A nerdocratic oath

Recently, my Facebook wall was full of discussion about instituting an oath for STEM workers, analogous to the Hippocratic oath for doctors.  Perhaps some of the motivation for this comes from a worldview I can’t get behind—one that holds STEM nerds almost uniquely responsible for the world’s evils.  Nevertheless, on reflection, I find myself in broad support of the idea.

But I prefer writing the oath myself. Here’s my attempt:

1. I will never allow anyone else to make me a cog. I will never do what is stupid or horrible because “that’s what the regulations say” or “that’s what my supervisor said,” and then sleep soundly at night. I’ll never do my part for a project unless I’m satisfied that the project’s broader goals are, at worst, morally neutral. There’s no one on earth who gets to say: “I just solve technical problems.  Moral implications are outside my scope.”

2. If I build or supply tools that are used to do evil or cause suffering, I’ll be horrified as soon as I learn about it.  Yes, I might judge that the good of the tools outweighs the bad, that the bad can’t be prevented, etc.  But I’ll be hyper-alert to the possibility of self-serving bias in such reflections, and will choose a different course of action whenever the reflections are no longer persuasive to my highest self.

3. I will pursue the truth, and hold the sharing of truth and exposing of falsehoods among my highest moral values.

4. I will make a stink, resign, leak to the press, sabotage, rather than go along quietly with decisions inimical to my values.

5. I will put everything on the line for my students, advisees, employees—my time, funds, reputation, and credibility.  And not only because it can somewhat make up for failings in the other areas.

6. Black, white, male, female, trans, gay, straight, Israeli, Palestinian, young, old.  Whatever ideologies I might subscribe to about which groups are advantaged and which disadvantaged in which aspects of life—when it comes time to interact with a person, I will throw ideology into the ocean and treat them solely as an individual, not as a representative of a group.

7. I will not be Jeffrey Epstein—and not just in the narrow sense of not collecting underage girls on a private sex island.  I’ll see myself always as accountable to the moral judgment of history.  Whenever I’m publicly accused of wrongdoing, I’ll consider only two options: (a) if guilty, then confess, offer restitution, beg for forgiveness, or (b) if innocent, then mount a full public defense.  Finding some escape that avoids the need for either of these—from legal maneuvering to suicide—will never be on the table for me.

8. I’m under no obligation to blog or tweet every detail of my private life. Yet even in my most private moments, I’ll act in such a way that, if my actions were made public, I’d have a defense of which I was unashamed.

9. To whatever extent I was gifted at birth with a greater-than-average ability to prove theorems or write code or whatever, I’ll treat it as just that—a gift, which I didn’t earn or deserve. It doesn’t make me inherently worthier than anyone else, but it does give me a moral obligation to use the gift for good. And whenever I’m tempted to be jealous of various non-nerds—of their ease in social or romantic situations, wealth, looks, power, athletic ability, or anything else about them—I’ll remember the gift, and that all in all, I made out better than I had a right to expect.

10. I’ll be conscious always of living in a universe where catastrophes—genocides, destructions of civilizations, extinctions of magnificent species—have happened and will happen again. The burning of the Amazon, the deaths of children, the bleaching of coral reefs, will weigh on me daily, to the maximum extent consistent with being able to get out of bed in the morning, live, and work. While it’s not obvious that any of these problems are open to a STEM-nerd solution, of the sort I could plausibly think of or implement—nevertheless, I’ll keep asking myself whether any of them are. And if I ever do find myself before one of the levers of history, I’ll pull with all my strength to try to prevent these catastrophes.

92 Responses to “A nerdocratic oath”

  1. Hanan Cohen Says:

    Do you know the story of the blood pipe test in the Israeli Technion? It was a way to prove that humanistic studies are essential for engineering students.

    Read the full story here.


  2. Shecky R Says:

    A somewhat famous old bromide says, “An optimist believes we live in the best of all possible worlds; a pessimist fears this is true.”
    In any event, what’s a shame is that we live in a world where one even feels a need to state these oaths aloud.

  3. Raoul Ohio Says:

    OK, pretty good.

    Next language I learn, I will replace the Hello World program with the Aaronsonocratic Oath program!

  4. ira Says:

    ‘Thou shalt not be a victim, thou shalt not be a perpetrator, but, above all, thou shalt not be a bystander.’ — Yehuda Bauer

  5. Jay L Gischer Says:

    Mostly I agree with these, and have lived by them for a long time. I have a bit of an issue with #4.

    As a father and sole earner for my family, I could have been faced with situations that were not to my liking, and yet had to go along with them for fear that if I lost my job, not just me, but several people I love would be on the street, homeless.

    And while tech employment possibilities are good at the moment, there have been times (for instance, 2002 in Santa Clara County) where they were very, very bad.

    #4 does not really imagine that as a possible scenario. In comparison, we work hard not to judge battered women who stay in a relationship because of similar fears.

    It’s also the case that I’m not going to go through some formal public process of pledging these. That strikes me as demeaning, and as an invitation for people to get legalistic, and engage in conversations/exchanges that aren’t productive or valuable.

    As a side note, we referred to certain people not as “cogs” but as “tools”. I organized my career with the purposeful intention of never being a tool, always working on things that I thought made life better. In the 70’s that meant, to me, not working on DoD projects. But someone might make a different choice there, at least these days.

    Someone might conclude that there are bad guys out there who need to be taken down, and the best vehicle to take them down is, in fact, the US (or some other nation’s) military. There are issues here that there will never be universal agreement on, I think. That’s one reason I’m reluctant to take this pledge, since it assumes there is universal agreement.

  6. Marc Says:

    This seems almost entirely irrelevant to STEM. With slight modifications it would fit any profession just as well.

    This is a feature not a bug, all that’s left is to change the title, I think.

  7. someguy Says:

    Have you looked at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Order_of_the_Engineer ? This is the american version of the canadian system. It’s common but not ubiquitous in ABET-accredited undergraduate programs in the US. (I have a steel ring on my right pinkie)

    >I am an Engineer. In my profession, I take deep pride. To it, I owe solemn obligations.

    > As an engineer, I pledge to practice integrity and fair dealing, tolerance and respect, and to uphold devotion to the standards and dignity of my profession. I will always be conscious that my skill carries with it the obligation to serve humanity by making the best use of the Earth’s precious wealth.

    > As an engineer, I shall participate in none but honest enterprises. When needed, my skill and knowledge shall be given, without reservation, for the public good. In the performance of duty, and in fidelity to my profession, I shall give my utmost.

  8. JimV Says:

    On a more technical note:

    I will always check my work. E.g., if I assert something on the Internet I will fact-check it and look for logical fallacies in it before submitting (as a trivial example).

    I will follow and support the scientific method (needs a lot of amplification but I will leave it like that for brevity’s sake).

    The morals clauses sound good, but sometimes some of them can be subjectively/creatively interpreted. Many right-wing people seem to think they are morally sound, while advocating and doing things which seem wrong to me. If possible, I would like to have concrete processes to follow (which some of your items are).

  9. Wes Hansen Says:

    Okay, here recently I have been leaving a few comments on your blog which others would likely moderate and I appreciate that you haven’t, but here’s one more which I feel relates in a direct way to bullets #3 and #10 of your nerdocratic oath. If you moderate it, I won’t hold it against you.

