anyone who wants to read a real snark at the warming sorcerists should rush right over to the Baen Free Library and grab Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and Michael Flynn’s Fallen Angels. I’ve driven the chunk of I-94 they depict as being a tunnel in the snow, and yes, my roommate and I have searched the Wisconsin atlas (unsuccessfully) for a County Road KKK.

  32. Eric, RobF does have a point. Never ascribe to malice, and all that.

    However, there must be some explanation for those who are ignoring the growing mountain of evidence – and demanding that it be suppressed – against AGW. The alternatives to an inability to think clearly and reason from all the facts are worse.

    ESR says: I’m refraining from deleting this only because of the first sentence.

  33. >Eric, if we take it as a given that AGW is a big hoax, then this post offers a plausible-sounding explanation for the emotional fragility and magic thinking that animates its deluded proponents.

    On reflection, I think this deserves a reply that’s more on topic. For purposes of analyzing R’s thinking, it actually doesn’t matter whether AGW is true or not. Magical thinking and sorcerism are modes of cognitive failure that can attach themselves to true beliefs as well as false ones. R’s behavior in reading my report of facts as a political move to be slotted into his preconceived categories of sorcerism would still have been bogus even if I agreed with him.

    To reinforce this point, let me say something about anti-communism. I’m a very hard-core anti-communist – got that way by studying relevant history and theory in great detail. I hate communism and communists like poison, and if asked can explain why with analysis and examples that could curl your hair. However – this does not render me incapable of recognizing that many anticommunists less versed in the facts of the matter have engaged in sorcerism and magical thinking.

    It’s wrong when they do it, too, and I’ve never been shy about saying so. I once momentarily hornswoggled a group of libertarians including the then-Presidential candidate of the LP by saying: “We should pay attention to the one thing Marx got right.” Quite deliberately, I assure you; it was in part a test to see how many of them could get past hearing the name of the evil sorcerer Marx to actually analyzing the following argument, and no whit less valid a test because Marx really did horrible evil.

  34. You’re right, Eric. Change that to “However, there must be some explanation for those who ignore inconvenient facts that argue against their favorite explanation of why some aspect of the world is going to hell, and demand they be suppressed. The alternative explanations to an inability to think clearly and reason from all the facts are worse.” AGW is tangential to the point you (and I) were trying to make, at best.

  35. >In fact, this suggests a corollary to your law: the domains in which an impersonal, scientific understanding of causes reigns are precisely those domains in which we have acquired a great deal of control. The domains in which the world remains intractable and uncontrollable are the domains in which sorcerous or political enemies are invented.

    Astronomy strikes me as a glaring counterexample to this princple. Then again, this is only recently the case, historically speaking.

  36. Religiosity is a meme that runs deep, unfortunately. Just because the Abrahamic religions are in decline in the west does not mean the pathology is. I am unfortunately reaching the conclusion that our brains contain some sort of circuitry that predisposes us to these thought patterns. Perhaps this is a survival mechanism, allowing small groups of people to deal with chaotic environments. Unfortunately this thought pattern does not seem compatible with a modern, large scale technological society.

    Even to those of us who work with technology on a daily basis, the wonders outside of our particular realm of expertise are mostly just that….wonders. Magic. I have some idea of how my cell phone works..but in reality I only really understand it superficially. To the average humanoid….it’s just some kind of magic box run by “science”. Combine that with the right amount of sociopathic political activity using the right amount of “scientificality”…and you reinstate the old “witch doctor and fearful peasant” dynamic. (no offense meant by witch doctor, it just accurately describes what I am trying to get across. Sorcerer as you implied it is not the same thing. One could perhaps substitute Priest in the negative connotation….not that I think all Priests are bad. Imagine the guided priest amongst the starving.). The ultimate goal is to get the peasants to blame themselves or those amongst them for the trials and tribulations that beset them. Then they may be fleeced and controlled at will as you work to help them rid themselves of their “curse”. Same stuff….different day….sigh…

    No matter what, you must not shatter somebodies reality in a rude manner. It is akin to stating to a devout person….your god does not exist…you will without fail receive a violent reaction, especially amongst those of little faith. Twitter strikes me as a somewhat “rude” medium by nature. Some minds are more flexible than others. Some will act to kill the source of confusion. I harbor a deep seated fear of these impulses in my fellow humans.

    This reaction spans the complete set of human ideologies; even the supposedly “tolerant” ones; the human equivalent of “does not compute” followed by fear, followed by violent reaction.

  37. I don’t think it is so much fear of the uncontrollable nature of nature, as political. For some reason a whole political movement has staked its reputation on such things as AGW and at this point they *have* to be right. It reminds me more of the way the Soviet Union and other such failed governments blamed their failures on outside forces, evil landowners/capitalists, or sabotage. The nasty nexus is when political power turns on the necessary truth of theories that aren’t in fact established. I think the response of the Catholic Church to Galileo falls in that category. It wasn’t so much that they thought him wrong as that his observations challenged Church power at a time when the Church faced many other challenges.

    I do agree that one of the worst consequences of the whole mess is a misallocation of resources. Resources are finite and spending them on bad solutions to the wrong problems has consequences.

  38. >Astronomy strikes me as a glaring counterexample to this princple.

    Granted we have no control over what astronomy observes, but it’s a really extreme “no control” that comes out the other side. Environmental catastrophism gets a grip on people by convincing them that we do have causal powers over events beyond human scale (and occasionally such a claim is even true), but try to find anyone who thinks Halliburton or the International Communist Conspiracy can change the stars and planets in their courses!

  39. >The nasty nexus is when political power turns on the necessary truth of theories that aren’t in fact established.

    That explains Al Gore behaving like R. It doesn’t explain R behaving like R. He’s not gaining any political power from the shaky theory.

  40. >>I’ve considered this possibility but rejected it until I see something in the way of evidence. The energy scale required to intervene is something we simply haven’t achieved yet.

    Unless, theoretically speaking, patterns of settlement and clearing of greenspaces vs. trees &c affect atmospheric conditions as they do with formation of clouds.

  41. >He’s not gaining any political power from the shaky theory.

    But from his reaction, citing Limbaugh, I expect he is closely tied to the political party of academe and bureaucracy. Not naming any names, mind ;) They are *his* people and their hold on power is slipping. AGW has been around for a while, but the big push of AGW started after the election of Bush and I don’t think that was a coincidence. And then, from all the folks rushing to defend Mann et al, one would think science itself were under attack and everyone must rush to the defense of a comrade no matter his qualities. There is definitely a strong tribal aspect to the whole thing.

    Mind, I don’t disagree that folks have developed an exaggerated expectation of safety in a world where unbelievable catastrophes have happened in the not so distant past. It isn’t difficult to invent scenarios where half the human population is erased by uncaring nature. But I’m not convinced that fear of such things is the driving force here.

  42. >Sigh. Would someone point me at a rational wing, please? I want to join it.

    I think the least insane environmental group is the Nature Conservancy, but I do not know if they meet your standards. I myself do not have the time to join any environmental advocacy group.

  43. >>I expect he is closely tied to the political party of academe and bureaucracy. Not naming any names, mind ;)

    I’m not sure one needs to even go that far. There’s an abundance of classical behavior conditioning associated with the ‘movement’ eg, sifting through one’s trash to sort out the precious recycables -> shopping for items that are recyclable -> social approval for one’s efforts, &c.

  44. English needs, I think, a word for “beliefs which are motivated by the terror of being powerless against large threats”.

    The English word for this is, “superstition”.

  45. Eric, I prefer to think of this meme set as “catastrophist rationalizers.” They probably think of themselves as “rational catastrophists.” And yes, the term “catastrophist”, with its improperly implied root word of “sophist” is quite intentional. I suspect my original term is probably too inflammatory for deprogrammatic purposes, but their internal term for it may not be.

    The meme’s perniciousness is simple.

    By thinking everything is going to shit, you may not be able to change what’s going on, but you can, at the very least, *predict* it. And by assigning blame on it, you’ve given a big scary abstract concept a label that you can use, epistemologically, as a symbol that you can manipulate.

    It leads to mob-like behavior because once you’ve got that symbol to manipulate, and once you can attribute it from impersonal forces you can’t control, to “Those fucking idiots with their “, it spreads like wildfire.

  46. If you want to persuade people that a premise they unconsciously hold is wrong, do not give it a label they will perceive as insulting! … This rule does not hold for conscious premises. It can be effective to make insulting labels for those.

    This is an excellent point. I’m going to make a (late) new year’s resolution to start using the term contrarian, and save denier for the likes of S Fred Singer and Christopher Monckton.

  47. >The English word for this is, “superstition”.

    Arguably, yes. But it doesn’t have quite the specificity and punch I was looking for. Perhaps “hyperstition”? :-)

  48. TMR makes some good points. I’ve long noticed the religious fervor of many environmentalists, especially the most secular ones. Their “we are a cancer destroying the planet” statements often seem to me to be a reformulation of the concept of original sin, or at least something that takes up roughly the same mental space. It’s not quite the same thing as sorcerism, which is about blaming others, but I think it’s related when it comes to AGW, because in their view nobody is truly “carbon-neutral” and thus everyone shares some portion of the blame.

  49. Marx really did horrible evil

    I’m aware of Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao etc. doing horrible evil, but what exactly did Marx do? How is this not “Sorcerism”?

    I think a lot of this is a tendency to see prospiracies as conspiracies — a bit like people seeing faces in clouds.

    I’ve considered this possibility but rejected it until I see something in the way of evidence. The energy scale required to intervene is something we simply haven’t achieved yet.

    Modern society is much better prepared for these sorts of events. For example, Haiti and New Zealand both suffered similar earthquakes last year, but the damage in Haiti was orders of magnitude worse. This is going to minimise perceptions of the size and frequency of natural disasters relative to earlier centuries. It’s also very easy to gather evidence for the entire 19th C and forget that these events were spread out over a hundred years.

  50. esr: “We should pay attention to the one thing Marx got right.”

    So…. what is the one thing that Marx got right?

  51. Granted we have no control over what astronomy observes, but it’s a really extreme “no control” that comes out the other side. Environmental catastrophism gets a grip on people by convincing them that we do have causal powers over events beyond human scale (and occasionally such a claim is even true), but try to find anyone who thinks Halliburton or the International Communist Conspiracy can change the stars and planets in their courses!

    I dug up an example: http://www.sacred-texts.com/astro/ml/ml17.htm

  52. I’m a bit guilty of this, too, when I respond to unusually cold or snowy weather (such as the lows down to -18 we had here in Denver a couple of days ago) by saying, “GORE!!! Where’s Al Gore? He must be around here somewhere!

