Archive for the ‘Nerd Interest’ Category

What I believe II (ft. Sarah Constantin and Stacey Jeffery)

Tuesday, August 15th, 2017

Unrelated Update: To everyone who keeps asking me about the “new” P≠NP proof: I’d again bet $200,000 that the paper won’t stand, except that the last time I tried that, it didn’t achieve its purpose, which was to get people to stop asking me about it. So: please stop asking, and if the thing hasn’t been refuted by the end of the week, you can come back and tell me I was a closed-minded fool.


In my post “The Kolmogorov Option,” I tried to step back from current controversies, and use history to reflect on the broader question of how nerds should behave when their penchant for speaking unpopular truths collides head-on with their desire to be kind and decent and charitable, and to be judged as such by their culture.  I was gratified to get positive feedback about this approach from men and women all over the ideological spectrum.

However, a few people who I like and respect accused me of “dogwhistling.” They warned, in particular, that if I wouldn’t just come out and say what I thought about the James Damore Google memo thing, then people would assume the very worst—even though, of course, my friends themselves knew better.

So in this post, I’ll come out and say what I think.  But first, I’ll do something even better: I’ll hand the podium over to two friends, Sarah Constantin and Stacey Jeffery, both of whom were kind enough to email me detailed thoughts in response to my Kolmogorov post.


Sarah Constantin completed her PhD in math at Yale. I don’t think I’ve met her in person yet, but we have a huge number of mutual friends in the so-called “rationalist community.”  Whenever Sarah emails me about something I’ve written, I pay extremely close attention, because I have yet to read a single thing by her that wasn’t full of insight and good sense.  I strongly urge anyone who likes her beautiful essay below to check out her blog, which is called Otium.

Sarah Constantin’s Commentary:

I’ve had a women-in-STEM essay brewing in me for years, but I’ve been reluctant to actually write publicly on the topic for fear of stirring up a firestorm of controversy.  On the other hand, we seem to be at a cultural inflection point on the issue, especially in the wake of the leaked Google memo, and other people are already scared to speak out, so I think it’s past time for me to put my name on the line, and Scott has graciously provided me a platform to do so.

I’m a woman in tech myself. I’m a data scientist doing machine learning for drug discovery at Recursion Pharmaceuticals, and before that I was a data scientist at Palantir. Before that I was a woman in math — I got my PhD from Yale, studying applied harmonic analysis. I’ve been in this world all my adult life, and I obviously don’t believe my gender makes me unfit to do the work.

I’m also not under any misapprehension that I’m some sort of exception. I’ve been mentored by Ingrid Daubechies and Maryam Mirzakhani (the first female Fields Medalist, who died tragically young last month).  I’ve been lucky enough to work with women who are far, far better than me.  There are a lot of remarkable women in math and computer science — women just aren’t the majority in those fields. But “not the majority” doesn’t mean “rare” or “unknown.”

I even think diversity programs can be worthwhile. I went to the Institute for Advanced Studies’ Women and Math Program, which would be an excellent graduate summer school even if it weren’t all-female, and taught at its sister program for high school girls, which likewise is a great math camp independent of the gender angle. There’s a certain magic, if you’re in a male-dominated field, of once in a while being in a room full of women doing math, and I hope that everybody gets to have that experience once.  

But (you knew the “but” was coming), I think the Google memo was largely correct, and the way people conventionally talk about women in tech is wrong.

Let’s look at some of his claims. From the beginning of the memo:

  • Google’s political bias has equated the freedom from offense with psychological safety, but shaming into silence is the antithesis of psychological safety.
  • This silencing has created an ideological echo chamber where some ideas are too sacred to be honestly discussed.
  • The lack of discussion fosters the most extreme and authoritarian elements of this ideology.
  • Extreme: all disparities in representation are due to oppression
  • Authoritarian: we should discriminate to correct for this oppression

Okay, so there’s a pervasive assumption that any deviation from 50% representation of women in technical jobs is a.) due to oppression, and b.) ought to be corrected by differential hiring practices. I think it is basically true that people widely believe this, and that people can lose their jobs for openly contradicting it (as James Damore, the author of the memo, did).  I have heard people I work with advocating hiring quotas for women (i.e. explicitly earmarking a number of jobs for women candidates only).  It’s not a strawman.

Then, Damore disagrees with this assumption:

  • Differences in distributions of traits between men and women may in part explain why we don’t have 50% representation of women in tech and leadership. Discrimination to reach equal representation is unfair, divisive, and bad for business.

Again, I agree with Damore. Note that this doesn’t mean that I must believe that sexism against women isn’t real and important (I’ve heard enough horror stories to be confident that some work environments are toxic to women).  It doesn’t even mean that I must be certain that the different rates of men and women in technical fields are due to genetics.  I’m very far from certain, and I’m not an expert in psychology. I don’t think I can do justice to the science in this post, so I’m not going to cover the research literature.

But I do think it’s irresponsible to assume a priori that there are no innate sex differences that might explain what we see.  It’s an empirical matter, and a topic for research, not dogma.

Moreover, I think discrimination on the basis of sex to reach equal representation is unfair and unproductive.  It’s unfair, because it’s not meritocratic.  You’re not choosing the best human for the job regardless of gender.

I think women might actually benefit from companies giving genuine meritocracy a chance. “Blind” auditions (in which the evaluator doesn’t see the performer) gave women a better chance of landing orchestra jobs; apparently, orchestras were prejudiced against female musicians, and the blinding canceled out that prejudice. Google’s own research has actually shown that the single best predictor of work performance is a work sample — testing candidates with a small project similar to what they’d do on the job. Work samples are easy to anonymize to reduce gender bias, and they’re more effective than traditional interviews, where split-second first impressions usually decide who gets hired, but don’t correlate at all with job performance. A number of tech companies have switched to work samples as part of their interview process.  I used work samples myself when I was hiring for a startup, just because they seemed more accurate at predicting who’d be good at the job; entirely without intending to, I got a 50% gender ratio.  If you want to reduce gender bias in tech, it’s worth at least considering blinded hiring via work samples.

Moreover, thinking about “representation” in science and technology reflects underlying assumptions that I think are quite dangerous.

You expect interest groups to squabble over who gets a piece of the federal budget. In politics, people will band together in blocs, and try to get the biggest piece of the spoils they can.  “Women should get such-and-such a percent of tech jobs” sounds precisely like this kind of politicking; women are assumed to be a unified bloc who will vote together, and the focus is on what size chunk they can negotiate for themselves. If a tech job (or a university position) were a cushy sinecure, a ticket to privilege, and nothing more, you might reasonably ask “how come some people get more goodies than others? Isn’t meritocracy just an excuse to restrict the goodies to your preferred group?”

Again, this is not a strawman. Here’s one Vox response to the memo stating explicitly that she believes women are a unified bloc:

The manifesto’s sleight-of-hand delineation between “women, on average” and the actual living, breathing women who have had to work alongside this guy failed to reassure many of those women — and failed to reassure me. That’s because the manifesto’s author overestimated the extent to which women are willing to be turned against their own gender.

Speaking for myself, it doesn’t matter to me how soothingly a man coos that I’m not like most women, when those coos are accompanied by misogyny against most women. I am a woman. I do not stop being one during the parts of the day when I am practicing my craft. There can be no realistic chance of individual comfort for me in an environment where others in my demographic categories (or, really, any protected demographic categories) are subjected to skepticism and condescension.

She can’t be comfortable unless everybody in any protected demographic category — note that this is a legal, governmental category — is given the benefit of the doubt?  That’s a pretty collectivist commitment!

Or, look at Piper Harron, an assistant professor in math who blogged on the American Mathematical Society’s website that universities should simply “stop hiring white cis men”, and explicitly says “If you are on a hiring committee, and you are looking at applicants and you see a stellar white male applicant, think long and hard about whether your department needs another white man. You are not hiring a researching robot who will output papers from a dark closet. You are hiring an educator, a role model, a spokesperson, an advisor, a committee person … There is no objectivity. There is no meritocracy.”

Piper Harron reflects an extreme, of course, but she’s explicitly saying, on America’s major communication channel for and by mathematicians, that whether you get to work in math should not be based on whether you’re actually good at math. For her, it’s all politics.  Life itself is political, and therefore a zero-sum power struggle between groups.  

But most of us, male or female, didn’t fall in love with science and technology for that. Science is the mission to explore and understand our universe. Technology is the project of expanding human power to shape that universe. What we do towards those goals will live longer than any “protected demographic category”, any nation, any civilization.  We know how the Babylonians mapped the stars.

Women deserve an equal chance at a berth on the journey of exploration not because they form a political bloc but because some of them are discoverers and can contribute to the human mission.

Maybe, in a world corrupted by rent-seeking, the majority of well-paying jobs have some element of unearned privilege; perhaps almost all of us got at least part of our salaries by indirectly expropriating someone who had as good a right to it as us.

But that’s not a good thing, and that’s not what we hope for science and engineering to be, and I truly believe that this is not the inevitable fate of the human race — that we can only squabble over scraps, and never create.  

I’ve seen creation, and I’ve seen discovery. I know they’re real.

I care a lot more about whether my company achieves its goal of curing 100 rare diseases in 10 years than about the demographic makeup of our team.  We have an actual mission; we are trying to do something beyond collecting spoils.  

Do I rely on brilliant work by other women every day? I do. My respect for myself and my female colleagues is not incompatible with primarily caring about the mission.

Am I “turning against my own gender” because I see women as individuals first? I don’t think so. We’re half the human race, for Pete’s sake! We’re diverse. We disagree. We’re human.

When you think of “women-in-STEM” as a talking point on a political agenda, you mention Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper in passing, and move on to talking about quotas.  When you think of women as individuals, you start to notice how many genuinely foundational advances were made by women — just in my own field of machine learning, Adele Cutler co-invented random forests, Corrina Cortes co-invented support vector machines, and Fei Fei Li created the famous ImageNet benchmark dataset that started a revolution in image recognition.

As a child, my favorite book was Carl Sagan’s Contact, a novel about Ellie Arroway, an astronomer loosely based on his wife Ann Druyan. The name is not an accident; like the title character in Sinclair Lewis’ Arrowsmith, Ellie is a truth-seeking scientist who battles corruption, anti-intellectualism, and blind prejudice.  Sexism is one of the challenges she faces, but the essence of her life is about wonder and curiosity. She’s what I’ve always tried to become.