    I used to be a diver and rather successfully maintained an experimental reef tank with the intent to eventually facilitate captive coral spawning (they have actually succeeded, pacific species in 2013 and atlantic just recently); one of my inventions is a realistic surge generator which does not use pumps and I have spent a decent amount of my own time and money on this project. To me, global warming is most evident in the sad, sad state of our oceans and our reefs in particular – also the plastic nonsense bothers me tremendously. Call me a pessimist, but I don’t believe there is a political/social solution to either problem – they will be solved by STEAM or they won’t be solved and we will all die, die, die! This is why I feel it is important to question, seriously question, the scientific materialist dogma which limits certain research in a very counter-productive way, and this questioning needs to extend beyond the STEM community to society at large. Why? Simply because the extreme bias inhibiting certain research areas infects our entire society – global society! You find it in the literature and I have personally experienced it on Quora and Wikipedia.

    I have written about my own experience on Wikipedia as has Rome Viharo, a tech executive who engaged in a 3 + year “Wiki war”, and Kathleen Taggart. Our experiences are all quite similar and all very juvinile. But this attitude one finds on Wikipedia is the same attitude one finds on Quora and in the orthodox science community and in the orthodox science community it’s not only juvinile, it’s also hypocritical – the worst of all logical fallacies.

    I simply wish you would post this comment and take a moment yourself to read about the experiences shared by Viharo, Taggart, and myself; they are simply ludicrous. You may find Viharo’s discussion TL;DR but I would highly encourage everyone to read it, it is certainly enlightening.

    Para Los Ninos

  10. jurgen Says:

    Nice, but I take issue with #8.

    In this era when getting a US visa requires you to provide your social media accounts, I think that anything of the sort can only be damaging. Surely, you want to be an upstanding person; feel free to be like that at home, without mixing it with the science you are doing.

  11. Scott Says:

    jurgen #9: US immigration officials rifling through people’s social media accounts is horrible (the immigration officials themselves obviously aren’t living by this oath), but what does that have to do with the ancient moral injunction to do the right thing even (or especially) when no one is looking?

  12. Immortal Lurker Says:

    I’m interested in the oath as a whole, and in favor of the implied goals.

    I have nitpicks for 7,8, and 10.

    7, as written, has the capacity to really screw you over even if you have done nothing wrong. There is a reason lawyers advise clients both innocent and guilty to shut up. Its a cheap shot, but would Alan Turing have been better served by mounting a full public defense, or legal maneuvering? The fact that Alan Turing wasn’t accused of doing anything that was actually wrong doesn’t change the fact that plenty of people thought that being gay was wrong. I will admit that I don’t know how the trial actually proceeded, so maybe I’ve missed something here.

    8 just seems like saying true things in a way that tries to justify a panopticon. A phrasing along the lines of “Anonymity is no excuse for anything or anyone” seems to preserve the point without triggering my big brother allergies.

    For 10, I do agree that there is a moral duty to address the problems of the world if your gifts are sufficient to actually do that. For example, I haven’t donated to EA causes in recent months, and that is a moral failing on my part.

    But I don’t think the vast majority of people should dwell on it all the time “to the maximum extent consistent with being able to get out of bed in the morning, live, and work.” Sometimes, sure. But not every day, or most days. Happiness matters. I would never tell someone looking for advice “All happiness you ever have must be tainted by the knowledge of suffering”.

  13. Scott Says:

    Immortal Lurker #12: Turing’s case was different from Epstein’s (to put it mildly) for several reasons, but one reason was that Turing actually did mount a defense in court, then served his (world-historically unjust) sentence … and only then did he commit suicide (assuming, as I am here, it wasn’t an accident or a murder), two years after the legal travesty was all over. He didn’t use suicide as a way to avoid the obligation to defend himself—unjust though it was that he’d be put into such a position at all.

    Having said that, while not blaming him at all, I do think Turing could’ve served himself better by writing a public manifesto in support of gay rights, and also moving out of the UK, if anyplace could be found where the law (or at least its enforcement) was more lenient at that time.

    If anyone remembers, the lack of a public defense was also central to my criticism of Walter Lewin, in the post that gave rise to comment 171. Namely, I can’t imagine myself into a state of mind where
    (1) I’m publicly accused of something horrible, fired, etc.,
    (2) I feel certain that I didn’t do anything wrong, and
    (3) my response is anything other than: “to hell with lawyers and gag orders! as long as I still have my life, I’ll use it to explain my actions and protest my innocence before the world!”

  14. Immortal Lurker Says:

    Scott #13: I think the root of our disagreement is fairly clear then. My model of your model is that if someone is unjustly persecuted/accused/fired, they have a (small? large? situational?) duty to set the record straight. This holds for setting the factual record straight (“I did not do what I am accused of”), and for setting the moral record straight (“What I did was not wrong”). This duty has a symbiotic relation with truth seeking, and fulfilling it helps others in similar situations by shifting public attitudes and processes.

    I don’t want to impose such a duty on people. I think my position is born of cynicism. I don’t think public attitudes care much for truth. Therefore, it doesn’t seem worth it to me to jeopardize yourself to provide the public with a kernel of truth to ignore.

    This has a number of asterisks. If telling the truth doesn’t actually put you in jeopardy, the duty is there. If for some reason you are unusually well positioned to change things by defending yourself, the duty is present. Maybe you are well connected, or extremely skilled at rhetoric, or are approached by a group of activists.

    And if someone does mount a public defense in the interests of truth and justice despite it being probably futile or personally costly, that is praiseworthy. I’m just not sure its a standard I could meet myself, so I am reluctant to hold it up as obligatory.

  15. I. J. Kennedy Says:

    Are these rules like Asimov’s laws of robotics, where in case of conflict, the first rule trumps the second, the second rule trumps the third, and so on? For example, let’s say you believe that legislative responses to global warming would be “good” for the nation, and the planet, but then you came to the mathematical conclusion that the science is simply wrong. Do you risk your career and reputation in a push an overthrow of the current “consensus” regarding AGW, or do you keep your mouth shut?

  16. William Gasarch Says:

    (I wonder if this will actually get posted—your spam filter doesn’t seem to like me.)
    Great list and I am not going to nitpick any of them, but I have a thought about item 4.

    You will do nothing that is inimical to your values. First off, thanks for teaching me a new word. Second, this sounds good, and it is good, but what if ones values are awful. Imagine someone taysing: I thought I was working on germ warfare and ways to wipe out large swaths of humanity, which I am in favor of, but I quit when I realized they had tricked me and I was doing cancer research!

    This is a problem in general- one often heres about being `true to your values’ or `true to yourself’ but this might not really be a good thing.

  17. Scott Says:

    I. J. Kennedy #15: Naw, they’re just in the order I thought of them. 🙂

    (Incidentally, I’ve always suspected the same of the original Ten Commandments. After five religious commandments, there’s this whole section “Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not commit adultery” that reads like the Levite priests suddenly remembered, “oh yeah, we’ve gotta prohibit the obvious stuff too.” 😀 )

  18. Scott Says:

    William #16: Right, there are cases where I couldn’t state the exact values without making extremely specific ideological commitments that I thought would be out of place for a general oath like this one. In such cases, I reasoned the best one could do was prescribe moral consistency checks—e.g., “here’s when you need to be especially sure that your actions align with your highest values.” To whatever extent you believe that most people really do share common moral intuitions—as evidenced, for example, by their eagerness to cover their tracks when they violate that common moral understanding—to that extent, you might expect such admonitions to do more good than harm.

  19. I. J. Kennedy Says:

    Scott #17: By “naw”, do you mean to say, in the example I gave, you would NOT push back against the consensus?