    But I’m at least aware that I’m making a joke, triggered by the series of coincidences that saw many places around the world experience record cold temperatures, heavier-than-usual snowfall, etc., when Al Gore happened to be in town to deliver one of his sonorous speeches about the supposed dangers of AGW. I know Al Gore doesn’t control the weather any more than I do, but humans are just such suckers for the cheap ironic shot sometimes. :-)

  53. Darrencardinal,

    IIRC I think he might be referring to some components of the labor theory of value.

    pete,

    > what exactly did Marx do?

    He was a false Messiah whose followers were mass murderers. He also did not take care of his own family. And he did not honor his father.

    Yours,
    Tom

  54. @Darrencardinal

    >So…. what is the one thing that Marx got right?

    That there is an exploited set and an exploiting set……everything else was pretty much so much day old vomit.

  55. >I’m aware of Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao etc. doing horrible evil, but what exactly did Marx do?

    Promulgate a big idea about the world that was (a) horribly wrong, and (b) produced culturicidal violence on an unprecedented scale not merely as an accidental side effect but as an intended stage in the working out of the dialectic. If you’re paying attention, this is apparent as early as the 1848 Communist Manifesto and grew more overt as Marx got angrier and older. Later it became fashionable to attribute element (b) to Lenin and Trotsky, and until I read primary sources I bought this myself, but it turns out they were faithfully executing the master’s plan (except Marx thought that the key revolution would take place in Germany; he thought Russia was too backward to host it according to his “objective” theory of development).

    The reason this isn’t more widely understood is that dissociating Marx from his own calls for revolutionary violence and the violent destruction of class enemies became an important legitimacy-seeking tactic for “democratic” socialists, especially after reports of the Kronstadt massacre and other early atrocities began to filter out of the Soviet Union. Accordingly, the version of Marx you get in the West, unless you do your own digging, tends to be quite sanitized. But the medium was the message; mass violence follows from Marx’s premises as inevitably as water flows downhill. Ex-Soviet historians are, understandably, the clearest on this point.

    Actually, Marx has the unique distinction of having been the progenitor of not just the most radically evil ideology in human history (not being hyperbolic, just totting up the body counts) but of its #2 we-try-harder competitor as well – Naziism, which was what happened after the early Italian romantic nationalist Fascism of the Gabrielle D’Annunzio variety (which was actually rather comic-opera endearing) got a rebuild job from a Marxist-Leninist name of Mussolini and then picked up by (shudder) Germans who called themselves “socialists” for good reasons.

    Both Stalin and Hitler were Marx’s diseased inheritors. I think that’s enough evil for any one human being, don’t you? Jesus and Mohammed together didn’t rack up Marx’s heinous body count.

  56. >So…. what is the one thing that Marx got right?

    That politics is, in a very strong sense, an epiphenomenon of economic fundamentals. That is, the envelope of political arrangements available to a society are largely predictable from…hm, Marx would have said “the organization of the means of production”, but I would broaden that and say “technological base”. The mapping isn’t simple one-to-one, but the constraints are strong – and Marx was both correct and original in noting that serious changes in political structure are usually traceable down through economics to a first cause in the technological base.

    I don’t hate Marxism from being ignorant of it. Quite the contrary – I usually find self-described “Marxists” to be shockingly ignorant of their own foundational theory.

  57. I don’t think science (in the broadest meaning of the term) can be held responsible for the thinking that we ought to be in control of our environment. I think the problem highlighted by ESR’s post is actually a deeper issue: that of inevitable and irreversible perspective distortion that scientific knowledge undergoes when it reaches human intellect through perception – either through our own senses or through instruments of measurement.

    On the other hand, scientists, with their own political agendas and personal biases have created and perpetrated this “sciencism” religion which implies that mere knowledge of what happens in the environment is ought to be under human control. And assumption that any knowledge they gain from such observation is absolute, when in fact, it is relative to their own perception and limited to their senses and the limitations of their measuring instruments.

    I refuse to accept this vision of the universe and our environment. Science is an absolutely impersonal body of knowledge – true, but even that knowledge is subject to human subjectivity when it passes through our perception and reaches the level of our intellect. True science is entirely fact-based and even “facts” may be distorted by the eye of the beholder courtesy Relativity.

    All in all, I don’t see a solution to the problem of pseudo-science masquerading as true science, because I don’t think human intellect or perception has reached the level where it is possible to filter out or auto-correct our perspective distortion completely. I think we are moving towards this slowly but it is not yet at a level where we can be 100% sure. In fact I’m not sure 100% certainty is theoritically possible.

    Best current solution is to accept that human understanding of science is imperfect – and deal with it as well as possible. Unfortunately for political reasons, the proponents of the “sciencism” school of thought wouldn’t even consider this.

  58. >IIRC I think he might be referring to some components of the labor theory of value.

    Oh, no. That was utter crap from start to finish.

    >He was a false Messiah whose followers were mass murderers. He also did not take care of his own family. And he did not honor his father.

    On the other hand, this is nearly as good an indictment as I wrote, and much shorter.

  59. I saw the Twitter exchange earlier in the day and (obviously) wrongly assumed the guy was some random left-wing moron. But you are right, I have noticed high IQ Asperger’s types who have seemed rather painfully conventional and dogmatic when it came to politics.

    As for the term – I prefer calling such folks poligionists – a portmanteau of ‘politics’ and ‘religionist’.

  60. @esr

    >That politics is, in a very strong sense, an epiphenomenon of economic fundamentals. That is, the envelope of political arrangements available to a society are largely predictable from…hm, Marx would have said “the organization of the means of production”, but I would broaden that and say “technological base”. The mapping isn’t simple one-to-one, but the constraints are strong – and Marx was both correct and original in noting that serious changes in political structure are usually traceable down through economics to a first cause in the technological base.

    So what happens when “the organization of the means of production” is radically democratized, and the flow of information is likewise distributed?

    Who then becomes the exploited and the obverse? In my way of thinking Marx’s entire class theory falls apart. I suppose a Marxist would argue that it merely illustrates the class structure inherent in our society….I might take that seriously if Marxists weren’t constantly clamoring for the tiller of the oppressive structure.

    ESR says: We’re drifting too far off topic here. But I’m likely to blog about this.

  61. >>> esr: That politics is, in a very strong sense, an epiphenomenon of economic fundamentals. That is, the envelope of political arrangements available to a society are largely predictable from…hm, Marx would have said “the organization of the means of production”, but I would broaden that and say “technological base”.

    Is this what is known as dialetical materialism? I have always struggled with the exact meaning of that term.

    >>> IIRC I think he might be referring to some components of the labor theory of value.

    Oh, no. That was utter crap from start to finish.

    Marx overestimated the importance of labor, and underestimated the role played by entrepreneurs in the creation of value.

  62. I think that’s enough evil for any one human being, don’t you? Jesus and Mohammed together didn’t rack up Marx’s heinous body count.

    I suspect that the underlying technological base had a bit more to do with the results than Marx personally did. The evolution of social/economic/historical systems is much less predictable than the climate; placing the dead hand of Marx in control of all this is just blatant Sorcerism.

    On a side-note: you’ve described Marxism and fascism as “evil” ideologies. As a methodological individualist, do you consider ideologies to belong to a category that admits that sort of adjective?

  63. @ Arthur Hampton

    >I think the least insane environmental group is the Nature Conservancy, but I do not know if they meet your standards. I myself do not have the time to join any environmental advocacy group.

    I agree.

    I also share ESR’s consternation that legitimate CONSERVATION efforts are being overshadowed by voodoo and silliness. Most animals know not to crap in their cage…I sometimes wonder if we are even that smart.

    but back on topic ;-)……

    If somebody has a received value structure that they really have not thought through very well, questions are viewed as a hostile attack, not an opportunity for enlightenment. The same is true of contrary evidence.

    So it boils down to tribalism and self worth being all wrapped up in received knowledge as opposed to exploration and reason. Simply being willing to consider the other side of an issue is not possible under such circumstances. What are you? a Pagan or something??? Get my torch!! ;-)

  64. I’ve always wondered how the irrational wing of the environmental movement will come up with a carbon-neutral way of burning witches.

    That’s easy. They’ll just point out those other witches whom they could burn but haven’t, and sell carbon credits against them.

  65. >Is this what is known as dialetical materialism? I have always struggled with the exact meaning of that term.

    No, that’s a more specific cluster of ideas drawn mainly from Hegelian philosophy.

  66. >placing the dead hand of Marx in control of all this is just blatant Sorcerism.

    I don’t think so, not when Marx prescribed the method and his followers carried it out with remarkable exactitude (one might consider this successful evil sorcery from a rare instance of the real thing, if one liked). For Marx not to be responsible (and thus not consequentially evil) we would have to believe that the doctrines he promulgated were causally unconnected to the massacres. This is clearly not the case.

    Not that I’m, letting Stalin, Mao and Hitler off the hook, mind you. There was plenty of evil to go around.

    Which feeds into the answer to your next question…

    >you’ve described Marxism and fascism as “evil” ideologies. As a methodological individualist, do you consider ideologies to belong to a category that admits that sort of adjective?

    Yes, because I’m a consequentialist. Evil is as evil does, in ideologies as in people. Methodological individualism doesn’t change this reality, though it does require a bit more hygiene in how you describe and reason about it so as not to smuggle in ungrounded concepts.

    The interesting distinction about an ideology that racks up megadeaths in its name is how predictable that consequences were from the premises of the ideology. Communism gets no pass here; they were utterly predictable, and were predicted.

  67. @ Daniel Franke

    >That’s easy. They’ll just point out those other witches whom they could burn but haven’t, and sell carbon credits against them.

    So does this mean I can become a sacred cow and thus avoid the pyre of ire?

    I’m afraid they will simply resort to drowning…..

  68. I did just mean the question I raised earlier as an amusing Fallen Angel-style sidebar; ultimately it’s the same question that the AGW is trying to answer so badly, “What if this other thing had happened in the 20th century instead?” Usually AGW is posited to be this future thing but the core idea can also be seen as arguing that we’re deviating from the “natural” right now to our detriment. (Or in some cases, we’re simply deviating from what would have happened which is automatically bad simply by virtue of that deviation; re: one of LL’s topbar quotes.) Even among AGW skeptics the idea is still often internalized that maybe AGW is bunk, but only because Man isn’t powerful enough in general to really wreck things up, it’s still safe to say that we’re adversely affecting the climate, just below the threshold that matters. I say our ignorance is even greater; our effect may be small but it could actually be something we’d consider desirable.

    harl suggest “sciencism” as a term, I’ve been preferring “scientism” as more euphonious, and also emphasizing the preeminence of scientists over science itself; if enough people with PhDs say it, it is simply true. I’ve been classifying the three levels of science comprehension: 1. Science is all bunk, or just another valid way of looking at the world with no special claim to truth 2. The scientific method produces absolute truth as mediated by peer review and consensus is always correct, “scientism” 3. Science is a process, not a result, the best way to truth we have but still imperfect and still run by humans, with all that implies.