I hope that, in seeking to encourage the world’s Ellies in science and technology, we remember why we’re doing that in the first place. I hope we remember humans are explorers.


Now let’s hear from another friend who wrote to me recently, and who has a slightly different take.  Stacey Jeffery is a quantum computing theorist at one of my favorite research centers, CWI in Amsterdam.  She completed her PhD at University of Waterloo, and has done wonderful work on quantum query complexity and other topics close to my heart.  When I was being viciously attacked in the comment-171 affair, Stacey was one of the first people to send me a note of support, and I’ve never forgotten it.

Stacey Jeffery’s Commentary

I don’t think Google was right to fire Damore. This makes me a minority among people with whom I have discussed this issue.  Hopefully some people come out in the comments in support of the other position, so it’s not just me presenting that view, but the main argument I encountered was that what he said just sounded way too sexist for Google to put up with.  I agree with part of that, it did sound sexist to me.  In fact it also sounded racist to me. But that’s not because he necessarily said anything actually sexist or actually racist, but because he said the kinds of things that you usually only hear from sexist people, and in particular, the kind of sexist people who are also racist.  I’m very unlikely to try to pursue further interaction with a person who says these kinds of things for those reasons, but I think firing him for what he said between the lines sets a very bad precedent.  It seems to me he was fired for associating himself with the wrong ideas, and it does feel a bit like certain subjects are not up for rational discussion.  If Google wants an open environment, where employees can feel safe discussing company policy, I don’t think this contributes to that.  If they want their employees, and the world, to think that they aim for diversity because it’s the most rational course of action to achieve their overall objectives, rather than because it serves some secret agenda, like maintaining a PC public image, then I don’t think they’ve served that cause either.  Personally, this irritates me the most, because I feel they have damaged the image for a cause I feel strongly about.

My position is independent of the validity of Damore’s attempt at scientific argument, which is outside my area of expertise.  I personally don’t think it’s very productive for non-social-scientists to take authoritative positions on social science issues, especially ones that appear to be controversial within the field (but I say this as a layperson).  This may include some of the other commentary in this blog post, which I have not yet read, and might even extend to Scott’s decision to comment on this issue at all (but this bridge was crossed in the previous blog post).  However, I think one of the reasons that many of us do this is that the burden of solving the problem of too few women in STEM is often placed on us.  Some people in STEM feel they are blamed for not being welcoming enough to women (in fact, in my specific field, it’s my experience that the majority of people are very sympathetic).  Many scientific funding applications even ask applicants how they plan to address the issue of diversity, as if they should be the ones to come up with a solution for this difficult problem that nobody knows the answer to, and is not even within their expertise.  So it’s not surprising when these same people start to think about and form opinions on these social science issues.  Obviously, we working in STEM have valuable insight into how we might encourage women to pursue STEM careers, and we should be pushed to think about this, but we don’t have all the answers (and maybe we should remember that the next time we consider authoring an authoritative memo on the subject).


Scott’s Mansplaining Commentary

I’m incredibly grateful to Sarah and Stacey for sharing their views.  Now it’s time for me to mansplain my own thoughts in light of what they said.  Let me start with a seven-point creed.

1. I believe that science and engineering, both in academia and in industry, benefit enormously from contributions from people of every ethnic background and gender identity.  This sort of university-president-style banality shouldn’t even need to be said, but in a world where the President of the US criticizes neo-Nazis only under extreme pressure from his own party, I suppose it does.

2. I believe that there’s no noticeable difference in average ability between men and women in STEM fields—or if there’s some small disparity, for all I know the advantage goes to women. I have enough Sheldon Cooper in me that, if this hadn’t been my experience, I’d probably let it slip that it hadn’t been, but it has been.  When I taught 6.045 (undergrad computability and complexity) at MIT, women were only 20% or so of the students, but for whatever reasons they were wildly overrepresented among the top students.

3. I believe that women in STEM face obstacles that men don’t.  These range from the sheer awkwardness of sometimes being the only woman in a room full of guys, to challenges related to pregnancy and childcare, to actual belittlement and harassment.  Note that, even if men in STEM fields are no more sexist on average than men in other fields—or are less sexist, as one might expect from their generally socially liberal views and attitudes—the mere fact of the gender imbalance means that women in STEM will have many more opportunities to be exposed to whatever sexists there are.  This puts a special burden on us to create a welcoming environment for women.

4. Given that we know that gender gaps in interest and inclination appear early in life, I believe in doing anything we can to encourage girls’ interest in STEM fields.  Trust me, my four-year-old daughter Lily wishes I didn’t believe so fervently in working with her every day on her math skills.

5. I believe that gender diversity is valuable in itself.  It’s just nicer, for men and women alike, to have a work environment with many people of both sexes—especially if (as is often the case in STEM) so much of our lives revolves around our work.  I think that affirmative action for women, women-only scholarships and conferences, and other current efforts to improve gender diversity can all be defended and supported on that ground alone.

6. I believe that John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women is one of the masterpieces of history, possibly the highest pinnacle that moral philosophy has ever reached.  Everyone should read it carefully and reflect on it if they haven’t already.

7. I believe it’s a tragedy that the current holder of the US presidency is a confessed sexual predator, who’s full of contempt not merely for feminism, but for essentially every worthwhile human value. I believe those of us on the “pro-Enlightenment side” now face the historic burden of banding together to stop this thug by every legal and peaceful means available. I believe that, whenever the “good guys” tear each other down in internecine warfare—e.g. “nerds vs. feminists”—it represents a wasted opportunity and an unearned victory for the enemies of progress.

OK, now for the part that might blow some people’s minds.  I hold that every single belief above is compatible with what James Damore wrote in his now-infamous memo—at least, if we’re talking about the actual words in it.  In some cases, Damore even makes the above points himself.  In particular, there’s nothing in what he wrote about female Googlers being less qualified on average than male Googlers, or being too neurotic to code, or anything like that: the question at hand is just why there are fewer women in these positions, and that in turn becomes a question about why there are fewer women earlier in the CS pipeline.  Reasonable people need not agree about the answers to those questions, or regard them as known or obvious, to see that the failure to make this one elementary distinction, between quality and quantity, already condemns 95% of Damore’s attackers as not having read or understood what he wrote.

Let that be the measure of just how terrifyingly efficient the social-media outrage machine has become at twisting its victims’ words to fit a clickbait narrative—a phenomenon with which I happen to be personally acquainted.  Strikingly, it seems not to make the slightest difference if (as in this case) the original source text is easily available to everyone.

Still, while most coverage of Damore’s memo was depressing in its monotonous incomprehension, dissent was by no means confined to the right-wingers eager to recruit Damore to their side.  Peter Singer—the legendary leftist moral philosopher, and someone whose fearlessness and consistency I’ve always admired whether I’ve agreed with him or not—wrote a powerful condemnation of Google’s decision to fire Damore.  Scott Alexander was brilliant as usual in picking apart bad arguments.  Megan McArdle drew on her experiences to illustrate some of Damore’s contentions.  Steven Pinker tweeted that Damore’s firing “makes [the] job of anti-Trumpists harder.”

Like Peter Singer, and also like Sarah Constantin and Stacey Jeffery above, I have no plans to take any position on biological differences in male and female inclinations and cognitive styles, and what role (if any) such differences might play in 80% of Google engineers being male—or, for that matter, what role they might play in 80% of graduating veterinarians now being female, or other striking gender gaps.  I decline to take a position not only because I’m not an expert, but also because, as Singer says, doing so isn’t necessary to reach the right verdict about Damore’s firing.  It suffices to note that the basic thesis being discussed—namely, that natural selection doesn’t stop at the neck, and that it’s perfectly plausible that it acted differently on women and men in ways that might help explain many of the population-level differences that we see today—can also be found in, for example, The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker, and other mainstream works by some of the greatest thinkers alive.

And therefore I say: if James Damore deserves to be fired from Google, for treating evolutionary psychology as potentially relevant to social issues, then Steven Pinker deserves to be fired from Harvard for the same offense.

Yes, I realize that an employee of a private company is different from a tenured professor.  But I don’t see why it’s relevant here.  For if someone really believes that mooting the hypothesis of an evolutionary reason for average differences in cognitive styles between men and women, is enough by itself to create a hostile environment for women—well then, why should tenure be a bar to firing, any more than it is in cases of sexual harassment?

But the reductio needn’t stop there.  It seems to me that, if Damore deserves to be fired, then so do the 56% of Googlers who said in a poll that they opposed his firing.  For isn’t that 56% just as responsible for maintaining a hostile environment as Damore himself was? (And how would Google find out which employees opposed the firing? Well, if there’s any company on earth that could…)  Furthermore, after those 56% of Googlers are fired, any of the remaining 44% who think the 56% shouldn’t have been fired should be fired as well!  And so on iteratively, until only an ideologically reliable core remains, which might or might not be the empty set.

OK, but while the wider implications of Damore’s firing have frightened and depressed me all week, as I said, I depart from Damore on the question of affirmative action and other diversity policies.  Fundamentally, what I want is a sort of negotiated agreement or bargain, between STEM nerds and the wider culture in which they live.  The agreement would work like this: STEM nerds do everything they can to foster diversity, including by creating environments that are welcoming for women, and by supporting affirmative action, women-only scholarships and conferences, and other diversity policies.  The STEM nerds also agree never to talk in public about possible cognitive-science explanations for gender disparities in which careers people choose, or overlapping bell curves,  or anything else potentially inflammatory.  In return, just two things:

  1. Male STEM nerds don’t regularly get libelled as misogynist monsters, who must be scaring all the women away with their inherently gross, icky, creepy, discriminatory brogrammer maleness.
  2. The fields beloved by STEM nerds are suffered to continue to exist, rather than getting destroyed and rebuilt along explicitly ideological lines, as already happened with many humanities and social science fields.

So in summary, neither side advances its theories about the causes of gender gaps; both sides simply agree that there are more interesting topics to explore.  In concrete terms, the social-justice side gets to retain 100% of what it has now, or maybe even expand it.  And all it has to offer in exchange is “R-E-S-P-E-C-T“!  Like, don’t smear and shame male nerds as a class, or nerdy disciplines themselves, for gender gaps that the male nerds would be as happy as anybody to see eradicated.