  20. Scott Says:

    I. J. #19: No, I hadn’t even read that far in your comment.

    My personal code of ethics has essentially no room for obfuscating science in service of a political goal. As one example, I personally think climate change has passed the point where it will be an existential crisis for civilization regardless of what anyone does now. The self-inflicted asteroid has already hit; the only question is how massive the holocaust will be and how much of civilization (if any) will survive. And I’m not going to moderate that position in order to “leave people hope,” even though many environmentalists implicitly or explicitly seem to endorse doing so.

  21. asdf Says:

    We can talk about a nerd oath when the CEO and board members also have to take an oath. Being a cog isn’t good, but it beats being an actively evil sociopath like the types running those companies.

  22. Miles Mutka Says:

    Most people know what “Philosophy of Science” means, and have heard of Karl Popper, mentioned in the linked article. But has anyone heard of “Philosophy of Engineering”, the E in STEM? Can you name someone you would consider to be a famous philosopher of engineering or technology? (In my opinion, Norbert Wiener comes very close, but he seems to have disliked the word “engineering”, at least the way it was used at the time.)

    It would be nice to provide a more well-rounded education for people who are going to make important decisions that potentially affect many people. Maybe writing your own ethics creed or “oath” could be a good exercise in a professional ethics course; if nothing else, it could help you become more self-aware of what kind of cog in what kind of machine you happen to be. But people also take pride in specialization, being able to do something that few others can. (Some people even call themselves “nerds” to show their pride in not being a well-rounded person, a needless but false self-denigration.)

    It is also a little foolish for the society at large to trust the “geniuses” to understand all the implications of their disruptive inventions, however eloquent their professional oaths (or other rhetoric) may be. Yet somehow at the same time as general-education has lost its status, there is a strong demand and campaign of deregulation, of taking down protective institutions and independent quality controls in the name of abolishing “barriers to invention”. Instead of trying to work together to solve our problems, it seems we hope that the next genius inventor will fix all the problems bequeathed by all the previous geniuses. (In the hippocratic context the analogy is: we keep looking for a “second opinion”, until we find a “doctor” whose answers we like, in whatever “alternate medicine” that is allowed by society to be peddled. Patients don’t take ethical oaths.)

  23. STEM Caveman Says:

    Do-gooder oaths are useless outside of medicine because all the biggest harm is in unpredictable, massive, long-term side effects rather than obviously-bad local direct effects.

    The Green Revolution in agriculture sounded like a great idea, except that it may end up destroying the earth or humankind, or at least creating famine (and biosphere destruction, global warming etc) 10 to 100 times more destructive than what it was meant to stop. Similarly the Industrial revolution, oil, computers, modern medicine, nuclear power, biotechnology, and the internet, all have the potential to cause catastrophes (or maybe have already done so) that outweigh the benefits. Telling STEM workers that they shouldn’t be building lethal injection devices, or at least that they shouldn’t build gas chambers, turns out to be a distraction in that the bigger problems always come (in hindsight of course) as Trojan horses of pure goodness.

    The more moral preening is built into the system the more blindness to the horses. If everyone is convinced they are doing good “locally” they can’t possibly be doing harm “globally”, can they? Also, outside of medicine the judgement of what is and is not harm seems to change rather rapidly, making personal determinations of the undefined terms in the moral code (“evil”, “bad”, etc) largely a matter of what feels good and socially acceptable in the Current Year, rather than actually doing good.

    The same applies to political technologies. Democracy, socialism, the European Union, world government, freedom of religion, liberal immigration policy, feminism, decolonization, liberte, egalite and fraternite… all sound good but have astonishing long term consequences. If mass immigration and religious freedom and principled anti-nationalism lead to Europe becoming a nuclear Islamic Caliphate by the end of this century (maybe removing all Jews from Eurasia in the process), are they still good ideas, or are they insane delusions in hindsight?

  24. Radford Neal Says:

    Scott: I personally think climate change has passed the point where it will be an existential crisis for civilization regardless of what anyone does now… I’m not going to moderate that position in order to “leave people hope,”

    Well, I’d agree that you shouldn’t say things you think are false just to “leave people hope”. But I think you should seriously reassess your thoughts on this matter, since they are not at all supported by the scientific consensus, as expressed for example by the IPCC. There is some debate about whether there might be a small but non-negligible chance of a horrible catastrophe, which might justify taking drastic action to avoid that small but terrible risk, but there is no scientific basis for thinking that such a catastrophe is certain (or even more likely than not).

  25. Scott Says:

    Radford Neal #24: My understanding is that, so far, the IPCC has consistently understated how bad things would be, how rapidly the glaciers would melt and forests and tundra would burn. This past summer looked like projections for the year 2050.

    Perhaps the deeper problem is that almost all projections bake in the technocratic assumption that ‘obviously’ the world is going to come together to reduce emissions, with the big uncertainty being how successful it will be. What model envisioned that we’d get more coal, more methane, more clear-cutting, etc., not even because of greed, but specifically to spite “the liberal elites” and enjoy their misery? Yet that’s the actual reality that we now inhabit. What climate model could have foreseen Trump and Bolsonaro?

    The other problem is that all the projections end in 2100. If the world of 2019 is already like a pretty grim forecast for 2050–and if, simultaneously, civilization’s problem-solving mechanisms seem to have completely broken down, with no one home (or rather, with terrifying madmen home) at the highest levels of power—then what do you expect me to think the world of 2200 or 2300 is going to be like?

  26. Radford Neal Says:

    Scott #25:

    Do you really believe there is any substantial amount coal being burned, methane being emitted, or forests being clear-cut when this produces an economic loss, just to spite “liberal elites”? That seems wildly implausible to me.

    According to https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/carbon Trump did not have any noticeable effect on US CO2 emissions through 2017 (last year available), and I’ve heard of nothing that would indicate a recent change in this.

    Amazon deforestation has decreased substantially in recent years.

    If you look at the first graph at http://www.columbia.edu/~mhs119/Temperature/, you will see a linear upward trend since about 1970, with a slope similar to that of the period from 1910 to 1950. Note that before 1950, greenhouse gas warming was not significant. There is no sign of things getting substantially worse in the last few years.

    The IPCC uncertainty range for “equilibrium climate sensitivity” for a doubling of CO2 is 1.5-4.5 degrees Celsius, so there is substantial uncertainty due to the physics, not just due to projections of future emissions.

    Now, one might worry that things might be worse than these facts indicate. But worrying about things maybe being worse is not at all the same as thinking that things are so definitely bad that one shouldn’t leave people with any false hope.

  27. Nocturnal Says:

    Doctors make judgement calls that affect the patients in their individual care. STEM workers are generally, as you say, cogs in the machine. The entire thrust of neoliberal polices over the past 40 years has been to convert employees into shiftless wage slaves living one paycheck away from personal ruin with almost no real power to ever tell their bosses “no”. This seems like a set-up to dump all of the moral onus onto the grunts when the seriously evil stuff comes down to decisions made by their employers.

    In any case, words are not enough.


  28. Thomas Redding Says:

    Out of curiosity, why did you include so much non-job related ethics but not effective altruism?

    Surely “I will donate 10% of my income to causes I believe to do the most good, regardless of who receives that good” is a much better oath than “The burning of the Amazon, the deaths of children, the bleaching of coral reefs, will weigh on me daily, to the maximum extent consistent with being able to get out of bed in the morning, live, and work”

    The former has huge positive impact with minimal cost. The latter has huge personal cost with probably 0 impact.