    Schools do a great job of paying all the right lip service to #3 while teaching #2 very strongly, by the structure imposed on the process. My favorite part of learning “science” in school, being the sort to have read enough good scifi to be at #3 already, was running an experiment, accurately reporting my bad results and correctly computing the results they imply (did you know gravity on Earth is actually ~8.0m/s^2? I had proof.), and getting marked down for getting the wrong result. I did have one teacher who understood enough to know better, but alas, he was the exception.

    (Yes, one can argue that such a divergent result should give one pause and cause one to examine the experimental setup more carefully, but it’s not my fault there’s no time for that since the calculations have to be done at home with no chance for repeat experiments, and I was expected to simply eyeball how quickly something started and stopped falling over the course of about three feet with a freaking half-broken stopwatch. Anyone who actually got 9.8m/s^2 that day was either really lucky or just plain lying. Ahem.)

  69. >No, [dialetical materialism is] a more specific cluster of ideas drawn mainly from Hegelian philosophy.

    I should add that dialetical materialism is so utterly fucking silly that even hard-core Marxists tend to consider it embarrassing historical baggage. That is, as opposed to the labor theory of value, which is equally fucking silly but they still try to use analytically. Or the immizeration theory of proletarian revolution, which is merely falsified by history rather than being a priori nonsense.

  70. Brilliant post and great discussion.

    > esr: Jesus and Mohammed together didn’t rack up Marx’s heinous body count.

    Interesting observation. FWIW, I like to refer to Communism and its satellite ideologies as “organized atheism”. I think the societal move toward atheism in the Western world contributes to what you’re seeing with your friend R. I am assuming that he’s toward the atheist side of the religious spectrum, though, perhaps, nominally participates in some religion. When we look at the ancient world, all human societies had some sort of religious/spiritual culture. That implies that religion/spirituality fulfilled some sort of evolutionary need.

    Atheism often denies such a need; therefore, I believe that people towards the atheist side of the religious spectrum evolve personalized coping mechanisms that look rather faith-based. I call this the conservation of religion. As an aside, I’ve thought of an interesting experiment for this hypothesis. Measure the per capita taxes plus charitable donations of Americans. I think you’ll find that sum to be pretty close for both religious and non-religious individuals. The implication of that is that the non-religious sort of venerate the State.

    In light of the discussion of “superstition” and esr’s comment: “If you want to persuade people that a premise they unconsciously hold is wrong, do not give it a label they will perceive as insulting!” I’m inclined to call it: “scienstition”. While the errors like R makes might really be “pseudo-scientific”, “scienstition” seems less damning.

  71. How about ‘inopstition’, from the latin ‘inops’ for ‘weak’, ‘helpless’, & ‘in need’?

  72. esr:
    >>So…. what is the one thing that Marx got right?

    >That politics is, in a very strong sense, an epiphenomenon of economic fundamentals.

    Not a matter of small contention when the argument was first made, either. Heartily dismissed by conservatives in the 1840s and 1850s. But I really did think you’d say it was the argument about productive human nature. Homesteading the Noosphere always seemed to me to be an essay about hackers getting in touch with their species being.

  73. the record storms and floods in Australia

    Don’t forget the extreme fire danger in Western Australia.

    Yep, at the same time we’re seeing flooding and cyclones on the eastern third of the country and some fairly savage bushfires across the western third of the country. Maybe uluru(Ayers Rock… pretty much in the middle) is aboriginal for “at least i’m fricking safe here”.

    Heed a lesson from a successful practical propagandist. If you want to persuade people that a premise they unconsciously hold is wrong, do not give it a label they will perceive as insulting! If you do this, you make them reluctant to consciously accept that they hold the premise, which will make it more difficult to argue them out of it!

    I think more people need to understand this lesson. Especially AGW supporters.

  74. The current interglacial has been very unusually calm. Agriculture started some 10,000 years ago because then for the first time during human existence, the weather stayed “predictable” for a generation or more. During other inter-glacial cycles, it was difficult to talk about “climate” at all as things could go from one climate to another in a generation.

    Btw, the Yellowstone super-volcano is overdue. If it ever erupts, you can say bye bye to 95% of your fellow humans.

    The world really does not like cities or farmers. Actually, it even might not like humans at all. And of all uninhabitable places, Australia must count as the most hostile.

    Ever read the SF novel Wasp by Eric Frank Russel. Fits in really nicely with this theme. Actually, he said it all.

    As for all the AGW stuff, I have seen it all before, AIDS and HIV, smoking, asbestos, thalomide, DES, TEL, DDT, Freon. Always a global conspiracy of alarmist scientist against pure and honest business interests, except for AIDS, which was against religion.
    (and feel free to delete this comment over this remark)

  75. Realizing that the universe is chaotic (in the sense that most of our structures are mental overlays, not built in to physical reality) and that impersonal forces (eg climate change) could wipe you out at random without any reason is a very lovecraftian feeling. I think Man (and especially men) is hardwired to seek Faustian mastery over the cosmos.

  76. @esr
    If you ever blog about Communism, could you give a definition?

    I have seen people labeled “Communist” by USA citizens that would never be labeled as such in the rest of the world. Many people who are labeled Communist by US commenters think Marx got it very wrong and are staunch opponents of anything that could result in tyranny and death. So I find it very difficult to find out what people you are actually referring to.

    I think I am not the only one for which these discussions are almost impossible to make sense of.

  77. Reading this post reminded me of something I was discussing with my wife the other day. She’s been studying prehistory extensively recently, in particular paleolithic and neolithic tools and societies.

    The time period of this is a few million years (the first stone tools attributed to humans are about 2.5 million years old IIRC), so covers quite a few “ice ages” (in quotes because apparently glacials, interglacials, stadials and interstadials are the correct terms), and she has consequently done some research on that too. The weather conditions now are typical of the interglacials, and IIRC some of them were **warmer** than now. Based on the relevant time scales, we are probably “due” another period of glaciation some time soon.

    So, all the politicisation and AGW hype seems mildly amusing — the climate does change, and it changes in a big way all on its own. I expect that if we do get a period of glaciation soon, people will struggle to cope, and the same people who are AGW proponents will promptly become anthropogenic-global-COOLING proponents.

    Anyway, “sorcerer hunts” are never good, but do seem to be a recurring theme across history (e.g. the Spanish Inquisition, Salem witch trials, and so forth). Not only are they not helpful in themselves, but they can become a tool for wider persecution of some segment of society by those in power: in times gone by, people would be tortured or executed; today we fine them, imprison them and ostracise them. Either way, it provides a way for those in power to cement their power: unite with us against the evil sorcerers.

    Actually, it now reminds me of the “war on terror” too: not only are terrorists evil doers who must be stopped, but they must be stopped /at all costs/. This includes costs to the livelihood and freedoms of normal citizens, as those in power seek ever increasing control over those they are claiming to protect.

  78. Anthony: the excessive security apparatus in the “war on terror” was what immediately sprang to my mind as well. The difference is that there is actually human agency behind it. The similarity is that terror provokes inappropriate, useless responses that do more harm than good, in those trying to seek an illusion of control.

  79. @Aaron:
    “The difference is that there is actually human agency behind it.”

    No. The whole point of eric’s post is that people see human agents behind everything. Which includes threats that actually involve human agents.

    Popper called conspiracy theories the result of complete historical ignorance (The Poverty of Historicism). Those who believe that everything must be the result of a human conspiracy tend to have no clue about the world at large and history in general. Those subscribing to historicism (Popper was thinking of Marx and his followers here) are only a single step above the conspiracy theorists.

  80. >I think Man (and especially men) is hardwired to seek Faustian mastery over the cosmos.

    I agree. Still wack to pretend you have it where you don’t, though.

  81. >No. The whole point of eric’s post is that people see human agents behind everything. Which includes threats that actually involve human agents.

    Thar’s not exactly right. I was focusing more on the way powerlessness makes us irrational than on any intrinsic tendency to see human agency in everything. We’re at least as emotionally fond of supernatural agency, after all, even if that’s a discredited intellectual category. Even I make jokes about avoiding the baleful gaze of the dread god Finagle.

    But since you brought it up, Aaron does have hold of a crucial point. We need to distinguish three cases here:

    (1) Sorcerous theories of natural disasters, which are false and unjustified.

    (2) Sorcerous theories of human evil which are true but unjustified (say, a typical U.S. conservative’s historically-illiterate view of Communism). These are more plausible than theories of the first kind (and thus more easily adopted without full justification) because political evil really does have human agency behind it.

    (3) Sorcerous theories which are both true and justified – where you get to, for example, if you study Communism carefully enough to understand how the “spells” were written and why they work. This category is quite rare.

    Again, a point that needs emphasizing is that sorcerism can attach itself to true beliefs as well as false ones. Observing sorcerous thinking justifies a strong presumption that the beliefs it attaches to are false, but not an absolute one. It remains contingently possible that AGW is true; it remains historically certain that Communism is evil. Neither position is falsified by the observation that right-wing thinking about Communism and left-wing thinking about AGW are both poisoned by juju.

  82. @esr
    “It remains contingently possible that AGW is true; it remains historically certain that Communism is evil. Neither position is falsified by the observation that right-wing thinking about Communism and left-wing thinking about AGW are both poisoned by juju.”

    That I can completely agree with, even though I do have different positions on these matters.

    To take a less contentious subject (I hope), every economic crash is blamed on a “conspiracy” of some human participants. It is clear humans were the causing agents, but it is sorcerous thinking to even assume they had the power to collude to bring about the collapse.

  83. It is a religion to these people and they are like radical muslims who feel that you, the unbeliever, should be destroyed. It goes beyond reason and has become blind faith. You can’t talk to them and you cannot help them they are on a self destructive path. The best thing you can do is get out of their way.

  84. > We’re at least as emotionally fond of supernatural agency, after all, even if that’s a discredited intellectual category.