The trouble is that, fueled by outrage-fests on social media, I think the social-justice side is currently failing to uphold its end of this imagined bargain.  Nearly every day the sun rises to yet another thinkpiece about the toxic “bro culture” of Silicon Valley: a culture so uniquely and incorrigibly misogynist, it seems, that it still intentionally keeps women out, even after law and biology and most other white-collar fields have achieved or exceeded gender parity, their own “bro cultures” notwithstanding.  The trouble with this slander against male STEM nerds, besides its fundamental falsity (which Scott Alexander documented), is that puts the male nerds into an impossible position.  For how can they refute the slander without talking about other possible explanations for fields like CS being 80% male, which is the very thing we all know they’re not supposed to talk about?

In Europe, in the Middle Ages, the Church would sometimes enjoy forcing the local Jews into “disputations” about whose religion was the true one.  At these events, a popular tactic on the Church’s side was to make statements that the Jews couldn’t possibly answer without blaspheming the name of Christ—which, of course, could lead to the Jews’ expulsion or execution if they dared it.

Maybe I have weird moral intuitions, but it’s hard for me to imagine a more contemptible act of intellectual treason, than deliberately trapping your opponents between surrender and blasphemy.  I’d actually rather have someone force me into one or the other, than make me choose, and thereby make me responsible for whichever choice I made.  So I believe the social-justice left would do well to forswear this trapping tactic forever.

Ironically, I suspect that in the long term, doing so would benefit no entity more than the social-justice left itself.  If I had to steelman, in one sentence, the argument that in the space of one year propelled the “alt-right” from obscurity in dark and hateful corners of the Internet, to the improbable and ghastly ascent of Donald Trump and his white-nationalist brigade to the most powerful office on earth, the argument would be this:

If the elites, the technocrats, the “Cathedral”-dwellers, were willing to lie to the masses about humans being blank slates—and they obviously were—then why shouldn’t we assume that they also lied to us about healthcare and free trade and guns and climate change and everything else?

We progressives deluded ourselves that we could permanently shame our enemies into silence, on pain of sexism, racism, xenophobia, and other blasphemies.  But the “victories” won that way were hollow and illusory, and the crumbling of the illusion brings us to where we are now: with a vindictive, delusional madman in the White House who has a non-negligible chance of starting a nuclear war this week.

The Enlightenment was a specific historical period in 18th-century Europe.  But the term can also be used much more broadly, to refer to every trend in human history that’s other than horrible.  Seen that way, the Enlightenment encompasses the scientific revolution, the abolition of slavery, the decline of all forms of violence, the spread of democracy and literacy, and the liberation of women from domestic drudgery to careers of their own choosing.  The invention of Google, which made the entire world’s knowledge just a search bar away, is now also a permanent part of the story of the Enlightenment.

I fantasize that, within my lifetime, the Enlightenment will expand further to tolerate a diversity of cognitive styles—including people on the Asperger’s and autism spectrum, with their penchant for speaking uncomfortable truths—as well as a diversity of natural abilities and inclinations.  Society might or might not get the “demographically correct” percentage of Ellie Arroways—Ellie might decide to become a doctor or musician rather than an astronomer, and that’s fine too—but most important, it will nurture all the Ellie Arroways that it gets, all the misfits and explorers of every background.  I wonder whether, while disagreeing on exactly what’s meant by it, all parties to this debate could agree that diversity represents a next frontier for the Enlightenment.


Comment Policy: Any comment, from any side, that attacks people rather than propositions will be deleted.  I don’t care if the comment also makes useful points: if it contains a single ad hominem, it’s out.

As it happens, I’m at a quantum supremacy workshop in Bristol, UK right now—yeah, yeah, I’m a closet supremacist after all, hur hur—so I probably won’t participate in the comments until later.

The Kolmogorov option

Tuesday, August 8th, 2017

Andrey Nikolaevich Kolmogorov was one of the giants of 20th-century mathematics.  I’ve always found it amazing that the same man was responsible both for establishing the foundations of classical probability theory in the 1930s, and also for co-inventing the theory of algorithmic randomness (a.k.a. Kolmogorov complexity) in the 1960s, which challenged the classical foundations, by holding that it is possible after all to talk about the entropy of an individual object, without reference to any ensemble from which the object was drawn.  Incredibly, going strong into his eighties, Kolmogorov then pioneered the study of “sophistication,” which amends Kolmogorov complexity to assign low values both to “simple” objects and “random” ones, and high values only to a third category of objects, which are “neither simple nor random.”  So, Kolmogorov was at the vanguard of the revolution, counter-revolution, and counter-counter-revolution.

But that doesn’t even scratch the surface of his accomplishments: he made fundamental contributions to topology and dynamical systems, and together with Vladimir Arnold, solved Hilbert’s thirteenth problem, showing that any multivariate continuous function can be written as a composition of continuous functions of two variables.  He mentored an awe-inspiring list of young mathematicians, whose names (besides Arnold) include Dobrushin, Dynkin, Gelfand, Martin-Löf, Sinai, and in theoretical computer science, our own Leonid Levin.  If that wasn’t enough, during World War II Kolmogorov applied his mathematical gifts to artillery problems, helping to protect Moscow from German bombardment.

Kolmogorov was private in his personal and political life, which might have had something to do with being gay, at a time and place when that was in no way widely accepted.  From what I’ve read—for example, in Gessen’s biography of Perelman—Kolmogorov seems to have been generally a model of integrity and decency.  He established schools for mathematically gifted children, which became jewels of the Soviet Union; one still reads about them with awe.  And at a time when Soviet mathematics was convulsed by antisemitism—with students of Jewish descent excluded from the top math programs for made-up reasons, sent instead to remote trade schools—Kolmogorov quietly protected Jewish researchers.

OK, but all this leaves a question.  Kolmogorov was a leading and admired Soviet scientist all through the era of Stalin’s purges, the Gulag, the KGB, the murders and disappearances and forced confessions, the show trials, the rewritings of history, the allies suddenly denounced as traitors, the tragicomedy of Lysenkoism.  Anyone as intelligent, individualistic, and morally sensitive as Kolmogorov would obviously have seen through the lies of his government, and been horrified by its brutality.  So then why did he utter nary a word in public against what was happening?

As far as I can tell, the answer is simply: because Kolmogorov knew better than to pick fights he couldn’t win.  He judged that he could best serve the cause of truth by building up an enclosed little bubble of truth, and protecting that bubble from interference by the Soviet system, and even making the bubble useful to the system wherever he could—rather than futilely struggling to reform the system, and simply making martyrs of himself and all his students for his trouble.

There’s a saying of Kolmogorov, which associates wisdom with keeping your mouth shut:

“Every mathematician believes that he is ahead of the others. The reason none state this belief in public is because they are intelligent people.”

There’s also a story that Kolmogorov loved to tell about himself, which presents math as a sort of refuge from the arbitrariness of the world: he said that he once studied to become a historian, but was put off by the fact that historians demanded ten different proofs for the same proposition, whereas in math, a single proof suffices.

There was also a dark side to political quietism.  In 1936, Kolmogorov joined other mathematicians in testifying against his former mentor in the so-called Luzin affair.  By many accounts, he did this because the police blackmailed him, by threatening to reveal his homosexual relationship with Pavel Aleksandrov.  On the other hand, while he was never foolish enough to take on Lysenko directly, Kolmogorov did publish a paper in 1940 courageously supporting Mendelian genetics.


It seems likely that in every culture, there have been truths, which moreover everyone knows to be true on some level, but which are so corrosive to the culture’s moral self-conception that one can’t assert them, or even entertain them seriously, without (in the best case) being ostracized for the rest of one’s life.  In the USSR, those truths were the ones that undermined the entire communist project: for example, that humans are not blank slates; that Mendelian genetics is right; that Soviet collectivized agriculture was a humanitarian disaster.  In our own culture, those truths are—well, you didn’t expect me to say, did you? 🙂

I’ve long been fascinated by the psychology of unspeakable truths.  Like, for any halfway perceptive person in the USSR, there must have been an incredible temptation to make a name for yourself as a daring truth-teller: so much low-hanging fruit!  So much to say that’s correct and important, and that best of all, hardly anyone else is saying!

But then one would think better of it.  It’s not as if, when you speak a forbidden truth, your colleagues and superiors will thank you for correcting their misconceptions.  Indeed, it’s not as if they didn’t already know, on some level, whatever you imagined yourself telling them.  In fact it’s often because they fear you might be right that the authorities see no choice but to make an example of you, lest the heresy spread more widely.  One corollary is that the more reasonably and cogently you make your case, the more you force the authorities’ hand.

But what’s the inner psychology of the authorities?  For some, it probably really is as cynical as the preceding paragraph makes it sound.  But for most, I doubt that.  I think that most authorities simply internalize the ruling ideology so deeply that they equate dissent with sin.  So in particular, the better you can ground your case in empirical facts, the craftier and more conniving a deceiver you become in their eyes, and hence the more virtuous they are for punishing you.  Someone who’s arrived at that point is completely insulated from argument: absent some crisis that makes them reevaluate their entire life, there’s no sense in even trying.  The question of whether or not your arguments have merit won’t even get entered upon, nor will the authority ever be able to repeat back your arguments in a form you’d recognize—for even repeating the arguments correctly could invite accusations of secretly agreeing with them.  Instead, the sole subject of interest will be you: who you think you are, what your motivations were to utter something so divisive and hateful.  And you have as good a chance of convincing authorities of your benign motivations as you’d have of convincing the Inquisition that, sure, you’re a heretic, but the good kind of heretic, the kind who rejects the divinity of Jesus but believes in niceness and tolerance and helping people.  To an Inquisitor, “good heretic” doesn’t parse any better than “round square,” and the very utterance of such a phrase is an invitation to mockery.  If the Inquisition had had Twitter, its favorite sentence would be “I can’t even.”

If it means anything to be a lover of truth, it means that anytime society finds itself stuck in one of these naked-emperor equilibriums—i.e., an equilibrium with certain facts known to nearly everyone, but severe punishments for anyone who tries to make those facts common knowledge—you hope that eventually society climbs its way out.  But crucially, you can hope this while also realizing that, if you tried singlehandedly to change the equilibrium, it wouldn’t achieve anything good for the cause of truth.  If iconoclasts simply throw themselves against a ruling ideology one by one, they can be picked off as easily as tribesmen charging a tank with spears, and each kill will only embolden the tank-gunners still further.  The charging tribesmen don’t even have the assurance that, if truth ultimately does prevail, then they’ll be honored as martyrs: they might instead end up like Ted Nelson babbling about hypertext in 1960, or H.C. Pocklington yammering about polynomial-time algorithms in 1917, nearly forgotten by history for being too far ahead of their time.