  29. Michael Says:

    @Nocturnal#27- No, medical errors are NOT the third most common cause of death:

  30. Scott Says:

    Nocturnal #27 and Thomas Redding #28: While you raise very different objections to my oath, I feel like I have a similar response to both of you. Namely, my interest here is not in how to do the maximum amount of good, but instead in the “bare minimum”: how to prevent oneself from ever becoming someone who does enormous damage. Most of us will have no discernible impact on civilization for good or ill. But a few of us, by luck or fate or skill or whatever, might find ourselves in the control room of history. The tragedy is that, of the previous people who made it into that room, so many not only failed to lunge for the “SAVE” buttons, but actually sought out the “DESTROY” buttons, or devised new ways to destroy that weren’t even on the control panel. My obsession is cultivating habits of mind among STEM nerds—I focus on them (us) only because I don’t understand others well enough—that will decrease the chance of that happening again, when the next STEM nerd (whoever it is) winds up in the control room.

    This is why, among other things, it’s really weird to charge my oath with “dumping all the moral onus onto the grunts,” while letting off their evil employers. The evil employers, almost by definition, are too far gone. I’m interested in reaching run-of-the-mill STEM nerds so that when one of them becomes a powerful employer or the like, they won’t be evil.

  31. Scott Says:

    STEM Caveman #23: It’s a sufficient refutation of a moral code if it’s humanly impossible to live by it. And foreseeing the third- or fourth-order sociopolitical consequences of our actions is humanly impossible.

    If you think that liberal cosmopolitanism inevitably leads to the destruction of civilization, so straightforwardly that those who advocate the former are guilty of the latter, then you’re welcome to make that case, but others might disagree on the object level.

    My own view leans toward something like this: in our world, our branch of the wavefunction, we’re headed for such an ecological catastrophe that perhaps we would’ve been better off never leaving the treetops. But that’s only because we’re world-historically unlucky, had too many idiots in charge at crucial moments. With a slightly different roll of the dice, liberal cosmopolitanism could’ve been great.

    (Note that this is different from my view of communism, which I see as destined to fail miserably almost anywhere it’s tried, for reasons that can be articulated theoretically and also observed in practice.)

  32. Radford Neal Says:

    #27 and #29: Whether or not medical errors are the third most common cause of death is a meaningless question. They will certainly be not just the third most common cause but the most common cause of death if you divide other causes into sufficiently many categories.

  33. Scott Says:

    Look, suppose a drunk driver is careening toward a toddler playing in the street. The toddler’s parents both see this. One of them lets out a bloodcurdling shriek, “OH MY GOD NOOOOOO…” The other one replies, “it’s important to keep a balanced perspective. Granted, the current situation is fraught with danger—but at this point, little Bobby’s death is actually far from inevitable. It all depends on what we, and Bobby, do in the coming seconds.” Which parent is reasonable and which is insane?

  34. Radford Neal Says:

    Scott #33: Well, obviously the one who just shrieks is the insane one. That doesn’t help Bobby.

    If you “hold the sharing of truth and exposing of falsehoods among my highest moral values” then shrieking stuff that isn’t actually true as a way of trying to get people to act is not an option for you.

    Also, implicit in such shrieking is the assumption that the actions people might be induced to do as a result of it will help avert any possible problem at a cost that is much less than the damage that might result from not acting. But actually, destroying the world’s economy by precipitate elimination of fossils fuels is likely to substantially increase third-world poverty, resulting in hundreds of millions of deaths. And that’s assuming good intentions. More likely, “saving the planet” will turn out to mean “enriching the politically powerful”.

  35. Scott Says:

    Radford #34: In my story, I don’t actually see what the shrieker asserted that was false. And the shrieking at least has some chance of getting Bobby’s attention, or the driver’s attention. And even if it didn’t, it would be perfectly understandable.

    I completely agree that it’s “wildly implausible” that Trump, Bolsonaro, and the like would push the climate past the tipping point not even for any short-term economic motive, but purely out of spite. I’d add: wildly implausible and also precisely what’s happening. Like, are you reading the news? In its climate denialism, Trump’s EPA has actually gone much further than BP, ExxonMobil, or other fossil fuel concerns wanted it to go. The latter are embarrassed about it. Similarly, it would’ve cost Brazilian industry nothing to accept international help in putting out the forest fires. Trump and Bolsonaro are doing this, not because industry wants it, but simply because whatever terrifies the educated thrills their base.

  36. Nocturnal Says:

    My obsession is cultivating habits of mind among STEM nerds—I focus on them (us) only because I don’t understand others well enough—that will decrease the chance of that happening again, when the next STEM nerd (whoever it is) winds up in the control room.

    The STEM oath proposal didn’t originate with you, and my comment was not directed toward your personal motivations. (Though your contention that you don’t understand non-STEM people well enough to speak to their moral inclinations is, taken at its face value, rather strange.)

  37. Ari Says:

    Stupid oath.

    Saving western civ, doing the right thing… etc. Blue-pill thinking. Slavery to feminine imperative.

  38. Scott Says:

    Ari #37: LOL! Now if only either color of “piller” gave me any credit for being regularly attacked by the opposite-colored “pillers”… 🙂

  39. Thomas Redding Says:

    I don’t think your 10th point reads as an extension of the do-no-harm maxim since it explicitly asks for action to improve the world: “I’ll keep asking myself whether any of them are”. By my reading, you aren’t just asking that to step up if they win the lottery and can prevent catastrophic harm – you’re asking them to spend continuous emotional and mental effort to solve existing problems.

    As a parallel, the Hippocratic Oath doesn’t require physicians to think about how to cure cancer in their spare time and to intentionally cultivate a heavy emotional burden of social problems that maybe (just maybe) some new drug could solve.

  40. Scott Says:

    Thomas #39: The key is to keep looking for opportunities to make a big difference. I thought I saw one with NaderTrading in 2000—but our efforts came a few hundred Floridian votes short of preventing George W. Bush’s election. I haven’t seen a comparable opportunity before or since, no doubt due to my own lack of imagination.

    I will never make the climate crisis into a matter of personal purity—of proving one’s virtue by refusing to fly or whatever. That’s the most profound misunderstanding of the problem that it’s possible to have. The question is where one could stand to budge the levers of history, to enact a worldwide carbon tax and a nuclear energy and renewables renaissance and geoengineering and multi-billion-dollar sequestration projects everything else that will be needed.

    I confess that I loved the theatrics of Greta Thunberg arriving in NYC in her carbon-neutral boat. But that’s exactly what it was—theatrics. And I think she knows it too.

  41. ppnl Says:

    The problem with any such oath is that antivaxers, flat earthers and trump supporters all see themselves as following just such an oath. It would be nice if STEM people were immune to such perverse beliefs but I don’t believe it.

    By themselves people who hold perverse beliefs would be mostly harmless. The problem arises when perverse beliefs become entangled with our tribal conflicts. The right does not reject evolution because they have reasoned it through. After all rejection of evolution is fairly common in the left as well. But on the right it has become a sign of tribal loyalty. In the strange world of tribal logic the more perverse a belief the more you prove your loyalty by accepting it. And so our political institutions become unhinged from reality.

    Our tribal loyalties will kill us all. The best I can offer is a commitment to utter honesty with a recognition that we will fail. How close we come matters.

  42. Sandy Maguire Says:

    This is excellent, thanks!

  43. Jay Says:

    At graduation canadian engineers take an oath and receive an iron ring. One popular story (wrong but wise) pretends that the metal comes from Québec fallen bridges (longuest bridge of it’s kind: felt two times, killed about one hundred, several by the rising tide while trapped in the debris). Je me souviens.

    Silicon rings from Zuckerberg’s laptop?

  44. Joshua B Zelinsky Says:

    Ari @37,

    Saving western civ, doing the right thing… etc. Blue-pill thinking. Slavery to feminine imperative.