    They’re not really different. Gods tend to be humans with supernatural powers, invoke Clarke’s Law and you get humans with scientific powers.

  85. Gone With The Wind:

    If the environmental whackos are “hell bent on destruction”, I would greatly prefer that they not drag the rest of society down with them.

    Perhaps we can get them to direct their efforts on the Middle East. “If we’re going to fight release of carbon, we should start at the source!”

    But maybe I’ve read Machiavelli’s On War too recently.

  86. >>”English needs, I think, a word for “beliefs which are motivated by the terror of being powerless against large threats”. I think I tripped over this in an odd place today, and it makes me wonder if our society may be talking itself into a belief system not essentially different from sorcerism.”

    Eric, you may think about looking into “Terror Management Theory”. It is a vast area of psychology research which is a subset of social cognition. Broadly, it maintains that many trends throughout history can be linked to an underlying human fear of the unknown/uncontrollable and an intense desire to minimize the dissonance associated with this realization. Those working in this field have theorized (and I’m not attesting to the truth of these ideas necessarily; I haven’t done the requisite study to do that) that fear of death might be responsible for phenomena as diverse as the rise of religions (no shock there) and the consistent persecution of Jews by various societies throughout history. You may have come to a realization similar to this through your reading of history, but TMT delves into the actual mechanisms which motivate this behavior and empirically analyzes it.

  87. Related, I think, is the human tendency to see patterns and associate them with cause and effect, and frequently with agency, even if the pattern is statistically insignificant.

    Sports provides some nice examples. In basketball standard wisdom among professional players and most of the coaches and analysts is that players have hot and cold shooting streaks, despite analysis repeatedly showing that the results are consistent with independent events. In baseball, everyone had known for a century – and most still do! – that pitchers have a considerable degree of control over where balls are hit. It runs out, though, that this is almost entirely untrue – for balls hit into play, almost all the variance in outcomes is attributable to the hitters, defenses, and ballpark – the effect of the pitcher is minimal. Both of these beliefs in player control, though, have been very persistent despite the overwhelming mathematical evidence that they’re nonsense.

  88. Btw, why don’t you post something to LessWrong once in a while? While you are already on the radar of some people there, most of them could probably benefit from more exposure to your ideas.

  89. English needs, I think, a word for “beliefs which are motivated by the terror of being powerless against large threats”.

    The English word for this is, “superstition”.

    I was thinking “religion” but then one man’s religion etc.

  90. @TMR: “I have some idea of how my cell phone works..but in reality I only really understand it superficially.”

    Of course, there is an alternative viewpoint. My understanding of how my cell phone works is superficial, yes, but I know enough about electronics (I’m a ham radio operator who builds and troubleshoots her own gear) to be confident that *in principle*, if I took the time to study it, I could understand in detail how it works.

    I have no need to do so, so it is not a good use of my time. Still, this isn’t quite the same as a pure Type 3 Argument-from-Authority reaction; it’s more of a hybrid Type 1a I’ll-assume-the-experts-are-right-but-I-reserve-the-right-to-reexamine-things reaction.

    I’m not certain why — perhaps lack of education — that this isn’t a more common point of view to take on a wider variety of issues.

  91. Of course, there is an alternative viewpoint. My understanding of how my cell phone works is superficial, yes, but I know enough about electronics (I’m a ham radio operator who builds and troubleshoots her own gear) to be confident that *in principle*, if I took the time to study it, I could understand in detail how it works.

    See, the problem is that access to certain specialized knowledge has steep barriers in practical terms. Barriers of intellectual capacity, time and opportunity to study, aptitude, and also availability of enough study material in the said field are some.

    Technology is growing by leaps and bounds, but the gap between the average man and that technology, in terms of access to specialized knowledge in relation to it, is growing by the day. Super-specialization in areas hitherto unheard of has just emphasized this gap even more.

    So much so that technology = magic, for the rest of us.

  92. @hari
    “Technology is growing by leaps and bounds, but the gap between the average man and that technology, in terms of access to specialized knowledge in relation to it, is growing by the day. Super-specialization in areas hitherto unheard of has just emphasized this gap even more.”

    I know some areas with specialized knowledge: oceanography, atmospheric sciences, hydrodynamic modeling, geology, meteorology, archeo-climatology, climatology.

  93. @Ken Burnside:

    But maybe I’ve read Machiavelli’s On War too recently.

    Machiavelli wrote The Prince; I don’t know of him having written a treatise on war. Are you thinking perhaps of General Karl Von Clausewitz?

  94. I’ve been developing a different take on the subject. Consider the hygiene hypothesis. The idea is that your physical immune system is designed to spend a certain amount of time and effort dealing with serious physical threats, so if your childhood environment is too clean, your physical immune system may go a little stir-crazy and start overreacting to minor or nonexistent threats. So people suffer from asthma or peanut allergies or what-have-you simply because they didn’t crawl around in the dirt, get sneezed on, or skin their knees enough as a kid.

    So: What if our mental and cultural immune systems have the same characteristic? Both as individuals and as a culture, we’re constitutionally designed to seek out, perceive, and respond to serious threats to our selves, our families, our race, our species as they crop up. Threats such as war or starvation. Now, what happens when all the immediate threats are gone? What happens when you and your family are in no immediate risk whatsoever with regard to *anything* that you could do anything about, hence nothing to trigger those protective instincts? Answer: asthma. This explains the ludicrous overreaction to both 9/11 (on the right) and AGW (on the left). We’re pattern-matchers; Al Qaeda (sort of) matches a pre-existing template for “powerful evil enemy that threatens to kill us all” and CO2 (sort of) matches a pre-existing template for “dangerous evil stuff that threatens to kill us all”. So we had to respond to both threats in ways that were, quite predictably, guaranteed to do more harm to us than the original insult. Because the response was all out of proportion to the size of the original threat.

    When facing an existential threat, anybody who isn’t with us is against us. I think what I’m proposing is a law of conservation of outrage – we can get just as upset at a few dozen terrorists today as we once could at the entire USSR; we can get just as upset at a pollutant that might cause a little harm 50 or a hundred years from now as at one that actually hurts people now; there is no connection between the amount of outrage and the amount of harm the outrage is in response to.

  95. Ah, yes, the average man-technological man gap. Funny we don’t see more pulpiteering over this. We should raise the minimum brain, by jove.

    For a while, I was trying to characterize ESR’s initial description as man’s expressed frustration at his own misfortune, and perhaps tie it to Austrian neurology and German Dadaism to produce freudenschad. But it hangs loose.

    For now, the best I can come up with is Evangelical Perfectionism – the urge to convince everyone in earshot that everything can be controlled.

  96. esr,

    Thanks for appreciating my unusual pithiness.

    OK, now something is driving me crazy because I can’t remember it. You had some term for a rhetorical trap where, no matter what you said or did you would be tagged with a label, like racist. Call the rhetorical trap X. I remember I made the claim I could find an open software proponent exhibiting it. You (appropriately) shamed me into finding an example and, after noticeable squirreliness on my part, I at least satisfied myself that I had. First of all, what was the rhetorical trap X? I can’t even search on X if I can’t remember X!

    Second, actual witch hunts seemed to do things like this: i.e. Dunk the witch in the pond. If she drowns she isn’t a witch. If she survives, burn her. Or, in a more modern example, have a show trial: If there is a confession, it’s true, and he is an enemy of the people. If not, he is both an unrepentant liar and an enemy of the people. So, do X and blame yobbery necessarily accompany each other, or only commonly?

    Yours,
    Tom

  97. I agree. Still wack to pretend you have it where you don’t, though.

    Wack, sure. but we’re not only hardwired to seek that Faustian mastery, we’re hardwired to believe and operate as if we already have it, at least in our own little corner of the universe. It’s only through conscious thought and conscious choice that we allow ourselves to break out of that little box.

  98. Ooo, Glen Raphael! What an interesting idea! A hyperactive threat response might partly explain why America’s prisons are over full and the constant push to create more felonies. As might blame yobbism being a particular way in which hyperactive threat responses misbehave.

    Yours,
    Tom

  99. Paul,

    Yes! Kafka traps! So, do kafka traps and blame yobbery necessarily accompany each other, or only commonly?

    Yours,
    Tom

  100. P.S. Feel free to argue me out of blame yobbery as a term. Kafka trapping is a wonderful set of syllables to describe itself. I think blame yobbery, even though it sounds good, isn’t nearly as descriptive as kafka trapping.

  101. On second thought, Evangelical Perfectionism doesn’t fit, either – though I claim it might be an underlying drive behind the kind of panicked grasping at vampires ESR describes in the OP.

    Meanwhile:

    “One reason I’m not a politicist is that I don’t want to be any part of a howling mob.”

    As stated above, naturally, no one wants to be part of a howling mob (aside from on rare occasions for fun). That’s not the problem. Thing is, when you ask someone if they want to be part of a mob, they’re thinking about it, so of course they’ll say no. But no one can maintain this level of consciousness forever; it consumes too many calories. Eventually they stop thinking, and then the mob overtakes them, assuming a mob is readily at hand.

    Of course, not everyone places themselves near mobs all the time. And not everyone puts up mob sensors to automatically put them on their guard when a mob is imminent; and of those, not everyone sets those sensors up correctly. Even smart people can get caught. Thankfully, this is relatively rare.

    Which brings me to astronomy: I think the astronomical events that could hurt us or even kill us could easily have led to mass panic; fortunately, at about the same time that we came to grips with things like mass extinctions from asteroid impact or the earth’s inevitable swallowing by a red giant Sol, we also found out that one happens very (astronomically!) rarely, and the other isn’t due for a few billion years.

    That reminds me. There’s no doubt a connection between this witch hunting / evangelical control freakery / whatever we decide is the best term for it, and the recent spate of zombie apocalypse fiction. It’s as if people craving the eschaton observe all the chaos in the world and figure, hey, let chaos be the resolution. Let it consume itself, and then we’ll have the control we’re entitled to.

  102. @Tom DeGisi: I don’t know where the phrase “blame yobbery” comes from. (I did Google it and was stunned to find there are still phrases out there that get exactly one Google hit. But the hit led nowhere anyway.) So I don’t know how it relates to Kafka traps, if at all. Sorry. Working from Urban Dictionary, blame yobbery sounds like trying to find some group of young male thugs to out as witches du jour, which doesn’t really sound like your angle here.

  103. My theory says that people have a need for something to rail against as “our biggest threat”. People will be irrationally resistant to any hint or suggestion that their chosen problem’s not really so bad – and hence, that they’ve been misled into wasting time/attention on it – unless you can give them some new threat that seems even more scary and important and might fill the same niche. If you can do that, the original threat will just fade away as a matter of concern.