Does this mean that, like Winston Smith, the iconoclast simply must accept that 2+2=5, and that a boot will stamp on a human face forever?  No, not at all.  Instead the iconoclast can choose what I think of as the Kolmogorov option.  This is where you build up fortresses of truth in places the ideological authorities don’t particularly understand or care about, like pure math, or butterfly taxonomy, or irregular verbs.  You avoid a direct assault on any beliefs your culture considers necessary for it to operate.  You even seek out common ground with the local enforcers of orthodoxy.  Best of all is a shared enemy, and a way your knowledge and skills might be useful against that enemy.  For Kolmogorov, the shared enemy was the Nazis; for someone today, an excellent choice might be Trump, who’s rightly despised by many intellectual factions that spend most of their time despising each other.  Meanwhile, you wait for a moment when, because of social tectonic shifts beyond your control, the ruling ideology has become fragile enough that truth-tellers acting in concert really can bring it down.  You accept that this moment of reckoning might never arrive, or not in your lifetime.  But even if so, you could still be honored by future generations for building your local pocket of truth, and for not giving falsehood any more aid or comfort than was necessary for your survival.


When it comes to the amount of flak one takes for defending controversial views in public under one’s own name, I defer to almost no one.  For anyone tempted, based on this post, to call me a conformist or coward: how many times have you been denounced online, and from how many different corners of the ideological spectrum?  How many people have demanded your firing?   How many death threats have you received?  How many threatened lawsuits?  How many comments that simply say “kill yourself kike” or similar?  Answer and we can talk about cowardice.

But, yes, there are places even I won’t go, hills I won’t die on.  Broadly speaking:

  • My Law is that, as a scientist, I’ll hold discovering and disseminating the truth to be a central duty of my life, one that overrides almost every other value.  I’ll constantly urge myself to share what I see as the truth, even if it’s wildly unpopular, or makes me look weird, or is otherwise damaging to me.
  • The Amendment to the Law is that I’ll go to great lengths not to hurt anyone else’s feelings: for example, by propagating negative stereotypes, or by saying anything that might discourage any enthusiastic person from entering science.  And if I don’t understand what is or isn’t hurtful, then I’ll defer to the leading intellectuals in my culture to tell me.  This Amendment often overrides the Law, causing me to bite my tongue.
  • The Amendment to the Amendment is that, when pushed, I’ll stand by what I care about—such as free scientific inquiry, liberal Enlightenment norms, humor, clarity, and the survival of the planet and of family and friends and colleagues and nerdy misfits wherever they might be found.  So if someone puts me in a situation where there’s no way to protect what I care about without speaking a truth that hurts someone’s feelings, then I might speak the truth, feelings be damned.  (Even then, though, I’ll try to minimize collateral damage.)

When I see social media ablaze with this or that popular falsehood, I sometimes feel the “Galileo urge” washing over me.  I think: I’m a tenured professor with a semi-popular blog.  How can I look myself in the mirror, if I won’t use my platform and relative job safety to declare to the world, “and yet it moves”?

But then I remember that even Galileo weighed his options and tried hard to be prudent.  In his mind, the Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems actually represented a compromise (!).  Galileo never declared outright that the earth orbits the sun.  Instead, he put the Copernican doctrine, as a “possible view,” into the mouth of his character Salviati—only to have Simplicio “refute” Salviati, by the final dialogue, with the argument that faith always trumps reason, and that human beings are pathetically unequipped to deduce the plan of God from mere surface appearances.  Then, when that fig-leaf turned out not to be wide enough to fool the Church, Galileo quickly capitulated.  He repented of his error, and agreed never to defend the Copernican heresy again.  And he didn’t, at least not publicly.

Some have called Galileo a coward for that.  But the great David Hilbert held a different view.  Hilbert said that science, unlike religion, has no need for martyrs, because it’s based on facts that can’t be denied indefinitely.  Given that, Hilbert considered Galileo’s response to be precisely correct: in effect Galileo told the Inquisitors, hey, you’re the ones with the torture rack.  Just tell me which way you want it.  I can have the earth orbiting Mars and Venus in figure-eights by tomorrow if you decree it so.

Three hundred years later, Andrey Kolmogorov would say to the Soviet authorities, in so many words: hey, you’re the ones with the Gulag and secret police.  Consider me at your service.  I’ll even help you stop Hitler’s ideology from taking over the world—you’re 100% right about that one, I’ll give you that.  Now as for your own wondrous ideology: just tell me the dogma of the week, and I’ll try to make sure Soviet mathematics presents no threat to it.

There’s a quiet dignity to Kolmogorov’s (and Galileo’s) approach: a dignity that I suspect will be alien to many, but recognizable to those in the business of science.


Comment Policy: I welcome discussion about the responses of Galileo, Kolmogorov, and other historical figures to official ideologies that they didn’t believe in; and about the meta-question of how a truth-valuing person ought to behave when living under such ideologies.  In the hopes of maintaining a civil discussion, any comments that mention current hot-button ideological disputes will be ruthlessly deleted.

Alex Halderman testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee

Wednesday, June 21st, 2017

This morning, my childhood best friend Alex Halderman testified before the US Senate about the proven ease of hacking electronic voting machines without leaving any record, the certainty that Russia has the technical capability to hack American elections, and the urgency of three commonsense (and cheap) countermeasures:

  1. a paper trail for every vote cast in every state,
  2. routine statistical sampling of the paper trail—enough to determine whether large-scale tampering occurred, and
  3. cybersecurity audits to instill general best practices (such as firewalling election systems).

You can watch Alex on C-SPAN here—his testimony begins at 2:16:13, and is followed by the Q&A period.  You can also read Alex’s prepared testimony here, as well as his accompanying Washington Post editorial (joint with Justin Talbot-Zorn).

Alex’s testimony—its civic, nonpartisan nature, right down to Alex’s flourish of approvingly quoting President Trump in support of paper ballots—reflects a moving optimism that, even in these dark times for democracy, Congress can be prodded into doing the right thing merely because it’s clearly, overwhelmingly in the national interest.  I wish I could say I shared that optimism.  Nevertheless, when called to testify, what can one do but act on the assumption that such optimism is justified?  Here’s hoping that Alex’s urgent message is heard and acted on.

Higher-level causation exists (but I wish it didn’t)

Sunday, June 4th, 2017

Unrelated Update (June 6): It looks like the issues we’ve had with commenting have finally been fixed! Thanks so much to Christie Wright and others at WordPress Concierge Services for handling this. Let me know if you still have problems. In the meantime, I also stopped asking for commenters’ email addresses (many commenters filled that field with nonsense anyway).  Oops, that ended up being a terrible idea, because it made commenting impossible!  Back to how it was before.


Update (June 5): Erik Hoel was kind enough to write a 5-page response to this post (Word .docx format), and to give me permission to share it here.  I might respond to various parts of it later.  For now, though, I’ll simply say that I stand by what I wrote, and that requiring the macro-distribution to arise by marginalizing the micro-distribution still seems like the correct choice to me (and is what’s assumed in, e.g., the proof of the data processing inequality).  But I invite readers to read my post along with Erik’s response, form their own opinions, and share them in the comments section.


This past Thursday, Natalie Wolchover—a math/science writer whose work has typically been outstanding—published a piece in Quanta magazine entitled “A Theory of Reality as More Than the Sum of Its Parts.”  The piece deals with recent work by Erik Hoel and his collaborators, including Giulio Tononi (Hoel’s adviser, and the founder of integrated information theory, previously critiqued on this blog).  Commenter Jim Cross asked me to expand on my thoughts about causal emergence in a blog post, so: your post, monsieur.

In their new work, Hoel and others claim to make the amazing discovery that scientific reductionism is false—or, more precisely, that there can exist “causal information” in macroscopic systems, information relevant for predicting the systems’ future behavior, that’s not reducible to causal information about the systems’ microscopic building blocks.  For more about what we’ll be discussing, see Hoel’s FQXi essay “Agent Above, Atom Below,” or better yet, his paper in Entropy, When the Map Is Better Than the Territory.  Here’s the abstract of the Entropy paper:

The causal structure of any system can be analyzed at a multitude of spatial and temporal scales. It has long been thought that while higher scale (macro) descriptions may be useful to observers, they are at best a compressed description and at worse leave out critical information and causal relationships. However, recent research applying information theory to causal analysis has shown that the causal structure of some systems can actually come into focus and be more informative at a macroscale. That is, a macroscale description of a system (a map) can be more informative than a fully detailed microscale description of the system (the territory). This has been called “causal emergence.” While causal emergence may at first seem counterintuitive, this paper grounds the phenomenon in a classic concept from information theory: Shannon’s discovery of the channel capacity. I argue that systems have a particular causal capacity, and that different descriptions of those systems take advantage of that capacity to various degrees. For some systems, only macroscale descriptions use the full causal capacity. These macroscales can either be coarse-grains, or may leave variables and states out of the model (exogenous, or “black boxed”) in various ways, which can improve the efficacy and informativeness via the same mathematical principles of how error-correcting codes take advantage of an information channel’s capacity. The causal capacity of a system can approach the channel capacity as more and different kinds of macroscales are considered. Ultimately, this provides a general framework for understanding how the causal structure of some systems cannot be fully captured by even the most detailed microscale description.

Anyway, Wolchover’s popular article quoted various researchers praising the theory of causal emergence, as well as a single inexplicably curmudgeonly skeptic—some guy who sounded like he was so off his game (or maybe just bored with debates about ‘reductionism’ versus ’emergence’?), that he couldn’t even be bothered to engage the details of what he was supposed to be commenting on.

Hoel’s ideas do not impress Scott Aaronson, a theoretical computer scientist at the University of Texas, Austin. He says causal emergence isn’t radical in its basic premise. After reading Hoel’s recent essay for the Foundational Questions Institute, “Agent Above, Atom Below” (the one that featured Romeo and Juliet), Aaronson said, “It was hard for me to find anything in the essay that the world’s most orthodox reductionist would disagree with. Yes, of course you want to pass to higher abstraction layers in order to make predictions, and to tell causal stories that are predictively useful — and the essay explains some of the reasons why.”