    If you see your political opponents as standing for “doing the right thing” and that is something to be mocked or criticized, you might need to look very hard in a mirror.

  45. Anon Says:

    Perhaps a simpler set of ethics is easier to remember Treat people the way you want to be treated. Be a gentleman/woman. Your word should be as good as gold. Don’t be crude and keep your jokes clean.

  46. A.G.McDowell Says:

    I am very wary of rules more detailed than the golden rule because they risk conferring a great deal of power on the rule-makers, (or possibly of just causing unintended consequences). I also don’t think that those possessed of a rare and perhaps ephemerally valuable skill are necessarily the best or most just people to decide whether things that could be enabled by that skill should be done. Is this really different from giving those who have inherited wealth a veto over the use of their taxes by the government?

    If pressed, I might suggest a self-enforcing declaration, Feynman’s “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.”

    While I wouldn’t put all of my support behind it myself, for information, here is something for enthusiastic campaigners against all forms of official stupidity to consider, from Colin Powell’s autobiography A Soldier’s Way (Chapter Nine: The Graduate School of War)

    I detected a common thread running through the careers of officers who ran aground even though they were clearly able… They fought what they found foolish or irrelevant, and consequently did not survive to do what they considered vital.

  47. Gabriel Says:

    Did you know you *can* do something on behalf of the rainforests? You can donate to Rainforest Trust. They purchase tropical lands and this way protect them.

  48. Gabriel Says:

    According to Bjorn Lomborg, the economic impact of global warming on developing countries will translate as follows, according to the UN’s “middle” scenario: GDP in the developing world will increase by just 580% by 2100, as opposed to 600% which would be without global warming. Here he has a graphic that shows this lack of drama very dramatically:


    His “Copenhagen Consensus” promotes the following obvious method of prioritizing aid areas: You quantify each aid’s expected beneficial impact in dollars, and then your sort them by benefit-to-cost ratio. According to this method, anti-global-warming policies are very bad, because they cost a fortune and have little return. Meanwhile, much more pressing and treatable problems are unfortunately ignored, just because they are boring, even though they have a very high benefit-to-cost ratio. Chief among them is tuberculosis.

  49. Scott Says:

    Gabriel #48: Right, but many others dispute Lomborg’s estimates.

    More fundamentally: I’d guess that, in the mid-1950s, someone also could have produced a plausible estimate that thermonuclear weapons would decrease the world’s expected GDP by a mere 20% or whatever. But one problem is that there’s enormous heavy tail in such an estimate—like, say, a 10% probability of 100% of civilization being destroyed (and how sure are we that it’s “only” 10%? what do probabilities even mean in such a context?). A second problem is that, even moving away from the tail, if we’re in a world where GDP is 20% lower than expected, what we’re probably talking about in plainer language is the destruction of a fifth of civilization. By how much did WWII affect the world’s GDP—if I remember right, just a tiny percentage? Yet in many ways the world still hasn’t entirely recovered from that war, and in some ways it will never recover. And for those who foresaw it, screaming about it was entirely appropriate and rational.

  50. Richard Gaylord Says:

    scott #20 – ” I personally think climate change has passed the point where it will be an existential crisis for civilization regardless of what anyone does now. The self-inflicted asteroid has already hit; the only question is how massive the holocaust will be and how much of civilization (if any) will survive.” i TOTALLY agree with your assessment (i tell people ‘there is no climate change crisis. the crisis (and its tipping point) has passed’). climate-weather alarmists, such as A.O.C. (“We’re, like, the world is going to end in 12 years if we don’t address climate change”) do nothing to address how we will deal with the situation. They are like people trying to prevent earthquakes ,which is hopeless, rather than trying to design building structures to enable them to survive earthquakes, which is doable if we would allow individuals to combine their technological expertise with their entrepreneurial zeal (instead of simply shutting down ‘environmentally’ harmful technologies, we need to create new technologies to replace them).

  51. Bunsen Burner Says:

    Lomberg is a fool. He does very little other than curve fitting, ignoring all geopolitical implications. Its not about loss of GDP which is a stupid proxy. Its a bout the loss of fresh water supplies, the loss of arable soil, the large scale migration of climate refugees, the sabre rattling over waterways (India-Pakistan, India-China, Nigeria-Egypt, Turkey-Syria+Iraq, etc). There is not a single event called ‘Global Warming’ which will happen at some appointed time and then boom, everyone dies. There is a just a steady warming which which if left unchecked will cause greater and greater destruction. We can deal with a 2 deg warming, but only an idiot would think there would be anything left of Humanity in a 9 deg world. Right now we have most probably locked in 3 deg of warming, and will probably reach 4 deg before the end of the century. This may not mean the end of the world, but it does mean the collapse of many agricultural systems, mostly in the tropical and sub-tropical regions.

  52. Art Randolph Says:

    Scott #20 and Scott #40: I think that being overly pessimistic about global warming (or any other grave or exsistential threats), to the point of just managing to get out of bed in the morning as stated in oath 10, does not chime well with the other suggested oaths or your style.

    Several of the IPCC-models on global warming present possible ways of the mess, and we are actually in a situation where energy from renewables are outcompeting fossil energy sources all over the world. Also on the consumption side, we, among the 10% richest, know how to make a BIG difference: (Surprise!) consume MUCH less energy and resources. I therefore do not see the logic of your statement in #40: Whereas the low cost of renewables will (eventually, though too slow by todays rate) eliminate the need for fossils, it is the duty of those of us energy-hungry humans to consume less. Unless the latter will not happen voluntarily, it will have to be forced upon us e.g. by taxation.

    Thus, perhaps sounding overly optimistic, there is no need for a STEM-nerd solution to the global warming challenge. We already have the technical solutions and a good idea for the needed mindset for future proseperity in a not too altered global ecosystem. The STEM-nerd solution of promoting and communicating these solutions to the public, I believe to offer a potentially great, largely untapped, contribution – perhaps as, or even more, powerful as when these ideas are spread by ‘big shot’ film stars, politicians or authors.

    I would have liked to see an 11th oath (or a replacement of 10.) something like this:

    11. I will do my best to use my competence in my field of knowledge, my sources of public communication and ability to communicate precisely, and my appetite for knowledge in technology, science and philosophy to contribute to solving the largest problems of society.

    As an ardent reader of your blog and a great fan, I know that you, e.g. through your blog and writings, does exactly what is stated in 11. 🙂

  53. William Gasarch Says:

    In an earlier comment Scott noted that some people intentionally do thing against global warming just for spite. I supply some examples to support this contention (not that Scott needs it)

    1) Taxes on Hybrid cars. This really bothers me since I’ve always thought the free market can be used to slow global warming (carbon tax, cap and trade, research money for renewables) and this is going in the opp direction. It also makes no sense from an honest republican viewpoints of the government not picking winners and losers.


    2) Using plastic straws because the liberals say they are bad for the environment:


    3) Conservatives less likely to buy a product labelled `eco-friendly’ as opposed to identical product not so labelled


    4) After El Paso Texas voted to loosen gun laws.


  54. Wyrd Smythe Says:

    This is essentially value ethics, and I approve, but the question for value ethics is how does one insure one has “good” values?

    Item #4, for instance, could introduce a lot of chaos if your values were wrong.