    We only have the bandwidth to worry intensely about relatively few things at a time. Hence, issues like “flag burning” or “killer bees” or “glue-sniffing” or “crack babies” seem really important for a while, but are easily forgotten.

    What makes me doubt esr’s implied take on it is that “R” probably hasn’t experienced any of these weather events directly. It’s all second-hand or third-hand info. The threat of flooding in Australia is likely no more real to “R” than the threat of Africanized killer bees in Panama. Or the threat of a comet strike. So it’s not a viceral “I need to be able to control my environment” reaction. What is being challenged is no more or less than “R”‘s judgment as to who to trust and what threats to care about. People identify with their favorite threats much like they identify with their favorite sports teams.

  104. Paul,

    I invented “blame yob”, above, after thinking of blame mob. Perhaps blame mobbery is better. Yobs do move in mobs, but it may not be a word Americans know. Mob and yob share the implication of criminality, and howling sorcerer hunting mobs are bad, but individuals can practice sorcerer hunting, and “blame mobster” doesn’t work at all. Maybe we really have to stick to witch hunt. How about black helicopter spotter, or conspiracy nut? Is there a well known fictional character who incorrectly blames an innocent for everything? Kind of like “I thought I thaw a puddy cat” if cats didn’t actually like eating birds.

    It occurs to me that people suffering from victimology often believe in sorcerers.

    Yours,
    Tom

  105. The other phrase I want to avoid is McCarthyism. Because there really were (and are) Communists here trying to bring about Communism. McCarthy just cast his net a little wide and trampled on people’s rights, which a different bad problem. He wasn’t wrong and I see no evidence he was attributing to Communists and Communist sympathizers things that that none of them were doing or trying to do. I don’t think there were any witches in Salem.

    Yours,
    Tom

  106. I should point out that I believe there very well may have been witches in the pagan sense as paganism died / was suppressed and possibly even in the Satan worshiping sense who were persecuted by Christians. I suspect there have also been plenty of Christians who dabbled in magic, some of whom were correctly prosecuted, setting aside whether or not practicing magic should be illegal. If you believe in magic, dabbling in it must be a real temptation, as fortune tellers everywhere can attest, kaching. In addition most people (male and female) who were condemned as witches, well, weren’t. Whatever else may be true about my faith, it clearly has not kept us from even the most awful sins.

    Yours,
    Tom

  107. I tell you, magic always gets a bad rap. Partly because no one can define it. Everyone thinks of a set of things that are clearly magic, and as soon as someone figures out how to do one of them reliably, they redefine it as science instead, so magic’s always the crackpot stuff only.

  108. >The other phrase I want to avoid is McCarthyism. Because there really were (and are) Communists here trying to bring about >Communism. McCarthy just cast his net a little wide and trampled on people’s rights, which a different bad problem. He wasn’t wrong and I >see no evidence he was attributing to Communists and Communist sympathizers things that that none of them were doing or trying to do. >I don’t think there were any witches in Salem.

    I agree McCarthyism isn’t the right term to indicate what eric is describing. There’s a lot of “Communism is evil, and if you don’t agree with me, you’re a communist'” in McCarthyism, so it’s a bit of a kafkatrap as well as a form of this ‘sorcerism’.

    Also, you make it sound as if having “communist sympathies”, whatever that means, would be a valid reason for prosecution. Weird.

  109. >I should point out that I believe there very well may have been witches in the pagan sense as paganism died / was suppressed and possibly even in the Satan worshiping sense who were persecuted by Christians.

    Speaking as a neopagan, I’ll go further than that. There were probably remnant pagans who were corrupted into Satanists by Christian influence.

  110. I should point out that I believe there very well may have been witches in the pagan sense as paganism died / was suppressed and possibly even in the Satan worshiping sense who were persecuted by Christians.

    There’s no evidence of this. For example, it’s widely believed (at this point anyway) that Gerald Gardner cribbed much of Witchcraft Today from Margaret Murray, with perhaps a bit coming from his friend Uncle Al thrown in the mix.

    I suspect there have also been plenty of Christians who dabbled in magic, some of whom were correctly prosecuted, setting aside whether or not practicing magic should be illegal.

    Yes. See Rosicrucianism as an example.

  111. “The most substantiated cause I ever heard of for the trials was that it was fear of older women threatening the social order of the time.”

    Recommended reading: “The European Witch-Craze” by H. Trevor-Roper. He explains at some length that the witch craze (of which the Salem trials were one of the last gasps; the peak was 1600 – 1650) was NOT the remnant of a belief dating back to the prerational era, but was in fact a direct result of the rise of rationality and the attempt to build a logical framework (read “theory of everything”) that tied together Christianity, fear of the “other” on the margins of society, and obsession with model-building.

    There was no witch-craze in the misnamed “Dark Ages.” Around the 9th century CE, the canon law was modified to state that [witchcraft] night-flying and metamorphosis were hallucinations and that whoever believed in them “is beyond doubt an infidel and a pagan.”

    He goes on to explain that that parts of Europe where persecution of witches was a major issue, there was little persecution of Jews, and vice versa. In other words, there appears to be a need for an “other”, a threat to the established order, and to some extent it doesn’t matter what it is. Once something fills that slot, there is less need to target other deviations from social convention.

    http://oll.libertyfund.org/?option=com_staticxt&staticfile=show.php%3Ftitle=719&chapter=77036&layout=html&Itemid=27

  112. >There’s no evidence of this. For example, it’s widely believed (at this point anyway) that Gerald Gardner cribbed much of Witchcraft Today from Margaret Murray, with perhaps a bit coming from his friend Uncle Al thrown in the mix.

    Oh, quite right. But don’t forget the fam-trads with pre-Gardnerian roots. Most are frauds, of course, but not all. I think I’ve known one genuine one.

  113. Morgan,

    > There’s no evidence of this.

    It would have been pretty early and the winners write the histories. I’m was going by how humans behave, not because I have evidence. But evidence was easy to find, so I guess the winners didn’t cover up their sins.

    It sounds like converting Vikings to Christianity may have reduced the risk of death by Viking to the rest of Europe, but it really increased the the risk of death by Viking to Vikings. (Yes I’m aware that, technically, staying home and killing your fellow Norseman is not actually going Viking.)

    I am trying to draw a distinction here and am floundering about doing it. I’m not trying sidetrack us. Witch hunt is probably not a suitable phrase because, although there weren’t witches in Salem, there were witches in Europe and they were also hunted as a part of, sigh, normal religious persecution, not sorcerer hunting / blame mobbing. Although normal religious persecution does seem to be accompanied by kafka trapping and sorcerer hunting. Speaking as a Christian, I would say that even current day peaceful (via speech and press, not sanctioned violence) religious persecution, including heretic hunts, is so fraught with temptation that we may want to confine ourselves to hunting heresy and not heretics.

    > For example, it’s widely believed (at this point anyway) that Gerald Gardner cribbed much of Witchcraft Today from Margaret Murray, with perhaps a bit coming from his friend Uncle Al thrown in the mix.

    I’m talking about Christians and pagans, not neo-pagans. I’m talking history. I’m not trying to talk about your religion. I’m trying to talk about my religion though. I do not want to insult you by misinterpreting your religion in any way. I may (probably will) screw up.

    Yours,
    Tom

  114. Honestly, I think the more relevant bias is the temptation to believe that one’s perceived opponents are wrong to the greatest extent possible. Liberals and conservatives want to paint one another as deluded liars whose proposed policies are not just wrong but an existential threat to life as we know it.

    And good luck getting any science at all done in that political climate.

  115. esr, you have committed blasphemy against the most holy Gaia. Her wrath will be upon you, and upon us. Repent of your sins, and study the holy words of the Goracle and the Obamessiah, until your heart is cleansed.

  116. @ Cathy: “Of course, there is an alternative viewpoint. My understanding of how my cell phone works is superficial, yes, but I know enough about electronics (I’m a ham radio operator who builds and troubleshoots her own gear) to be confident that *in principle*, if I took the time to study it, I could understand in detail how it works.

    I have no need to do so, so it is not a good use of my time. Still, this isn’t quite the same as a pure Type 3 Argument-from-Authority reaction; it’s more of a hybrid Type 1a I’ll-assume-the-experts-are-right-but-I-reserve-the-right-to-reexamine-things reaction.

    I’m not certain why — perhaps lack of education — that this isn’t a more common point of view to take on a wider variety of issues.”

    I would assume that most people who read this blog and post here could do the same. I could, given enough time, purchase a surface mount machine and a wave soldering machine, and a bunch of software and parts and construct a crude working cell phone. That effort would still be built on a huge amount of specialized technical know how that many tens of thousands of people have contributed to. If you put me naked in a field and said…build a cell phone. It’s not goin’ to happen in this lifetime. Even if you gave me the instructions…that was more of my point. Our society is so specialized…the “experts” only know a small part of the whole..unfortunately many of them seem to be unaware of just how truly ignorant they are. A little humility and recognition of this fact would go a long way towards killing the control freak tendency. They would realize that there is no way for one individual to know enough to “plan” things in totality. The old information problem again.

    I also do not understand why people cannot be more flexible. They gravitate towards, and cling to, absolutes. I would agree that it was a lack of education, if I didn’t know so many over-educated people prone to this.

  117. You have described one of a set of behaviors that are endemic to productively-insecure people. Namely, they have an innate fear of powerlessness and this anxiety ofter leads them to collectivize (security in numbers) and demonize (fix the blame somewhere else). As Eric has noted, this is a facet of cultural evolution and eventually the behavior will either die out or overcome us all.

  118. God grant me the serenity
    to accept the things I cannot change;
    courage to change the things I can;
    and wisdom to know the difference.
        —Reinhold Niebuhr

    The phenomenon you’re describing is “courageous foolishness” in Niebuhr’s terms.

    Interestingly, one of the oddest places I’ve seen this quote was in an Ayn Rand essay. She was an atheist, but other than the phrasing in the form of a prayer, thought this was a very important lesson to learn. She distinguished between the “metaphysically given”: facts of nature that are true, and would be true no matter what any of us humans wanted to do about them; and “man-made facts”, which are true because of human action that has made them true, and therefore could be altered (at least in the future tense) if other human action unmakes them.

    It appears to be a common problem to conflate these two kinds of facts: the Progressive appears to be more of the courageous fool (asserting that human action can unmake truths not of human making), while the Conservative is more of a cowardly fool (accepting truths of human making as if they were ordained by God/Nature). There are inconsistencies, but that’s the overall scheme of it.