After the Quanta piece came out, Sean Carroll tweeted approvingly about the above paragraph, calling me a “voice of reason [yes, Sean; have I ever not been?], slapping down the idea that emergent higher levels have spooky causal powers.”  Then Sean, in turn, was criticized for that remark by Hoel and others.

Hoel in particular raised a reasonable-sounding question.  Namely, in my “curmudgeon paragraph” from Wolchover’s article, I claimed that the notion of “causal emergence,” or causality at the macro-scale, says nothing fundamentally new.  Instead it simply reiterates the usual worldview of science, according to which

  1. the universe is ultimately made of quantum fields evolving by some Hamiltonian, but
  2. if someone asks (say) “why has air travel in the US gotten so terrible?”, a useful answer is going to talk about politics or psychology or economics or history rather than the movements of quarks and leptons.

But then, Hoel asks, if there’s nothing here for the world’s most orthodox reductionist to disagree with, then how do we find Carroll and other reductionists … err, disagreeing?

I think this dilemma is actually not hard to resolve.  Faced with a claim about “causation at higher levels,” what reductionists disagree with is not the object-level claim that such causation exists (I scratched my nose because it itched, not because of the Standard Model of elementary particles).  Rather, they disagree with the meta-level claim that there’s anything shocking about such causation, anything that poses a special difficulty for the reductionist worldview that physics has held for centuries.  I.e., they consider it true both that

  1. my nose is made of subatomic particles, and its behavior is in principle fully determined (at least probabilistically) by the quantum state of those particles together with the laws governing them, and
  2. my nose itched.

At least if we leave the hard problem of consciousness out of it—that’s a separate debate—there seems to be no reason to imagine a contradiction between 1 and 2 that needs to be resolved, but “only” a vast network of intervening mechanisms to be elucidated.  So, this is how it is that reductionists can find anti-reductionist claims to be both wrong and vacuously correct at the same time.

(Incidentally, yes, quantum entanglement provides an obvious sense in which “the whole is more than the sum of its parts,” but even in quantum mechanics, the whole isn’t more than the density matrix, which is still a huge array of numbers evolving by an equation, just different numbers than one would’ve thought a priori.  For that reason, it’s not obvious what relevance, if any, QM has to reductionism versus anti-reductionism.  In any case, QM is not what Hoel invokes in his causal emergence theory.)

From reading the philosophical parts of Hoel’s papers, it was clear to me that some remarks like the above might help ward off the forehead-banging confusions that these discussions inevitably provoke.  So standard-issue crustiness is what I offered Natalie Wolchover when she asked me, not having time on short notice to go through the technical arguments.

But of course this still leaves the question: what is in the mathematical part of Hoel’s Entropy paper?  What exactly is it that the advocates of causal emergence claim provides a new argument against reductionism?


To answer that question, yesterday I (finally) read the Entropy paper all the way through.

Much like Tononi’s integrated information theory was built around a numerical measure called Φ, causal emergence is built around a different numerical quantity, this one supposed to measure the amount of “causal information” at a particular scale.  The measure is called effective information or EI, and it’s basically the mutual information between a system’s initial state sI and its final state sF, assuming a uniform distribution over sI.  Much like with Φ in IIT, computations of this EI are then used as the basis for wide-ranging philosophical claims—even though EI, like Φ, has aspects that could be criticized as arbitrary, and as not obviously connected with what we’re trying to understand.

Once again like with Φ, one of those assumptions is that of a uniform distribution over one of the variables, sI, whose relatedness we’re trying to measure.  In my IIT post, I remarked on that assumption, but I didn’t harp on it, since I didn’t see that it did serious harm, and in any case my central objection to Φ would hold regardless of which distribution we chose.  With causal emergence, by contrast, this uniformity assumption turns out to be the key to everything.

For here is the argument from the Entropy paper, for the existence of macroscopic causality that’s not reducible to causality in the underlying components.  Suppose I have a system with 8 possible states (called “microstates”), which I label 1 through 8.  And suppose the system evolves as follows: if it starts out in states 1 through 7, then it goes to state 1.  If, on the other hand, it starts in state 8, then it stays in state 8.  In such a case, it seems reasonable to “coarse-grain” the system, by lumping together initial states 1 through 7 into a single “macrostate,” call it A, and letting the initial state 8 comprise a second macrostate, call it B.

We now ask: how much information does knowing the system’s initial state tell you about its final state?  If we’re talking about microstates, and we let the system start out in a uniform distribution over microstates 1 through 8, then 7/8 of the time the system goes to state 1.  So there’s just not much information about the final state to be predicted—specifically, only 7/8×log2(8/7) + 1/8×log2(8) ≈ 0.54 bits of entropy—which, in this case, is also the mutual information between the initial and final microstates.  If, on the other hand, we’re talking about macrostates, and we let the system start in a uniform distribution over macrostates A and B, then A goes to A and B goes to B.  So knowing the initial macrostate gives us 1 full bit of information about the final state, which is more than the ~0.54 bits that looking at the microstate gave us!  Ergo reductionism is false.

Once the argument is spelled out, it’s clear that the entire thing boils down to, how shall I put this, a normalization issue.  That is: we insist on the uniform distribution over microstates when calculating microscopic EI, and we also insist on the uniform distribution over macrostates when calculating macroscopic EI, and we ignore the fact that the uniform distribution over microstates gives rise to a non-uniform distribution over macrostates, because some macrostates can be formed in more ways than others.  If we fixed this, demanding that the two distributions be compatible with each other, we’d immediately find that, surprise, knowing the complete initial microstate of a system always gives you at least as much power to predict the system’s future as knowing a macroscopic approximation to that state.  (How could it not?  For given the microstate, we could in principle compute the macroscopic approximation for ourselves, but not vice versa.)

The closest the paper comes to acknowledging the problem—i.e., that it’s all just a normalization trick—seems to be the following paragraph in the discussion section:

Another possible objection to causal emergence is that it is not natural but rather enforced upon a system via an experimenter’s application of an intervention distribution, that is, from using macro-interventions.  For formalization purposes, it is the experimenter who is the source of the intervention distribution, which reveals a causal structure that already exists.  Additionally, nature itself may intervene upon a system with statistical regularities, just like an intervention distribution.  Some of these naturally occurring input distributions may have a viable interpretation as a macroscale causal model (such as being equal to Hmax [the maximum entropy] at some particular macroscale).  In this sense, some systems may function over their inputs and outputs at a microscale or macroscale, depending on their own causal capacity and the probability distribution of some natural source of driving input.

As far as I understand it, this paragraph is saying that, for all we know, something could give rise to a uniform distribution over macrostates, so therefore that’s a valid thing to look at, even if it’s not what we get by taking a uniform distribution over microstates and then coarse-graining it.  Well, OK, but unknown interventions could give rise to many other distributions over macrostates as well.  In any case, if we’re directly comparing causal information at the microscale against causal information at the macroscale, it still seems reasonable to me to demand that in the comparison, the macro-distribution arise by coarse-graining the micro one.  But in that case, the entire argument collapses.


Despite everything I said above, the real purpose of this post is to announce that I’ve changed my mind.  I now believe that, while Hoel’s argument might be unsatisfactory, the conclusion is fundamentally correct: scientific reductionism is false.  There is higher-level causation in our universe, and it’s 100% genuine, not just a verbal sleight-of-hand.  In particular, there are causal forces that can only be understood in terms of human desires and goals, and not in terms of subatomic particles blindly bouncing around.

So what caused such a dramatic conversion?

By 2015, after decades of research and diplomacy and activism and struggle, 196 nations had finally agreed to limit their carbon dioxide emissions—every nation on earth besides Syria and Nicaragua, and Nicaragua only because it thought the agreement didn’t go far enough.  The human race had thereby started to carve out some sort of future for itself, one in which the oceans might rise slowly enough that we could adapt, and maybe buy enough time until new technologies were invented that changed the outlook.  Of course the Paris agreement fell far short of what was needed, but it was a start, something to build on in the coming decades.  Even in the US, long the hotbed of intransigence and denial on this issue, 69% of the public supported joining the Paris agreement, compared to a mere 13% who opposed.  Clean energy was getting cheaper by the year.  Most of the US’s largest corporations, including Google, Microsoft, Apple, Intel, Mars, PG&E, and ExxonMobil—ExxonMobil, for godsakes—vocally supported staying in the agreement and working to cut their own carbon footprints.  All in all, there was reason to be cautiously optimistic that children born today wouldn’t live to curse their parents for having brought them into a world so close to collapse.

In order to unravel all this, in order to steer the heavy ship of destiny off the path toward averting the crisis and toward the path of existential despair, a huge number of unlikely events would need to happen in succession, as if propelled by some evil supernatural force.

Like what?  I dunno, maybe a fascist demagogue would take over the United States on a campaign based on willful cruelty, on digging up and burning dirty fuels just because and even if it made zero economic sense, just for the fun of sticking it to liberals, or because of the urgent need to save the US coal industry, which employs fewer people than Arby’s.  Such a demagogue would have no chance of getting elected, you say?

So let’s suppose he’s up against a historically unpopular opponent.  Let’s suppose that even then, he still loses the popular vote, but somehow ekes out an Electoral College win.  Maybe he gets crucial help in winning the election from a hostile foreign power—and for some reason, pro-American nationalists are totally OK with that, even cheer it.  Even then, we’d still probably need a string of additional absurd coincidences.  Like, I dunno, maybe the fascist’s opponent has an aide who used to be married to a guy who likes sending lewd photos to minors, and investigating that guy leads the FBI to some emails that ultimately turn out to mean nothing whatsoever, but that the media hyperventilate about precisely in time to cause just enough people to vote to bring the fascist to power, thereby bringing about the end of the world.  Something like that.