  55. Jules-Pierre Mao Says:

    Scott #49 said: “if we’re in a world where GDP is 20% lower than expected, what we’re probably talking about in plainer language is the destruction of a fifth of civilization”

    Really? Reading the graphics, 20% lower sounds like the civilization would be 5 years from as rich as it would in the best SSP2 scenario. The destruction of a fifth of civilization, on the other hand, this sounds like a a much larger impact. What’s the reasoning behind your interpretation of these predictions?

  56. Scott Says:

    Jules-Pierre #55: Bunsen Burner #51 said it better than me. I agree that, if we were just delaying GDP growth by a few years, we could easily live with it. The object-level disagreement is that I think that in fact we’re talking about the collapse of agriculture in large parts of the world, freshwater shortages, a billion or so people flooded out of their homes, etc. And that it’s plausible to me that that would all show up as just a relatively small dip if you were looking only at GDP.

  57. Scott Says:

    Wyrd #54: I might not be able to get all STEM nerds to adopt sound values, but at least I can urge the weaker condition of consistency! 🙂

  58. Scott Says:

    Art Randolph #52: I endorse your 11th oath.

  59. Radford Neal Says:

    William Gasarch #53: “Scott noted that some people intentionally do thing against global warming just for spite. I supply some examples to support this contention…”

    Let’s look at them…

    The link for #1 says, “electric vehicles don’t require gasoline to operate, so they don’t contribute to the upkeep of highways through a gas tax”. So the new tax has nothing to do with spite, but is just to do with fairly raising funds for road maintenance.

    For #2, the whole point is that these conservatives don’t believe that plastic straws are actually a problem. And they aren’t a problem if they go to a landfill.

    For #3, it says “One possibility is that the “green” message on products is generally mistrusted”. And for good reason! This is a six-year-old article on sales pitches for compact fluorescent bulbs. I think everyone now realizes that these bulbs were a huge mistake. They don’t last as long as claimed. They contain toxic mercury, and so should be disposed of as hazardous waste, which nobody does.

    And finally, #4: After El Paso Texas voted to loosen gun laws. Huh? HUH? What does this have to do with global warming? What could you possibly be thinking? Could it be that “I’m concerned about global warming” is to you just another way of saying “I don’t like conservatives”?

  60. Peter Gerdes Says:

    The asymmetry in point 2 really bothers me. It suggests that it is acceptable to sit on the sidelines while companies refuse to make a product you believe is net morally beneficial (e.g. saves lives by reducing overall conflict as one might re: atomic bomb in WWII) but not to sit on the sidelines while your companies make a product that is net harmful.

    This seems like writing in a moral fallacy into the very oath itself which seems decidedly undesirable.

  61. Peter Gerdes Says:

    Also 7 really bothers me for a couple of reasons.

    First, what’s morally correct and what history judges to be so might well diverge in substantial ways. We should act in the way we believe to be morally good not in the way that we believe will ultimately be judged to be morally good.

    Second, are you really going to take the position that gay men in the 1930s who were faced with some fairly horrible life choices had a moral OBLIGATION to drag their families through the scandal and themselves endure (potentially horrific) punishments just to make an utterly pointless public defense of their actions? More generally, in a world in which our punishments so often are grotesquely cruel it seems wrong to demand that people not take their own life when faced with them.

    If I had to guess I’d say that Epstein probably didn’t see what he did as that morally wrong. I don’t agree but that’s exactly the difficulty with making a neutral rule of general applicability. A rule which can only be used from the outside to berate those we already think are wrong doesn’t provide much benefit as an oath. Yet, unless you are willing to take the extreme position regarding the obligation of homosexuals accused in a prior era not to take the easy way out it’s likely that anyone who was as morally screwed up as Epstein would simply be similarly screwed up in the justification they provided themselves (i.e. he believed that on net the financial rewards he offered these girls made his net effect on their lives positive). Sure, he’s wrong but what extra gain is to be had by implementing such a rule if it doesn’t provoke changes in behavior?

  62. Jeffo Says:

    How do you square this oath with your previous defense of Kolmogorov’s “political quietism”?

  63. Scott Says:

    Jeffo #62: That’s a very interesting question, and one that prompted me to reread all ten parts of this oath, looking for any that might preclude taking the “Kolmogorov option”—by which I mean, strategically choosing (for the time being) not to challenge some pious falsehood that’s widely accepted in one’s culture. But I confess that I didn’t find any conflict. We all have limited amounts of political capital, and of what Scott Alexander once called “weirdness points.” Choosing to martyr oneself, to spend down one’s weirdness points in a doomed fight against some noble lie of one’s culture, might be praiseworthy but is often unwise, even from a purely altruistic standpoint, and is certainly not obligatory. This post was more about lies (and injustices and terrible decisions) in which one is personally complicit.

  64. fred Says:


    “If I build or supply tools that are used to do evil or cause suffering, I’ll be horrified as soon as I learn about it.”

    Doesn’t this automatically preclude any engineer/scientist from working in some industry that supports the US military?

    Don’t we need engineers to work on the next generations of military helicopter, submarine, drone, … ? The line between offensive and defensive gear is sometimes extremely blurry. Killing enemy combatants does save the lives of US military units on the ground (e.g. the A-10 Warthog “close air support” air fighter jet, with his formidable cannon, firing 3900 30mm rounds per minute). Even working on intelligence gathering technology has the side effect of killing enemy combatants, sooner or later.

  65. Jeffo Says:

    Scott #63: I don’t find this a very satisfying response. What if the unspeakable falsehoods that you are given a pass for are in direct contradiction to the tenets of the oath? Wasn’t Kolmogorov in exactly that position, with respect to Numbers 1, 3, and 4 specifically?

    I’m not asking only to be argumentative. I’ve had my students read your defense of Kolmogorov to spur discussion of social responsibility in science. I like the aspirations of the oath, but you have also presented a compelling way to pursue science while suppressing one’s conscience, by endorsing the attitude that one should be allowed to pick battles. But what keeps one from interminably delaying confrontation with power?

  66. fred Says:

    In that respect, the Hippocratic oath is much more clear-cut, at least in first order, because it is about prolonging life, all lives.

  67. Gabriel Says:

    Bunsen Burner #51: You didn’t get the point. All the problems that you mention (people having to move because of rising water levels, agricultural failure, etc etc), the reason they are bad is because they have negative economic consequences. Meaning, the effect on the GDP is the bottom line, and so the GDP estimate has taken all that into account.

    (It’s true that some damage cannot be quantified in dollars, or is hard to quantify, but that’s a much smaller issue.)

    Lomborg claims that he takes the data from the UN IPCC itself. In general, he says he doesn’t argue with climate scientists, he just takes their word. It is politicians, the press, etc, which are taking things out of proportion. Lomborg is just trying to put things back in their proper proportions.

    Here are a few examples of taking things in the wrong proportions:

    1. The number of people who die of extreme cold in Europe every year is about 8 times higher than the number who die of extreme heat.

    2. Every time there is a hurricane, people don’t stop saying that it’s because of global warming. But it is impossible to attribute individual events to global warming. Scientists just predict a moderate increase in average intensity. And if you look at the graph of hurricanes over time, you will see that it has great variation that completely obscures the average.

    3. Hurricanes cause much fewer deaths in the US than in the Caribbean. Why? Because in the US, people are richer and build better houses. Similarly for all other natural catastrophes, whether caused by global warming or not: The poorer you are, the more vulnerable you are. So the real focus should be on lifting people out of poverty.

    How do you lift people out of poverty? John Stossel, talking here about sub-Saharan Africa, says that the main culprit is excessive regulation, which doesn’t let people run businesses. Corruption is a natural consequence of having too many regulations. The UN & others are fixated on other, irrelevant things, and almost no one talks about this problem.