    But both are fools.

  119. Good analysis.

    English needs, I think, a word for “beliefs which are motivated by the terror of being powerless against large threats”.

    There’ s the homophonically sound “succor”…

  120. “Realizing that the universe is chaotic (in the sense that most of our structures are mental overlays, not built in to physical reality) and that impersonal forces (eg climate change) could wipe you out at random without any reason is a very lovecraftian feeling. I think Man (and especially men) is hardwired to seek Faustian mastery over the cosmos.”

    I don’t know that it is an unalloyed bad thing to feel a bit of revulsion and defiance at the capriciousness of uncaring nature. (At times I feel a bit of impatience with the quivering and quailing of Lovecraft’s uncurious and cowed protagonists, don’t you? If you have to explore the hostile unknown, do it like a man, ****it!) Nature, after all, has never been our friend, exactly. All our prior efforts (that is, the ones that weren’t delusional) at mastery of nature have yielded our present state of security and abundance in the modern world.

    We *can* master nature, and have to a certain finite extent. And there is the prospect of further immunizing and securing ourselves against natural disasters. The Japanese are masters at this, having constructed hundred foot high concrete sea-walls and earth-quake proof skyscrapers to shield themselves against hurricanes and tsunamis. The Dutch and Finnlanders have constructed floating buildings that are proof against floods. With a little application to proper engineering, entirely avoidable loss, such as what occurs in Florida every other year when hurricanes bulldoze the coast flat, could be prevented. We *do* have that power. It’s not all fatalist helplessness in the face of uncontrollable events!

    To a large extent we are still somewhat exposed to nature via our dependence on open farmland, but that’s not necessarily etched into the laws of physics. We are making our first tentative steps to creating artificial meat in vats, we can farm in greenhouses, the Haber-Bosch process enables us to create intensively farm-able soil wherever we deign to spend the energy. We might never be able to defend against supernovae (at least in the foreseeable future).

    I’m not defending witch-hunts or delusional assignment of blame and credit on the basis of religious or quasi-religious tribal impulses. Magical thinking, in terms of this definition, is revolting. But shouldn’t we also reject fatalism in the face of natural events? I believe we can and should seek, wherever possible, to become more resilient as a civilization. We keep men alive at the bottom of the ocean for months on end, we aspire to live permanently in space one day.

  121. “It appears to be a common problem to conflate these two kinds of facts: the Progressive appears to be more of the courageous fool (asserting that human action can unmake truths not of human making), while the Conservative is more of a cowardly fool (accepting truths of human making as if they were ordained by God/Nature). There are inconsistencies, but that’s the overall scheme of it.

    But both are fools.”

    This is sort of what I’m getting at, myself. But I only wish progressives were the kinds of “courageous fools” that they were back when they were still sanguine about the prospects of central planning. At least then, they were actually Progressive! These days, they are a sort of fatalist neo-Malthusian, for the most part; and they are trying to maneuver us into the very sort of limited future that they fear. To prevent us from driving ourselves into imagined natural constraints to our prosperity, they will impose sharper limitations on us by fiat, and cull mankind to a manageable and static state!

  122. @TomA:
    “You have described one of a set of behaviors that are endemic to productively-insecure people.”

    I think our diagnosis is flawed.

    If I am grasping what you mean by “productively-insecure” (not a particularly clear term IMHO), I know lots of people who are or should be secure in their productivity (and lack of powerlessness, to the extent any human has such) but yet they exhibit the behaviors Eric describes – in spades. IMHO, you just need to be more discerning in the wide variety of things that can inspire sorcerism/witchhunting. I suspect Eric’s friend R fits this description, and innumerable others.

  123. Heed a lesson from a successful practical propagandist. If you want to persuade people that a premise they unconsciously hold is wrong, do not give it a label they will perceive as insulting! If you do this, you make them reluctant to consciously accept that they hold the premise, which will make it more difficult to argue them out of it!

    This rule does not hold for conscious premises. It can be effective to make insulting labels for those.

    This is good stuff, but how do you tell whether a premise is consciously or unconsciously held?

    I came up with “polidolatry” for the belief that everything can be solved by political action, but that might count as self-defeating mockery. Also, the meaning might not be clear, especially in print.

    “Blame mobbery” might work, for a somewhat different category. I’ve also heard “self-sealing system” used for the sort of thing which leads to kafka-trapping, and it has the advantage of being clearer, though it doesn’t express the experience of being on the receiving end.

    I think the hyperactive immune system theory is plausible. If that’s the case, what’s the best approach?

    Recent Developments in the Study of the Great European Witch Hunt argues (with lots of statistics) that witch-hunting correlates well with the breakdown of central authority.

    b) Geography Before Lamothe-Langon’s forgeries were discovered, the earliest great hunts appeared to come from southern France. in an area once the home of the Cathar heresy. This led some historians to suggest a link between Catharism and witchcraft, that witches were the remnants of an old dualist faith. After you delete the forged trials, the center of the early cases shifts to “Switzerland” and northern Italy, away from Cathar lands.

    When all trials are plotted on a map, other surprising patterns emerge. First, the trials were intensely sporadic. The rate of witch hunting varied dramatically throughout Europe, ranging from a high of 26,000 deaths in Germany to a low of 4 in Ireland. Robin Briggs’ Witches and Neighbors can give you a good feel for how erratic the trials were. It contains three maps showing the distribution of trials throughout Europe, throughout Germany, and throughout the French province of Lorraine, which Briggs studied in depth. They reveal that some of the most enormous persecutions (like the panics of Wurzburg, Germany) occurred next to areas that had virtually no trials whatsoever.

    Second, the trials were concentrated in central Europe, in Germany, Switzerland, and eastern France. The further you got away from that area, the lower the persecution generally got.

    Third, the height of the persecution occurred during the Reformation, when the formerly unified Christian Church shattered into Catholic and Protestant sects. In countries like Italy and Spain, where the Catholic Church and its Inquisition reigned virtually unquestioned, witch hunting was uncommon. The worst panics took place in areas like Switzerland and Germany, where rival Christians sects fought to impose their religious views on each other.

    Fourth, panics clustered around borders. France’s major crazes occurred on its Spanish and eastern fronts. Italy’s worst persecution was in the northern regi
    ons. Spain’s one craze centered on the Basque lands straddling the French/Spanish border.
    Fifth, although it has become commonplace to think of the outbreaks of witch hunting as malevolent pogroms imposed by evil elites, in reality the worst horrors occured where central authority had broken down. Germany and Switzerland were patchwork quilts, loose confederacies stitched together from dozens of independent political units. England, which had a strong government, had little witch hunting. The country’s one and only craze took place during the English Civil War, when the government’s power collapsed. A strong, unified national church (as in Spain and Italy) also tended to keep deaths to a minimum. Strong governments didn’t always slow witch hunting, as King James of Scotland proved. But the worst panics definitely hit where both Church and State were weak.

    c) Christianity’s Role in the Persecution For years, the responsibility for the Great Hunt has been dumped on the Catholic Church’s door-step. 19th century historians ascribed the persecution to religious hysteria. And when Margaret Murray proposed that witches were members of a Pagan sect, popular writers trumpeted that the Great Hunt was not a mere panic, but rather a deliberate attempt to exterminate Christianity’s rival religion.

    Today, we know that there is absolutely no evidence to support this theory. When the Church was at the height of its power (11th-14th centuries) very few witches died. Persecutions did not reach epidemic levels until after the Reformation, when the Catholic Church had lost its position as Europe’s indisputable moral authority. Moreover most of the killing was done by secular courts. Church courts tried many witches but they usually imposed non-lethal penalties. A witch might be excommunicated, given penance, or imprisoned, but she was rarely killed. The Inquisition almost invariably pardoned any witch who confessed and repented.

    Consider the case in York, England, as described by Keith Thomas (Religion and the Decline of Magic). At the height of the Great Hunt (1567-1640) one half of all witchcraft cases brought before church courts were dismissed for lack of evidence. No torture was used, and the accused could clear himself by providing four to eight “compurgators”, people who were willing to swear that he wasn’t a witch. Only 21% of the cases ended with convictions, and the Church did not impose any kind of corporal or capital punishment.

  124. ESR: Communism gets no pass here; [megadeaths] were utterly predictable, and were predicted.

    In his book The Last Tsar, Edvard Rodzinsky mentioned a discussion between two 19th century proto-Bolsheviks. (One was Tkachev; I don’t remember the other’s name, and the book is packed away.) They were debating the question of how many people would have to be killed in carrying out the Revolution, and the associated total transformation of society.

    They concluded that that question could be better stated as how many people should be left alive.

  125. Found the exact quote at Google books:

    Once the the nineteenth-century revolutionaries Nechaeve and Tkachev had discussed how many people from the old society would have to be destroyed to create a happy future. They came to the conclusion that they should be thinking about how many to “leave”.

    History repeats itself – the Communists, the Nazis, and now the Islamists have all said what they wanted to do. A great bloc of influential opinion refused to believe the Communists and Nazis meant what they said – until they followed through.

    Now a large bloc of opinion refuses to admit that the Islamists really mean what they say.

    The Islamists are, so far, less dangerous. They do not control a Great Power with first-class military power. OTOH they do have the sympathy of 1/6 of the world population, and control of a critical share of the world’s oil supply.

    Oh, and don’t forget the extreme wing of the Greens: the Voluntary Human Extinction Society, the ones who think the human race should be reduced 90%, those who want to shut down industrial society (the necessary implication of 80% cuts in energy production)…

  126. The weird thing is that I think Communism was more dangerous than Nazism because Communism was composed of somewhat better ideas.

    Nazism was tied to a particular ethnic/genetic group. Communism was universalist. Nazism had the soldier as the ideal human being. Communism had the worker. The first limited the spread of Nazism, though not as much as one might hope. The second meant Nazism encouraged a degree of overreach which led to hostility from surrounding countries and eventually the US, and finally, defeat. Communists wer more pragmatic about staying inside their borders. I’m not saying they never tried to conquer their neighbors, but they generally chose weaker opponents.

    It’s like the difference between an epidemic which kills so fast it burns itself out, and one that doesn’t.

  127. >This is good stuff, but how do you tell whether a premise is consciously or unconsciously held?

    The simplest way is to ask. If you ask someone if they hold premise A, and yet their behavior is nonsensical unless motivated by premise A, it’s unconscious.