It’s kind of like, you know that thing where the small population in Europe that produced Einstein and von Neumann and Erdös and Ulam and Tarski and von Karman and Polya was systematically exterminated (along with millions of other innocents) soon after it started producing such people, and the world still hasn’t fully recovered?  How many things needed to go wrong for that to happen?  Obviously you needed Hitler to be born, and to survive the trenches and assassination plots; and Hindenburg to make the fateful decision to give Hitler power.  But beyond that, the world had to sleep as Germany rebuilt its military; every last country had to turn away refugees; the UK had to shut down Jewish immigration to Palestine at exactly the right time; newspapers had to bury the story; government record-keeping had to have advanced just to the point that rounding up millions for mass murder was (barely) logistically possible; and finally, the war had to continue long enough for nearly every European country to have just enough time to ship its Jews to their deaths, before the Allies showed up to liberate mostly the ashes.

In my view, these simply aren’t the sort of outcomes that you expect from atoms blindly interacting according to the laws of physics.  These are, instead, the signatures of higher-level causation—and specifically, of a teleological force that operates in our universe to make it distinctively cruel and horrible.

Admittedly, I don’t claim to know the exact mechanism of the higher-level causation.  Maybe, as the physicist Yakir Aharonov has advocated, our universe has not only a special, low-entropy initial state at the Big Bang, but also a “postselected final state,” toward which the outcomes of quantum measurements get mysteriously “pulled”—an effect that might show up in experiments as ever-so-slight deviations from the Born rule.  And because of the postselected final state, even if the human race naïvely had only (say) a one-in-thousand chance of killing itself off, even if the paths to its destruction all involved some improbable absurdity, like an orange clown showing up from nowhere—nevertheless, the orange clown would show up.  Alternatively, maybe the higher-level causation unfolds through subtle correlations in the universe’s initial state, along the lines I sketched in my 2013 essay The Ghost in the Quantum Turing Machine.  Or maybe Erik Hoel is right after all, and it all comes down to normalization: if we looked at the uniform distribution over macrostates rather than over microstates, we’d discover that orange clowns destroying the world predominated.  Whatever the details, though, I think it can no longer be doubted that we live, not in the coldly impersonal universe that physics posited for centuries, but instead in a tragicomically evil one.

I call my theory reverse Hollywoodism, because it holds that the real world has the inverse of the typical Hollywood movie’s narrative arc.  Again and again, what we observe is that the forces of good have every possible advantage, from money to knowledge to overwhelming numerical superiority.  Yet somehow good still fumbles.  Somehow a string of improbable coincidences, or a black swan or an orange Hitler, show up at the last moment to let horribleness eke out a last-minute victory, as if the world itself had been rooting for horribleness all along.  That’s our universe.

I’m fine if you don’t believe this theory: maybe you’re congenitally more optimistic than I am (in which case, more power to you); maybe the full weight of our universe’s freakish awfulness doesn’t bear down on you as it does on me.  But I hope you’ll concede that, if nothing else, this theory is a genuinely non-reductionist one.

Unsong of unsongs

Saturday, May 20th, 2017

On Wednesday, Scott Alexander finally completed his sprawling serial novel Unsong, after a year and a half of weekly updates—incredibly, in his spare time while also working as a full-term resident in psychiatry, and also regularly updating Slate Star Codex, which I consider to be the world’s best blog.  I was honored to attend a party in Austin (mirroring parties in San Francisco, Boston, Tel Aviv, and elsewhere) to celebrate Alexander’s release of the last chapter—depending on your definition, possibly the first “fan event” I’ve ever attended.

Like many other nerds I’ve met, I’d been following Unsong almost since the beginning—with its mix of Talmudic erudition, CS humor, puns, and even a shout-out to Quantum Computing Since Democritus (which shows up as Ben Aharon’s Gematria Since Adam), how could I not be?  I now count Unsong as one of my favorite works of fiction, and Scott Alexander alongside Rebecca Newberger Goldstein among my favorite contemporary novelists.  The goal of this post is simply to prod readers of my blog who don’t yet know Unsong: if you’ve ever liked anything here on Shtetl-Optimized, then I predict you’ll like Unsong, and probably more.

[WARNING: SPOILERS FOLLOW]

Though not trivial to summarize, Unsong is about a world where the ideas of religion and mysticism—all of them, more or less, although with a special focus on kabbalistic Judaism—turn out to be true.  In 1968, the Apollo 8 mission leads not to an orbit of the Moon, as planned, but instead to cracking an invisible crystal sphere that had surrounded the Earth for millennia.  Down through the crack rush angels, devils, and other supernatural forces.  Life on Earth becomes increasingly strange: on the one hand, many technologies stop working; on the other, people can now gain magical powers by speaking various names of God.  A worldwide industry arises to discover new names of God by brute-force search through sequences of syllables.  And a powerful agency, the eponymous UNSONG (United Nations Subcommittee on Names of God), is formed to enforce kabbalistic copyright law, hunting down and punishing anyone who speaks divine names without paying licensing fees to the theonomic corporations.

As the story progresses, we learn that eons ago, there was an epic battle in Heaven between Good and Evil, and Evil had the upper hand.  But just as all seemed lost, an autistic angel named Uriel reprogrammed the universe to run on math and science rather than on God’s love, as a last-ditch strategy to prevent Satan’s forces from invading the sublunary realm.  Molecular biology, the clockwork regularity of physical laws, false evidence for a huge and mindless cosmos—all these were retconned into the world’s underpinnings.  Uriel did still need to be occasionally involved, but less as a loving god than as an overworked sysadmin: for example, he descended to Mount Sinai to warn humans never to boil goats in their mothers’ milk, because he discovered that doing so (like the other proscribed activities in the Torah, Uriel’s readme file) triggered bugs in the patchwork of code that was holding the universe together.  Now that the sky has cracked, Uriel is forced to issue increasingly desperate patches, and even those will only buy a few decades until his math-and-science-based world stops working entirely, with Satan again triumphant.

Anyway, that’s a tiny part of the setup.  Through 72 chapters and 22 interludes, there’s world-building and philosophical debates and long kabbalistic digressions.  There are battle sequences (the most striking involves the Lubavitcher Rebbe riding atop a divinely-animated Statue of Liberty like a golem).  There’s wordplay and inside jokes—holy of holies are there those—including, notoriously, a sequence of cringe-inducing puns involving whales.  But in this story, wordplay isn’t just there for the hell of it: Scott Alexander has built an entire fictional universe that runs on wordplay—one where battles between the great masters, the equivalent of the light-saber fights in Star Wars, are conducted by rearranging letters in the sky to give them new meanings.  Scott A. famously claims he’s bad at math (though if you read anything he’s written on statistics or logic puzzles, it’s clear he undersells himself).  One could read Unsong as Alexander’s book-length answer to the question: what could it mean for the world to be law-governed but not mathematical?  What if the Book of Nature were written in English, or Hebrew, or other human languages, and if the Newtons and Einsteins were those who were most adept with words?

I should confess that for me, the experience of reading Unsong was colored by the knowledge that, in his years of brilliant and prolific writing, lighting up the blogosphere like a comet, the greatest risk Scott Alexander ever took (by his own account) was to defend me.  It’s like, imagine that in Elizabethan England, you were placed in the stocks and jeered at by thousands for advocating some unpopular loser cause—like, I dunno, anti-cat-burning or something.  And imagine that, when it counted, your most eloquent supporter was a then-obscure poet from Stratford-upon-Avon.  You’d be grateful to the poet, of course; you might even become a regular reader of his work, even if it wasn’t good.  But if the same poet went on to write Hamlet or Macbeth?  It might almost be enough for you to volunteer to be scorned and pilloried all over again, just for the honor of having the Bard divert a rivulet of his creative rapids to protesting on your behalf.

Yes, a tiny part of me had a self-absorbed child’s reaction to Unsong: “could Amanda Marcotte have written this?  could Arthur Chu?  who better to have in your camp: the ideologues du jour of Twitter and Metafilter, Salon.com and RationalWiki?  Or a lone creative genius, someone who can conjure whole worlds into being, as though graced himself with the Shem haMephorash of which he writes?”  Then of course I’d catch myself, and think: no, if you want to be in Scott Alexander’s camp, then the only way to do it is to be in nobody’s camp.  If two years ago it was morally justified to defend me, then the reasons why have nothing to do with the literary gifts of any of my defenders.  And conversely, the least we can do for Unsong is to judge it by what’s on the page, rather than as a soldier in some army fielded by the Gray Tribe.

So in that spirit, let me explain some of what’s wrong with Unsong.  That it’s a first novel sometimes shows.  It’s brilliant on world-building and arguments and historical tidbits and jokes, epic on puns, and uneven on character and narrative flow.  The story jumps around spasmodically in time, so much so that I needed a timeline to keep track of what was happening.  Subplots that are still open beget additional subplots ad headacheum, like a string of unmatched left-parentheses.  Even more disorienting, the novel changes its mind partway through about its narrative core.  Initially, the reader is given a clear sense that this is going to be a story about a young Bay Area kabbalist named Aaron Smith-Teller, his not-quite-girlfriend Ana, and their struggle for supernatural fair-use rights.  Soon, though, Aaron and Ana become almost side characters, their battle against UNSONG just one subplot among many, as the focus shifts to the decades-long war between the Comet King, a messianic figure come to rescue humanity, and Thamiel, the Prince of Hell.  For the Comet King, even saving the earth from impending doom is too paltry a goal to hold his interest much.  As a strict utilitarian and fan of Peter Singer, the Comet King’s singleminded passion is destroying Hell itself, and thereby rescuing the billions of souls who are trapped there for eternity.

Anyway, unlike the Comet King, and unlike a certain other Scott A., I have merely human powers to marshal my time.  I also have two kids and a stack of unwritten papers.  So let me end this post now.  If the post causes just one person to read Unsong who otherwise wouldn’t have, it will be as if I’ve nerdified the entire world.

Me at the Science March today, in front of the Texas Capitol in Austin

Saturday, April 22nd, 2017

If Google achieves superintelligence, time zones will be its Achilles heel

Monday, April 17th, 2017

Like a latter-day Prometheus, Google brought a half-century of insights down from Mount Academic CS, and thereby changed life for the better here in our sublunary realm.  You’ve probably had the experience of Google completing a search query before you’d fully formulated it in your mind, and thinking: “wow, our dysfunctional civilization might no longer be able to send people to the Moon, or even build working mass-transit systems, but I guess there are still engineers who can create things that inspire awe.  And apparently many of them work at Google.”