  68. Gabriel Says:

    Bill #53: The plastic straws are a perfect example of taking things in the wrong proportions. Garbage generated in developed countries does *not* normally end up in the ocean anyway. In fact, most of the garbage in the ocean originates from poor countries. And plastic straws are only a tiny fraction of it. Take a look for example at all the garbage washed by Indonesia’s Citarum river: https://youtu.be/AkSXB-lRAp0

    That’s why this plastic-straw campaign sounds to many like a silly feel-good trend pushed by Hollywood celebrities, and it pisses them off.

    Learn Liberty: Countries with more economic freedom tend to protect more the environment than those with less economic freedom. https://youtu.be/lVi1ey-AAYw

    Do you want to know which aid policies are the best way to help poor people? Look no further, the Copenhagen Consensus has done all the calculations for you! https://bit.ly/2QEVQjz

  69. Bunsen Burner Says:

    Gabriel #67

    You really need to get your head out of climate denialist web sites and start learning the facts. Lomberg cherry picking his numbers is something has been talked about for a long time. Also, the IPCC is about discussing the science, it does not have a mandate to consider wider geopolitical issues. As such it is quite limited in its ability to tell us if India and Pakistan will start lobbing nukes at one another.

    The idea that you seem to think the planet can warm to arbitrary degree and the only thing affected is the GDB displays remarkable ignorance of … well …. practically everything – science, politics, history, economics. Have you looked at the paleoclimatic reconstructions of the last time the world was 4 deg hotter, or 6 deg hotter? These represent nothing but differences in GDP to you? There was a study by NOAA on rainfall patterns in a 4 deg world showing that the only areas that will still get enough rainfall to support agriculture are Canada, Alaska, Russia and N. Europe. You think the only effect of that is to make the GDP fairy a bit grumpy, do you?

    And, no, the reason that agricultural failure is bad is not because of negative economic consequences. It’s because of people starving to death.

  70. fred Says:

    Gabriel #68

    but plastic straws are a low hanging fruit. There’s really little excuse in keeping using them, since lots of alternative exist (like using your own metal straw).

    Taking a first step is important, psychologically. Climbing the Everest is done one step at a time. Even if the first step is way easier than the steps ahead, if you don’t take that first step you’ll never get to the summit.

  71. fred Says:

    Right now Quantum Computing looks like a tool that solves really well the one thing we don’t want it to solve (break encryption) and hardly improves on the things we would want it to solve.

  72. Radford Neal Says:

    Bunsen Burner #69: “There was a study by NOAA on rainfall patterns in a 4 deg world showing that the only areas that will still get enough rainfall to support agriculture are Canada, Alaska, Russia and N. Europe.”

    This seems highly implausible. The consensus is that warming will lead to increased overall precipitation. I can’t find such a NOAA study, but if you look at the NOAA webpage at https://www.climate.gov/news-features/featured-images/models-warn-dustier-summers-us-southwest-and-southern-plains-northern you will see the following statement:

    “springtime dustiness is projected to decrease across much of the Southwest, Nevada and southern Idaho, and in the Great Plains from North Dakota to Missouri. In most places, the improvements are linked to a combination of increasing precipitation and leafier vegetation resulting from an earlier start to the growing season.”

    That doesn’t seem like only Canada, Alaska, Russian, and N. Europe getting enough precipitation for agriculture.

    Now, there could be some study saying what you say. There are studies saying practically anything you can imagine. You can tell when someone is an irrational climate alarmist or climate skeptic by their willingness to jump on any study supporting their viewpoint, however implausible, and keep on sticking with it after it has been debunked. And also, of course, by their tendency to mischaracterize studies, with this mischaracterization then being quoted endlessly thereafter…

  73. Craig Says:

    “I will pursue the truth, and hold the sharing of truth and exposing of falsehoods among my highest moral values.”

    I agree with pursuing and sharing the truth. However, exposing of falsehoods is not wise. That is how one gets into trouble. Distancing oneself from falsehoods is the way to go.

  74. Scott Says:

    fred #64:

      Doesn’t this automatically preclude any engineer/scientist from working in some industry that supports the US military?

    I submit that that’s already covered by what immediately follows the sentence you quoted:

      Yes, I might judge that the good of the tools outweighs the bad … But I’ll be hyper-alert to the possibility of self-serving bias in such reflections, and will choose a different course of action whenever the reflections are no longer persuasive to my highest self.

    Basically, I can’t remove STEM nerds’ moral responsibility to judge whether some particular fight, like (say) the Allied effort in WWII, is so justified that they can, or even should or must, work on building weapons that will inflict many deaths on the enemy. Without leaving the realm of generalities, all I can say is that they do indeed have that moral responsibility. They can never ethically treat building weapons as just another job that you do for pay, without carefully thinking through which side is going to use the weapons for what, and why.

  75. Scott Says:

    fred #71:

      Right now Quantum Computing looks like a tool that solves really well the one thing we don’t want it to solve (break encryption) and hardly improves on the things we would want it to solve.

    I’d say that assessment is no more than 25% correct. 🙂

    The most important practical application for QCs—way more important than breaking public-key crypto—has always been and still remains “the original and obvious one,” of simulating quantum physics and chemistry themselves. If all goes as dreamed, that should help with drug discovery, as well as with designing new materials, batteries, solar cells, reaction pathways … hopefully even stuff that will help reduce the world’s reliance on dirty energy.

    Grover-type speedups will hopefully be another important application someday.

    And as for the crypto part: well, much like with nuclear weapons, even if you personally decided not to build fault-tolerant QCs because you wanted SSL to remain secure, that wouldn’t mean such QCs would never be built, but only that someone else would build them first. So then you have to weigh which people could get their hands on your QC, versus which people could get their hands on someone else’s. As usual, there’s no shortcut to such moral judgments.

    But we should also note that, unlike a nuclear weapon, a QC will never directly kill anybody (unless, like, the dilution refrigerator fell on them or something 🙂 ). At most, a QC might let some intelligence agencies or criminals more easily steal data that they probably could’ve also gotten in much more prosaic ways like spearphishing.

    And even then, crucially, the data-stealing advantage will remain only until people become generally aware of the new situation, and therefore switch to quantum-resistant forms of encryption, which current knowledge suggests will more-or-less put us back where we started. That’s another huge difference from nuclear weapons, which continue to put the world in peril 75 years after their invention.

  76. Scott Says:

    Jeffo #65:

      I don’t find this a very satisfying response … I like the aspirations of the oath, but you have also presented a compelling way to pursue science while suppressing one’s conscience, by endorsing the attitude that one should be allowed to pick battles. But what keeps one from interminably delaying confrontation with power?

    OK, so I’ve done some additional moral reflection and have some new results to report back to you. 🙂

    Everyone has a breaking point, beyond which they’ll probably put their personal interests ahead of the good of civilization, no matter how many oaths they’ve sworn to the contrary. For me, I think (hope?) that it’s about at the point where someone would threaten my children.

    But if we haven’t yet reached that breaking point—or in other words, if principled moral reflection is still possible—then I’d say the decision partly comes down to the nature and motivations of the totalitarians who we’re thinking about defying. Briefly, are they the “Nazi” kind or the “Communist/1984” kind?

    Are they just thugs, who have only a physical and temporal power over you—like a rabid dog has? Do they openly despise not only you, but also rainforests, endangered whales, starving children, and ailing grandmothers? Is the entire enlightened world united against these thugs? In that case, the more openly you can defy them the better. Indeed, the only moral reason that I can see not to, would be if you could frustrate the thugs’ plans even more by double-crossing them (as Oskar Schindler did).