  128. BTW – have any of you read Eric Hoffer’s “The True Believer”? The psychology of mass movements, and the seeking of “devils” to fight against in any social event of a certain type is covered in the book. I’d recommend it: It isn’t long, seems somewhat related to the topic, and is a good read.

    In the book, he points out that while Nazis and Communists fought each other in prewar Europe, they also interconverted between violent radical movements much more readily than any other segment of the population converted to these movements. They were, at bottom, the same kind of people, and the mass movement, and violent crusading filled the same need regardless of the ideology. (Though, admittedly, any totalitarian scheme isn’t all that different from another in my mind).

    Though, as Mr. Hipp points out, the members of present day polidolatry are not exclusively members of Hoffer’s frustrated group with productivity/efficacy/status issues.

  129. >This is good stuff, but how do you tell whether a premise is consciously or unconsciously held?

    The simplest way is to ask. If you ask someone if they hold premise A, and yet their behavior is nonsensical unless motivated by premise A, it’s unconscious.

    Does this imply that mockery is not a good strategy in public venues for hot-button issues if you’re trying to change people’s minds?

  130. >Does this imply that mockery is not a good strategy in public venues for hot-button issues if you’re trying to change people’s minds?

    Not necessarily. One of the tactical advantages of mockery that an insulting label doesn’t collect is that if you do it cleverly enough you may be able to induce your target to identify with the mockery, even if he’s one of the targets.

  131. “Oh, and don’t forget the extreme wing of the Greens: the Voluntary Human Extinction Society, the ones who think the human race should be reduced 90%, those who want to shut down industrial society (the necessary implication of 80% cuts in energy production)…”

    Whenever the old Malthusians (the precursors, and people with equivalent motives to the modern Greens) got enough political power, they would start killing people off and seizing their land to give to their favored tribe as “elbow-room”. The eugenics movements, while later and not identical, loved Malthusian justifications for their mass-murder.

    If you believed what they do, why wouldn’t you start killing other people off to secure the future for your own?

    That’s one of the reasons why I am an “anti-environmentalist”. I want to ensure energy is cheap and abundant to keep us out of zero-sum games, because zero sum-games are the nasty, brutal death of civilization. Dressing it up in international commissions and fertility boards doesn’t change the fundamental ugliness of the domination and extermination of some men by others.

  132. “Not necessarily. One of the tactical advantages of mockery that an insulting label doesn’t collect is that if you do it cleverly enough you may be able to induce you target to identify with the mockery, even if he’s one of the targets.”

    Only if you’re very clever, and only if the other side is even listening. I find that most mockery in politics seems to intend the in-group as the audience, not the out-group. The purpose seems to be to promote unity, and to bring humor out of shared assumptions, perhaps to make dissent less thinkable. I really don’t think, to any real extent, members of one tribe listen to another at all. Everything the other group says is filtered out.

    I know I certainly tune out “dialectical materialist analysis” text walls from lit-crit types.

  133. I’ll go with Aaron2. Mockery is easiest and most useful for preaching to the choir. If it is not too cruel it can be effective for the undecided. You have to be the Paul Pierce or Kobe Bryant of mockery to reach the opposition.

    Yours,
    Tom

  134. Offered as a plausible theory– at Less Wrong, I mentioned that politics in the US have become more hostile in the past decade or so, and several people suggested that what’s changed is that a lot of people now get their view of the other side from satirists.

  135. You have to be the Paul Pierce or Kobe Bryant

    You have to be the who….? *quick google search*

    Oh. Basketball. How about a nice car analogy? :-P

  136. That’s one of the reasons why I am an “anti-environmentalist”. I want to ensure energy is cheap and abundant to keep us out of zero-sum games, because zero sum-games are the nasty, brutal death of civilization. Dressing it up in international commissions and fertility boards doesn’t change the fundamental ugliness of the domination and extermination of some men by others.

    There’s nothing wrong with being an ‘environmentalist’. The word doesn’t necessarily imply the stupidity and cluelessness of the lefty green movement. Working on things like alternative energy is actually a good idea because improving our ability to derive energy from such abundant and renewable sources as the sun and the wind will go a long ways towards ensuring that energy is cheap and abundant. Even if you ignore the cries of the peak oil folks, wars and international politics seem to be making oil less and less attractive and economically viable. It’s best to be have other options at the ready should our supply of oil become greatly curtailed due to the whims of some out-of-control petty dictator.

    I think one of the points this post is trying to make is that we all must learn to think for ourselves and not demonize ideas because they seem to be using language we normally associate with our political enemies.

  137. >I think one of the points this post is trying to make is that we all must learn to think for ourselves and not demonize ideas because they seem to be using language we normally associate with our political enemies.

    More fundamentally than that, it is important not to mistake for politics that which is not politics.

  138. Please allow me to begin with a broad generalization. People who are self-reliant and can fend for themselves even in chaotic circumstances tend to be individualistic and have no need for nanny-state big government paternalism. Conversely, people who doubt their ability to survive in a chaotic and competitive world (and may have also been seduced by the false security of government safety-net welfarism) tend to be herd-like and prefer to follow the leader. Al Gore wants you to join his herd and worship at the shrine of global warming mysticism. The price of admission is that you must have unquestioning faith in his gospel and fight all heretics tooth-and-nail. Is this behavior a psychosis or an artifact of cultural natural selection?

  139. Eric, Many of your quotations from Lazarus Long bring to mind Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels”. My study of history and personal observations have convinced me of the truth of Swift’s misanthropic views. As each year passes, I find more evidence that demonstrates that things are worse than I knew. With few exceptions, most humans are Yahoos. This explains a lot.

  140. Morgan,

    > I think one of the points this post is trying to make is that we all must learn to think for ourselves and not demonize ideas because they seem to be using language we normally associate with our political enemies.

    Well, you are generally right, but labels matter. We identify who is in our various coalitions based on labels. This labels are just as useful – and for the very same reasons – as variable, routine and method names. There are problems with bad labels, just like poorly named variables. There are problem with labels whose meanings shift with time – like that routine whose name originally matched it’s function, but which no longer does. But refactoring society to correct labels is not in any way as easy as renaming a routine. So to claim one has become an “anti-environmentalist” is just good use of current labels. Sure he could could up with a more descriptive label like “humans-first-environment-second”, but then he loses all the polymorphic advantages of “anti-environmentalist”.

    Yours,
    Tom

  141. In New Orleans during their flood, one of the reactions to it was anger at the rest of the country for racism. As far as I could tell, racism had nothing to do with why they failed to construct adequate dams, and nothing human had anything to do with hurricanes hitting the coast. The alleged slowness of the aid response also had nothing to do with racism. Some of the criticism of the looting may have been motivated by it, but I suspect a majority of it was revulsion at people taking advantage of a disaster to go tearing the city apart.

    It seems odd though that for some portion of that city, when disaster fell, they had to blame the country for it. For the mayor, it was obvious – he needed to distract attention from his own prior spending priorities. For the rest of that crowd, though, it might be a similar impulse to Mr. Raymond’s original post.

    Maybe in the ancestral environment, when something bad happened to you, seeking out someone who is still doing well and blaming them for it in a last ditch attempt to rally support and take their stuff is adaptive. Maybe something kicks in to make the rationalizations easier. Going after someone who may be more responsible (if anyone), but is in just as much trouble as you are won’t help you. Political factions form. Pointing out they have no legitimate claim makes you one of “them”.

    Right now the Greens appear to be lining up our present industrial and energy infastructure for a punitive taxation and regulatory regime, supposedly on the basis that we are messing up the weather. They are trying to rally anyone that nature does something to to their cause. But before that it was ozone, before that it was triggering an ice age, before that (when they didn’t have so much power) it was encouraging overpopulation through excessive production of wealth. Suggesting they have no legitimate claim makes you “on the other side”.

    PS – perhaps anti-Green would be a better label. There are legitimate environmental issues, such as whatever caused all those birds to die a few months back (check the water!). I don’t want to pave the world, but I am “humans-first”.

    PPS – you can see a bit of this impulse in Shakspeare’s Macbeth. Supposedly it is a window into how people thought that it seemed natural to the author to blame natural misfortune and general weirdness on a political usurpation. It seems in people’s minds, everything in the natural world is a cardboard stage-prop, a background responding to a mankind centered morality play, a call to some sort of political/moral action. Other apocalyptic thinking is like this too. Maybe it is something that supersedes reasoned thinking, prompting us to seek a rationalization.

  142. Let’s see, other things that come to mind –

    There was a crusade a while ago to ban the use of certain broad classes of drugs (including anti-alzheimer’s medication and many types of anti asthma inhalants) because they were found in the city water supply in parts per trillion quantity. I tried pointing out that parts per trillion was so insanely negligible a concentration that these substances would constitute WMDs when fully concentrated, if they were capable of causing harm thus diluted. I also pointed out that it takes asymptotically more purification to remove any imaginable contaminant to a quantity approaching zero.

    Because of this, I was a shill for big drug companies.

  143. Maybe in the ancestral environment, when something bad happened to you, seeking out someone who is still doing well and blaming them for it in a last ditch attempt to rally support and take their stuff is adaptive.

    In the ancestral environment, if someone else is doing well, they are foraging for vegetation and taking game that is therefore no longer there for your consumption. Every bit of food The Other consumes is snatched from the bellies of your women and children. Now, be a man, and join our war party to drive them from our lands!

    The notion that a herdsman or farmer can produce more food on the same land than naturally would exist simply isn’t in the calculation. Competition for scarce resources is basically a zero-sum game. The only way to improve the total food available is to get the Witch Doctor to appease the right god(s). Maybe a human sacrifice will be needed. And hey, one less mouth to feed anyway, so win-win.

  144. I see Ric Locke has touched on the evolutionary side of this today. He’s saying that modern life deprives us of the occasional adrenaline fix. So we will make up things to make us feel threatened. Belief in bogeymen like AGW fills the niche formerly provided by a million things that we just don’t allow to happen anymore.

  145. Marx has the unique distinction of having been the progenitor of not just the most radically evil ideology in human history

    … which is why, then I visited Highgate Cemetary north of London, I took the opportunity to spit on Marx’s grave.

    Amusingly, right across from Marx’s grave is Herbert Spender’s grave (or given that he was cremated, his interment).

  146. Aaron2, if you’re going to have a national government, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect it to keep an eye on whether local governments are taking care of major infrastructure.

  147. >As each year passes, I find more evidence that demonstrates that things are worse than I knew.

    You might find John Derbyshire’s *We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism* an interesting read.