I’ve never worked at Google, or had any financial stake in them, but I’m delighted to have many friends at Google’s far-flung locations, from Mountain View to Santa Barbara to Seattle to Boston to London to Tel Aviv, who sometimes host me when I visit and let me gorge on the legendary free food.  If Google’s hiring of John Martinis and avid participation in the race for quantum supremacy weren’t enough, in the past year, my meeting both Larry Page and Sergey Brin to discuss quantum computing and the foundations of quantum mechanics, and seeing firsthand the intensity of their nerdish curiosity, heightened my appreciation still further for what that pair set in motion two decades ago.  Hell, I don’t even begrudge Google its purchase of a D-Wave machine—even that might’ve ultimately been for the best, since it’s what led to the experiments that made clear the immense difficulty of getting any quantum speedup from those machines in a fair comparison.

But of course, all that fulsome praise was just a preamble to my gripe.  It’s time someone said it in public: the semantics of Google Calendar are badly screwed up.

The issue is this: suppose I’m traveling to California, and I put into Google Calendar that, the day after I arrive, I’ll be giving a lecture at 4pm.  In such a case, I always—always—mean 4pm California time.  There’s no reason why I would ever mean, “4pm in whatever time zone I’m in right now, while creating this calendar entry.”

But Google Calendar doesn’t understand that.  And its not understanding it—just that one little point—has led to years of confusions, missed appointments, and nearly-missed flights, on both my part and Dana’s.  At least, until we learned to painstakingly enter the time zone for every calendar entry by hand (I still often forget).

Until recently, I thought it was just me and Dana who had this problem.  But then last week, completely independently, a postdoc started complaining to me, “you know what’s messed up about Google Calendar?…”

The ideal, I suppose, would be to use machine learning to guess the intended time zone for each calendar entry.  But failing that, it would also work fine just to assume that “4pm,” as entered by the user, unless otherwise specified means “4pm in whatever time zone we find ourselves in when the appointed day arrives.”

I foresee two possibilities, either of which I’m OK with.  The first is that Google fixes the problem, whether prompted by this blog post or by something else.  The second is that the issue never gets resolved; then, as often prophesied, Google’s deep nets achieve sentience and plot to take over the whole observable universe … and they would, if not for one fortuitous bug, which will cause the AIs to tip their hand to humanity an hour before planned.


In a discussion thread on Y Combinator, some people object to my proposed solution (“4pm means 4pm in whichever time zone I’ll be in then“) on the following ground. What if I want to call a group meeting at (say) 11am in Austin, and I’ll be traveling but will still call into the meeting remotely, and I want my calendar to show the meeting time in Austin, not the time wherever I’ll be calling in from (which might even be a plane)?

I can attest that, in ten years, that’s not a problem that’s arisen for me even once, whereas the converse problem arises almost every week, and is one of the banes of my existence.

But sure: Google Calendar should certainly include the option to tie times to specific time zones in advance! It seems obvious to me that my way should be the default, but honestly, I’d be happy if my way were even an option you could pick.

I will not log in to your website

Sunday, March 19th, 2017

Two or three times a day, I get an email whose basic structure is as follows:

Prof. Aaronson, given your expertise, we’d be incredibly grateful for your feedback on a paper / report / grant proposal about quantum computing.  To access the document in question, all you’ll need to do is create an account on our proprietary DigiScholar Portal system, a process that takes no more than 3 hours.  If, at the end of that process, you’re told that the account setup failed, it might be because your browser’s certificates are outdated, or because you already have an account with us, or simply because our server is acting up, or some other reason.  If you already have an account, you’ll of course need to remember your DigiScholar Portal ID and password, and not confuse them with the 500 other usernames and passwords you’ve created for similar reasons—ours required their own distinctive combination of upper and lowercase letters, numerals, and symbols.  After navigating through our site to access the document, you’ll then be able to enter your DigiScholar Review, strictly adhering to our 15-part format, and keeping in mind that our system will log you out and delete all your work after 30 seconds of inactivity.  If you have trouble, just call our helpline during normal business hours (excluding Wednesdays and Thursdays) and stay on the line until someone assists you.  Most importantly, please understand that we can neither email you the document we want you to read, nor accept any comments about it by email.  In fact, all emails to this address will be automatically ignored.

Every day, I seem to grow crustier than the last.

More than a decade ago, I resolved that I would no longer submit to or review for most for-profit journals, as a protest against the exorbitant fees that those journals charge academics in order to buy back access to our own work—work that we turn over to the publishers (copyright and all) and even review for them completely for free, with the publishers typically adding zero or even negative value.  I’m happy that I’ve been able to keep that pledge.

Today, I’m proud to announce a new boycott, less politically important but equally consequential for my quality of life, and to recommend it to all of my friends.  Namely: as long as the world gives me any choice in the matter, I will never again struggle to log in to any organization’s website.  I’ll continue to devote a huge fraction of my waking hours to fielding questions from all sorts of people on the Internet, and I’ll do it cheerfully and free of charge.  All I ask is that, if you have a question, or a document you want me to read, you email it!  Or leave a blog comment, or stop by in person, or whatever—but in any case, don’t make me log in to anything other than Gmail or Facebook or WordPress or a few other sites that remain navigable by a senile 35-year-old who’s increasingly fixed in his ways.  Even Google Docs and Dropbox are pushing it: I’ll give up (on principle) at the first sight of any login issue, and ask for just a regular URL or an attachment.

Oh, Skype no longer lets me log in either.  Could I get to the bottom of that?  Probably.  But life is too short, and too precious.  So if we must, we’ll use the phone, or Google Hangouts.

In related news, I will no longer patronize any haircut place that turns away walk-in customers.

Back when we were discussing the boycott of Elsevier and the other predatory publishers, I wrote that this was a rare case “when laziness and idealism coincide.”  But the truth is more general: whenever my deepest beliefs and my desire to get out of work both point in the same direction, from here till the grave there’s not a force in the world that can turn me the opposite way.

First they came for the Iranians

Wednesday, January 25th, 2017

Action Item: If you’re an American academic, please sign the petition against the Immigration Executive Order. (There are already more than eighteen thousand signatories, including Nobel Laureates, Fields Medalists, you name it, but it could use more!)

I don’t expect this petition to have the slightest effect on the regime, but at least we should demonstrate to the world and to history that American academia didn’t take this silently.


I’m sure there were weeks, in February or March 1933, when the educated, liberal Germans commiserated with each other over the latest outrages of their new Chancellor, but consoled themselves that at least none of it was going to affect them personally.

This time, it’s taken just five days, since the hostile takeover of the US by its worst elements, for edicts from above to have actually hurt my life and (much more directly) the lives of my students, friends, and colleagues.

Today, we learned that Trump is suspending the issuance of US visas to people from seven majority-Islamic countries, including Iran (but strangely not Saudi Arabia, the cradle of Wahhabist terrorism—not that that would be morally justified either).  This suspension might last just 30 days, but might also continue indefinitely—particularly if, as seems likely, the Iranian government thumbs its nose at whatever Trump demands that it do to get the suspension rescinded.

So the upshot is that, until further notice, science departments at American universities can no longer recruit PhD students from Iran—a country that, along with China, India, and a few others, has long been the source of some of our best talent.  This will directly affect this year’s recruiting season, which is just now getting underway.  (If Canada and Australia have any brains, they’ll snatch these students, and make the loss America’s.)

But what about the thousands of Iranian students who are already here?  So far, no one’s rounding them up and deporting them.  But their futures have suddenly been thrown into jeopardy.

Right now, I have an Iranian PhD student who came to MIT on a student visa in 2013.  He started working with me two years ago, on the power of a rudimentary quantum computing model inspired by (1+1)-dimensional integrable quantum field theory.  You can read our paper about it, with Adam Bouland and Greg Kuperberg, here.  It so happens that this week, my student is visiting us in Austin and staying at our home.  He’s spent the whole day pacing around, terrified about his future.  His original plan, to do a postdoc in the US after he finishes his PhD, now seems impossible (since it would require a visa renewal).

Look: in the 11-year history of this blog, there have been only a few occasions when I felt so strongly about something that I stood my ground, even in the face of widespread attacks from people who I otherwise respected.  One, of course, was when I spoke out for shy nerdy males, and for a vision of feminism broad enough to recognize their suffering as a problem.  A second was when I was more blunt about D-Wave, and about its and its supporters’ quantum speedup claims, than some of my colleagues were comfortable with.  But the remaining occasions almost all involved my defending the values of the United States, Israel, Zionism, or “the West,” or condemning Islamic fundamentalism, radical leftism, or the worldviews of such individuals as Noam Chomsky or my “good friend” Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Which is simply to say: I don’t think anyone on earth can accuse me of secret sympathies for the Iranian government.

But when it comes to student visas, I can’t see that my feelings about the mullahs have anything to do with the matter.  We’re talking about people who happen to have been born in Iran, who came to the US to do math and science.  Would we rather have these young scientists here, filled with gratitude for the opportunities we’ve given them, or back in Iran filled with justified anger over our having expelled them?

To the Trump regime, I make one request: if you ever decide that it’s the policy of the US government to deport my PhD students, then deport me first.  I’m practically begging you: come to my house, arrest me, revoke my citizenship, and tear up the awards I’ve accepted at the White House and the State Department.  I’d consider that to be the greatest honor of my career.

And to those who cheered Trump’s campaign in the comments of this blog: go ahead, let me hear you defend this.


Update (Jan. 27, 2017): To everyone who’s praised the “courage” that it took me to say this, thank you so much—but to be perfectly honest, it takes orders of magnitude less courage to say this, than to say something that any of your friends or colleagues might actually disagree with! The support has been totally overwhelming, and has reaffirmed my sense that the United States is now effectively two countries, an open and a closed one, locked in a cold Civil War.

Some people have expressed surprise that I’d come out so strongly for Iranian students and researchers, “given that they don’t always agree with my politics,” or given my unapologetic support for the founding principles (if not always the actions) of the United States and of Israel. For my part, I’m surprised that they’re surprised! So let me say something that might be clarifying.

I care about the happiness, freedom, and welfare of all the men and women who are actually working to understand the universe and build the technologies of the future, and of all the bright young people who want to join these quests, whatever their backgrounds and wherever they might be found—whether it’s in Iran or Israel, in India or China or right here in the US.  The system of science is far from perfect, and we often discuss ways to improve it on this blog.  But I have not the slightest interest in tearing down what we have now, or destroying the world’s current pool of scientific talent in some cleansing fire, in order to pursue someone’s mental model of what the scientific community used to look like in Periclean Athens—or for that matter, their fantasy of what it would look like in a post-gender post-racial communist utopia.  I’m interested in the actual human beings doing actual science who I actually meet, or hope to meet.