  148. “In New Orleans during their flood, one of the reactions to it was anger at the rest of the country for racism. As far as I could tell, racism had nothing to do with why they failed to construct adequate dams, and nothing human had anything to do with hurricanes hitting the coast. The alleged slowness of the aid response also had nothing to do with racism.”

    Unfortunately, there is history behind that attitude. In the 1927 flood, the wealthy communities around New Orleans decided that they would prevent themselves from being flooded by deliberately blasting the levees over the poor African-American areas, reasoning that there was less valuable property in those areas. The poor resident did not like it, but they were reluctantly compelled to agree in return for promises of being paid to rebuild afterward. Of course, the payments were never made.

    See “Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America” by John M. Barry . (Not incidentally, this book does a good job of explaining the Mississippi uber-flood as the result of humans trying too hard to control the river without having the power to do so. By suppressing smaller floods, they built up the pressure and created a major one, much like Alan Greenspan preventing economic corrections with ultra-row interest rates.)

  149. “In the ancestral environment, if someone else is doing well, they are foraging for vegetation and taking game that is therefore no longer there for your consumption. Every bit of food The Other consumes is snatched from the bellies of your women and children. Now, be a man, and join our war party to drive them from our lands!”

    I imagine most readers of this blog have read “Guns, Germs and Steel” by Diamond. His discussion of modern New Guineans and their habit, upon encountering a new stranger, of sitting down and trying to find a common ancestor/relative to give them a reason not to kill each other immediately(!) put an interesting perspective on the level of trust needed to run a modern capitalistic society, and how that trust is not as easily given as modern Westerners tend to assume.

  150. One possible name for this phenomenon could be political totemism. It’s a bit too long, but it fits.

  151. “Unfortunately, there is history behind that attitude. In the 1927 flood, the wealthy communities around New Orleans decided that they would prevent themselves from being flooded by deliberately blasting the levees over the poor African-American areas, reasoning that there was less valuable property in those areas. The poor resident did not like it, but they were reluctantly compelled to agree in return for promises of being paid to rebuild afterward. Of course, the payments were never made.”

    I had never heard of that. If that is the case, then I can imagine what prompted the accusations.

    “uber-flood as the result of humans trying too hard to control the river without having the power to do so. ”

    In Dayton OH, after the great flood of 1913 destroyed a lot of the city, they (meaning mostly the city’s industrialists and a bunch of hydrological engineers) embarked on a project of constructing a system of dams to channel the Miami river to prevent it from flooding again. With the river thus backed up using a series of flood control district valleys, the city has never flooded since, even when facing more than 1000 incidents of similar rainfall and water volume. While conceivably an uber-massive storm could overwhelm the system, it is good for events of any magnitude we have ever experienced and then a comfortable safety margin over that.

    This is why I don’t hold with the attitude that we unconditionally don’t have the power to control nature to any good result. We *do*. Nature, while powerful, is also inanimate. It doesn’t punish us for trying to channel it – it isn’t a vengeful diety. We just need to be a little smart about how we do it. While New Orleans is in a precarious spot, that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible for some system of levees and reservoirs to keep the river in check under some range of precipitation.

    The Dutch managed to keep their entire country dry when the sea level rose over it, with medieval wind-powered pumps and financing. These days with powered earth-moving equipment, I don’t think there is any pile of dirt we can’t create.

  152. “His discussion of modern New Guineans and their habit, upon encountering a new stranger, of sitting down and trying to find a common ancestor/relative to give them a reason not to kill each other immediately(!) put an interesting perspective on the level of trust needed to run a modern capitalistic society, and how that trust is not as easily given as modern Westerners tend to assume.”

    I didn’t remember that passage, but it certainly does seem germane to the topic. It is something I need to constantly remind myself though – whatever it is that most people (ourselves included, when we aren’t paying careful attention) are doing when they are doing politics, it isn’t “thinking”. It’s almost as if our hind-brains take whoever is in various tribes as input, spit out a bunch of political allegiances, searches for whatever ideologies loosely justify those positions, label them “TRUE!!!” and add them to our world-picture prior to conscious evaluation.

  153. @Aaron2: “This is why I don’t hold with the attitude that we unconditionally don’t have the power to control nature to any good result. We *do*.”

    I completely agree. We just have to be wise enough to understand how far our control extends, and where it ends. But that doesn’t mean will ever will or should stop trying to adapt the world to ourselves.

  154. Sorry if I sound like I’m half having an argument with someone else. Part of how I reacted to your words was due to a listening to a lot of alternatively fatalist or authoritarian green-Malthusian nonsense elsewhere. I don’t ascribe the positions I’m arguing against to you, I was just trying to point out that we shouldn’t head too far (from the position of assuming the weather has someone to blame for it) in the other direction (of assuming that we are at the mercy of natural events).

  155. Caveat: of certain classes of natural events amenable to affordable engineering solution

  156. An observation, not an explanation: it’s narcissism at the species-level. It’s the same as the belief that if human hearts are not ripped out and burned, the sun will not rise and the same as if human blood and semen don’t fertilize the fields the crops will not grow. Honestly, I can never think of an occasion with this belief was good or useful.

    People will never subconsciously accept that human morality is irrelevant to the universe and that human life isn’t the most important in the universe: that we matter, matter the most and matter sufficiently.

    Trivial note (IIRC): in the movie “Master & Commander,” there is a scene where Barrett Bonden casts himself overboard to drown that his life will restore the winds. It works: post hoc, ergo propter hoc.

  157. “People will never subconsciously accept that human morality is irrelevant to the universe and that human life isn’t the most important in the universe: that we matter, matter the most and matter sufficiently.”

    Matter the most to who? Meaning has to have a target – something capable of having a given situation mean something *to*, it’s not a fundamental or absolute attribute. My family, myself, my country, and humanity (in roughly that order) mean quite a lot to me. But you’re right: the rocks, trees, and stars don’t care.

  158. in the movie “Master & Commander,” there is a scene where Barrett Bonden casts himself overboard to drown that his life will restore the winds. It works: post hoc, ergo propter hoc.

    Sacrificing someone to appease the Gods does seem to be hard-coded into us.

  159. When talking about the environmental movement, I have always found Kim Stanley Robinson’s distinctions in his RGB Mars trilogy to be useful categorisations.

    In RGB Mars – in the Martian context – there are “Reds”, who favour keeping Mars red (and uninhabitable for humans) because it was red before, “Greens” who favour terraforming Mars, and “Greys” who are industrialisers who see Mars as a convenient place to pollute.

    If you put the corporate demonisation element of KSR’s characterisation of the “Greys” aside – some corporations do indeed act this way, but the assumption that all do and that anyone working for a corporation is tainted by the evil is far beyond the rational – the distinction is a proper one. Many (terran) Greens are clearly hostile to humanity itself. I’d classify them with the Martian “Reds”. There are greens in the KSR sense on earth; they tend to be the ones who understand economics. I know a few, but none are in important positions within the Green movement, and most have left it (usually for liberal, in the European sense, political spaces, assuming they didn’t abandon politics).

    Understanding economics is usually a complete career-ender in the Green movement, because their “solutions” are faith-based rather than rational. They seem to think that you can ban things, for example.

  160. TheMonster: Sacrificing someone to appease the Gods does seem to be hard-coded into us.

    In Atlas Shrugged, Hank Rearden works and thinks day and night to come up with Rearden Metal, pouring his soul into that effort, because of how valuable he believes it will be, to the point of being a necessity. Sacrifice comes in many forms, indeed, as do the Gods.

  161. JerryV: My study of history and personal observations have convinced me of the truth of Swift’s misanthropic views. As each year passes, I find more evidence that demonstrates that things are worse than I knew. With few exceptions, most humans are Yahoos. This explains a lot.

    I’ve never found this explanation sufficient. First, I clearly encounter non-Yahoo (I’m guessing by “Yahoo” you’re emphasizing “irrational”) humans on a regular basis. More tellingly, given any cause, I very often meet believers who are quite rational, but are simply working from different premises. Moreover, the probability increases with scrutiny and pressure, which is to say that the harder I press a single person, asking him things like “well, if this were true, then how would you feel about it?”, the harder it is to observe true irrational behavior (that is not explained simply by temporary anger or emotion) – a person will deny or argue premises, dilute their rhetoric, concede points, express counterpoints, and generally exhibit a wealth of rational traits.

    My explanation is a paraphrase of what I’ve said earlier above: all humans are capable of being rational, but it costs a lot of energy, so most humans are rational for only, say, 10% of their waking day, delegating the rest of their day to motor memory. I find this explains both the massive degree of observed general stupidity and the failure to observe it locally, as well as why smart people will appear to do dumb things.

    Assuming for the moment that this is truly the case, then it’s interesting to question where humanity as a whole is heading with this rationality racket. Assuming everyone here accepts evolution theory (a safe bet, I’m guessing), reason is an evolved trait, because once it got its first toehold, it enabled a lot of adaptability to the environment, and indeed, an unprecedented ability to control it. But it still costs a lot of energy, and requires a great deal of observational input to use well. Is it still worth it? More to the point, for whom is it still worth it?

  162. Calories, in other words. Learning burns energy over and above just sitting around. And I will claim that every rational effort you make is the result of either doing something while thinking about it, or doing something you had previously spent effort thinking about, and have since pushed down into motor memory. Otherwise, you’re just responding to stimuli – which might be perfectly reasonable, but not because you thought about it.

  163. Sheesh, two wordos and a typo in the same post. Let me try this again:

    Marx has the unique distinction of having been the progenitor of not just the most radically evil ideology in human history

    … which is why, when I visited Highgate Cemetery north of London, I took the opportunity to spit on Marx’s grave.

    Amusingly, right across from Marx’s grave is Herbert Spencer’s grave (or given that he was cremated, his interment).

  164. Ha, the sorceror hunt! I love it. I’ve always thought that when we become emotional over having our beliefs threatened it’s because we’re frightened of change, frightened of the unkown, what we could become if our deeply-held beliefs change. But Eric, you’ve answered a question I’d wondered about – why would AGW and other fears-of-the-day cause such deep, almost religious, convictions? It’s because having someone to blame is so much easier than the fear of the unknown that accompanies the idea that big events happen for no particular reason.

    Another good example is someone I know who has similar convictions that the Kennedy assassination couldn’t be as simple as a nut-job shooting him, or that 911 couldn’t just be due to some more nutjobs doing something crazy. The sorceror hunt is so comforting compared to the random big events happen and we’re basically helpless theory.

  165. Pingback: Science as Religion | The Confessional Outhouse

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