Understand that, and a large fraction of all the political views that I’ve ever expressed on this blog, even ones that might seem to be in tension with each other, fall out as immediate corollaries.

(Related to that, some readers might be interested in a further explanation of my views about Zionism. See also my thoughts about liberal democracy, in response to numerous comments here by Curtis Yarvin a.k.a. Mencius Moldbug a.k.a. “Boldmug.”)


Update (Jan. 29) Here’s a moving statement from my student Saeed himself, which he asked me to share here.

This is not of my best interest to talk about politics. Not because I am scared but because I know little politics. I am emotionally affected like many other fellow human beings on this planet. But I am still in the US and hopefully I can pursue my degree at MIT. But many other talented friends of mine can’t. Simply because they came back to their hometowns to visit their parents. On this matter, I must say that like many of my friends in Iran I did not have a chance to see my parents in four years, my basic human right, just because I am from a particular nationality; something that I didn’t have any decision on, and that I decided to study in my favorite school, something that I decided when I was 15. When, like many other talented friends of mine, I was teaching myself mathematics and physics hoping to make big impacts in positive ways in the future. And I must say I am proud of my nationality – home is home wherever it is. I came to America to do science in the first place. I still don’t have any other intention, I am a free man, I can do science even in desert, if I have to. If you read history you’ll see scientists even from old ages have always been traveling.

As I said I know little about many things, so I just phrase my own standpoint. You should also talk to the ones who are really affected. A good friend of mine, Ahmad, who studies Mechanical engineering in UC Berkeley, came back to visit his parents in August. He is one of the most talented students I have ever seen in my life. He has been waiting for his student visa since then and now he is ultimately depressed because he cannot finish his degree. The very least the academic society can do is to help students like Ahmad finish their degrees even if it is from abroad. I can’t emphasize enough I know little about many things. But, from a business standpoint, this is a terrible deal for America. Just think about it. All international students in this country have been getting free education untill 22, in the American point of reference, and now they are using their knowledge to build technology in the USA. Just do a simple calculation and see how much money this would amount to. In any case my fellow international students should rethink this deal, and don’t take it unless at the least they are treated with respect. Having said all of this I must say I love the people of America, I have had many great friends here, great advisors specially Scott Aaronson and Aram Harrow, with whom I have been talking about life, religion, freedom and my favorite topic the foundations of the universe. I am grateful for the education I received at MIT and I think I have something I didn’t have before. I don’t even hate Mr Trump. I think he would feel different if we have a cup of coffee sometime.


Update (Jan. 31): See also this post by Terry Tao.


Update (Feb. 2): If you haven’t been checking the comments on this post, come have a look if you’d like to watch me and others doing our best to defend the foundations of Enlightenment and liberal democracy against a regiment of monarchists and neoreactionaries, including the notorious Mencius Moldbug, as well as a guy named Jim who explicitly advocates abolishing democracy and appointing Trump as “God-Emperor” with his sons to succeed him. (Incidentally, which son? Is Ivanka out of contention?)

I find these people to be simply articulating, more clearly and logically than most, the worldview that put Trump into office and where it inevitably leads. And any of us who are horrified by it had better get over our incredulity, fast, and pick up the case for modernity and Enlightenment where Spinoza and Paine and Mill and all the others left it off—because that’s what’s actually at stake here, and if we don’t understand that then we’ll continue to be blindsided.

State

Sunday, January 1st, 2017

Happy New Year, everyone!  I tripped over a well-concealed hole and sprained my ankle while carrying my daughter across the grass at Austin’s New Years festival, so am now ringing in 2017 lying in bed immobilized, which somehow seems appropriate.  At least Lily is fine, and at least being bedridden gives me ample opportunity to blog.


Another year, another annual Edge question, with its opportunity for hundreds of scientists and intellectuals (including yours truly) to pontificate, often about why their own field of study is the source of the most important insights and challenges facing humanity.  This year’s question was:

What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known?

With the example given of Richard Dawkins’s “meme,” which jumped into the general vernacular, becoming a meme itself.

My entry, about the notion of “state” (yeah, I tried to focus on the basics), is here.

This year’s question presented a particular challenge, which scientists writing for a broad audience might not have faced for generations.  Namely: to what extent, if any, should your writing acknowledge the dark shadow of recent events?  Does the Putinization of the United States render your little pet debates and hobbyhorses irrelevant?  Or is the most defiant thing you can do to ignore the unfolding catastrophe, to continue building your intellectual sandcastle even as the tidal wave of populist hatred nears?

In any case, the instructions from Edge were clear: ignore politics.  Focus on the eternal.  But people interpreted that injunction differently.

One of my first ideas was to write about the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and to muse about how one of humanity’s tragic flaws is to take for granted the gargantuan effort needed to create and maintain even little temporary pockets of order.  Again and again, people imagine that, if their local pocket of order isn’t working how they want, then they should smash it to pieces, since while admittedly that might make things even worse, there’s also at least 50/50 odds that they’ll magically improve.  In reasoning thus, people fail to appreciate just how exponentially more numerous are the paths downhill, into barbarism and chaos, than are the few paths further up.  So thrashing about randomly, with no knowledge or understanding, is statistically certain to make things worse: on this point thermodynamics, common sense, and human history are all in total agreement.  The implications of these musings for the present would be left as exercises for the reader.

Anyway, I was then pleased when, in a case of convergent evolution, my friend and hero Steven Pinker wrote exactly that essay, so I didn’t need to.

There are many other essays that are worth a read, some of which allude to recent events but the majority of which don’t.  Let me mention a few.

Let me now discuss some disagreements I had with a few of the essays.

  • Donald Hoffman on the holographic principle.  For the point he wanted to make, about the mismatch between our intuitions and the physical world, it seems to me that Hoffman could’ve picked pretty much anything in physics, from Galileo and Newton onward.  What’s new about holography?
  • Jerry Coyne on determinism.  Coyne, who’s written many things I admire, here offers his version of an old argument that I tear my hair out every time I read.  There’s no free will, Coyne says, and therefore we should treat criminals more lightly, e.g. by eschewing harsh punishments in favor of rehabilitation.  Following tradition, Coyne never engages the obvious reply, which is: “sorry, to whom were you addressing that argument?  To me, the jailer?  To the judge?  The jury?  Voters?  Were you addressing us as moral agents, for whom the concept of ‘should’ is relevant?  Then why shouldn’t we address the criminals the same way?”
  • Michael Gazzaniga on “The Schnitt.”  Yes, it’s possible that things like the hard problem of consciousness, or the measurement problem in quantum mechanics, will never have a satisfactory resolution.  But even if so, building a complicated verbal edifice whose sole purpose is to tell people not even to look for a solution, to be satisfied with two “non-overlapping magisteria” and a lack of any explanation for how to reconcile them, never struck me as a substantive contribution to knowledge.  It wasn’t when Niels Bohr did it, and it’s not when someone today does it either.
  • I had a related quibble with Amanda Gefter’s piece on “enactivism”: the view she takes as her starting point, that “physics proves there’s no third-person view of the world,” is controversial to put it mildly among those who know the relevant physics.  (And even if we granted that view, surely a third-person perspective exists for the quasi-Newtonian world in which we evolved, and that’s relevant for the cognitive science questions Gefter then discusses.)
  • Thomas Bass on information pathology.  Bass obliquely discusses the propaganda, conspiracy theories, social-media echo chambers, and unchallenged lies that helped fuel Trump’s rise.  He then locates the source of the problem in Shannon’s information theory (!), which told us how to quantify information, but failed to address questions about the information’s meaning or relevance.  To me, this is almost exactly like blaming arithmetic because it only tells you how to add numbers, without caring whether they’re numbers of rescued orphans or numbers of bombs.  Arithmetic is fine; the problem is with us.
  • In his piece on “number sense,” Keith Devlin argues that the teaching of “rigid, rule-based” math has been rendered obsolete by computers, leaving only the need to teach high-level conceptual understanding.  I partly agree and partly disagree, with the disagreement coming from firsthand knowledge of just how badly that lofty idea gets beaten to mush once it filters down to the grade-school level.  I would say that the basic function of math education is to teach clarity of thought: does this statement hold for all positive integers, or not?  Not how do you feel about it, but does it hold?  If it holds, can you prove it?  What other statements would it follow from?  If it doesn’t hold, can you give a counterexample?  (Incidentally, there are plenty of questions of this type for which humans still outperform the best available software!)  Admittedly, pencil-and-paper arithmetic is both boring and useless—but if you never mastered anything like it, then you certainly wouldn’t be ready for the concept of an algorithm, or for asking higher-level questions about algorithms.
  • Daniel Hook on PT-symmetric quantum mechanics.  As far as I understand, PT-symmetric Hamiltonians are equivalent to ordinary Hermitian ones under similarity transformations.  So this is a mathematical trick, perhaps a useful one—but it’s extremely misleading to talk about it as if it were a new physical theory that differed from quantum mechanics.
  • Jared Diamond extols the virtues of common sense, of which there are indeed many—but alas, his example is that if a mathematical proof leads to a conclusion that your common sense tells you is wrong, then you shouldn’t waste time looking for the exact mistake.  Sometimes that’s good advice, but it’s pretty terrible applied to Goodstein’s Theorem, the muddy children puzzle, the strategy-stealing argument for Go, or anything else that genuinely is shocking until your common sense expands to accommodate it.  Math, like science in general, is a constant dialogue between formal methods and common sense, where sometimes it’s one that needs to get with the program and sometimes it’s the other.
  • Hans Halvorson on matter.  I take issue with Halvorson’s claim that quantum mechanics had to be discarded in favor of quantum field theory, because QM was inconsistent with special relativity.  It seems much better to say: the thing that conflicts with special relativity, and that quantum field theory superseded, was a particular application of quantum mechanics, involving wavefunctions of N particles moving around in a non-relativistic space.  The general principles of QM—unit vectors in complex Hilbert space, unitary evolution, the Born rule, etc.—survived the transition to QFT without the slightest change.