    Or are we talking about the (in some ways) even more terrifying kind of totalitarian—the kind who can induce even you to feel guilty, and who can turn even the people you respect against you? In other words: will these totalitarians not be satisfied merely to fire, imprison, torture, or kill you? Will they also call you a clueless, privileged techbro and drag you through the mud on social media? 🙂 More seriously: will they try to bend the arc of the moral universe itself so that it will look, falsely, to all of posterity like they were the good guys of history and you the villain?

    It’s in the latter case, it seems to me, that more quiet defiance (what I called the ‘Kolmogorov option’) is often necessary.

  77. anon Says:

    fred #66 “In that respect, the Hippocratic oath is much more clear-cut, at least in first order, because it is about prolonging life, all lives.”

    Let’s read this oath again:

    “To hold my teacher in this art equal to my own parents; to make him partner in my livelihood; when he is in need of money to share mine with him; to consider his family as my own brothers, and to teach them this art, if they want to learn it, without fee or indenture”

    So… it seems better to refrain from literal interpretations. The most usual interpretation of this oath is “First do no harm”.

  78. anonymouscoward Says:

    Concerning number 3:

    I expect very few people will dare to be so honest that they can reasonably claim to pursue the truth, since this leads to a loss of social status (while allowing others to raise theirs) and difficulty making friends.

    James Watson never concealed his ideas, but is now probably less welcome in academia than some convicted criminals. Who will want to suffer a similar fate?

  79. fred Says:

    Scott #75

    “simulating quantum physics and chemistry themselves. If all goes as dreamed, that should help with drug discovery, as well as with designing new materials, batteries, solar cells, reaction pathways”

    I’ve been wondering about how much of a win this really is.

    Do you have some idea on how many qubits would be required to simulate properly something as simple as a single water molecule? E.g. come up with the proper electronic orbits, etc. You first need to figure the degrees of freedom of the system and then use the QC to solve some Hamiltonian?!

    When it comes to complex chemistry, I guess once you have a specific molecule to simulate (protein folding, etc), a QC would help, but it wouldn’t help with finding the right candidate molecules to test, no? This is more of an optimization problem that’s NP-Hard (but you would spend less time testing each candidate though).

  80. Scott Says:

    fred #79: Recent analyses suggest that a few hundred qubits should already be enough to learn many new things about chemistry—but alas, here we mean logical qubits, not physical ones. Before one can do error-correction, it’s not yet clear whether one can learn anything new about chemistry—people will probably have to just try it out on near-term QCs and see. Using near-term QCs to learn something new about condensed-matter physics is a better bet.

    The part about a QC potentially helping exponentially with simulating a given molecule, but only quadratically with the search among molecules, is exactly right according to our current understanding.

  81. Bunsen Burner Says:

    Radford Neal #72

    Fine, my bad it, the study was done by National Center for Atmospheric Research


    ‘There are studies saying practically anything you can imagine.’

    I have no idea what dimwitted anti-science sites you go to to believe something so facile. We have a community of experts building models and analysing scenarios and eliminating anomalies. The picture coming from climate science is robust and convergent.

    I have a more general question. This is a science blog dealing with some pretty sophisticated physics and mathematics. I would have expected an audience with a higher than average grasp of science. Yet there seems to be a significant number of commenters with next to no understanding of pretty basic science. We’ve had people display a profound ignorance of evolution. We now see people who clearly can’t be bothered learning anything about climate science. Why? It’s obvious that Scott is not sympathetic to your views. What’s the payoff for you guys?

  82. mr_squiggle Says:

    Scott #75:

    The real question is not how many humans, but how many cats a QC will kill. Unfortunately, this is unknowable.


  83. Radford Neal Says:

    Bunsen Burner #81:

    The study you link to does not make any claims about which regions will be able to “support agriculture”. In that respect, note that higher CO2 levels increase the ability of plants to withstand drought. Also note the paragraph at the front correcting mistakes that made the original article overly alarmist.

    I’m amazed that you dispute my statement that ‘There are studies saying practically anything you can imagine.’ I had thought that that at least would not be a controversial claim. I’ve seen studies claiming that CO2 has no effect on temperature, for example. In the other direction, how about the following:


    Do you think only dimwitted anti-science types would be skeptical of that one?

  84. L Says:

    0. should answer if you should publish a proof of P=NP because of the danger to society?

  85. Bunsen Burner Says:

    Radford Neal #81

    ok, it’s obvious you’re too much on the loony fringe for me to waste my time on this. You clearly don’t understand the science and simply are trying to feed your confirmation bias. Of course I note the corrections in the original article, I am the one that linked to it. The results are still horrifying if they are to happen. And it’s it not possible for CO2 to have no effect on temperature unless most of physics from quantum mechanics to thermodynamics is wrong. The article you link to certainly says no such thing.

  86. Radford Neal Says:

    Bunsen Burner #85:

    Obviously, I’m not claiming that CO2 has no effect on temperature. That was an example supporting my statement that ‘There are studies saying practically anything you can imagine’, which you are denying. And as is clear in my comment, the linked paper is another, contrary, example, putting forward an absurd theory that warmer temperatures and higher CO2 could lead to the death of all plankton in the ocean, and the extinction of virtually all life. I’m baffled that you think “I found a study showing X” is good evidence of X, without any assessment of how good the study is. You can’t think coherently that way.

  87. Science flourishes when leading researchers die, Hippocratic oath for scientists, walking on the Moon – MrPyro Says:

    […] Should scientists have to swear an oath promising to behave morally in the course of their research activities? Quantum-information guru Scott Aronson says he is in “broad support of the idea” to create a Hippocratic oath for STEM researchers. And to get us thinking about what such an oath should contain, he has posted his own 10-point version that he calls his “nerdocratic oath”. […]

  88. Bunsen Burner Says:

    Radford Neal #86

    It is not absurd at all. Go learn what an oceanic anoxic event is and the various theories about the cause of the Permian–Triassic mass extinction.

  89. Radford Neal Says:

    Bunsen burner #88:

    The study is indeed absurd. It consists of writing down some differential equations purporting to represent plankton dynamics, and finding the this system of equations in unstable in certain circumstances. They make no attempt whatsoever to validate that their differential equations actually do model plankton dynamics – they just rather arbitrarily plug in various functions with vague justifications. As anyone who’s played with differential equations will appreciate, if you write down some arbitrary system of differential equations, it is not at all unlikely that they will turn out to be unstable. This exercise provides no evidence whatsoever that such a catastrophe could actually happen. Common sense would indicate that ecosystems can’t really be this unstable, or we wouldn’t have survived for billions of years. (The Permian mass extinction, by the way, did not lead to the death of all phytoplankton and the extinction of almost all life.)

  90. James Gallagher Says:

    “It is even possible that the main pulse of Permian extinction occurred in just a few centuries. If it turns out to reflect an environmental tipping point within a longer interval of ongoing environmental change, that should make us particularly concerned about potential parallels to global change happening in the world around us right now.”

    This is a quote from phys.org article about a paper Bunsen Burner and Radford Neal have mentioned above.

    I quote it, because we should be wary that the global effort to lower CO2 emissions and build wind farms everywhere may have no consequence for what the Planet wants to do in the coming centuries.

    Those trillions of dollars maybe could be better spent on getting humans to fully understand physics with colliders and quantum computers, so we can build technology which can deal with global climate on our terms, not nature’s

  91. Sniffnoy Says:

    Some quick comments:

    Gasarch #16, Wyrd #54:

    What sort of person would ever take an oath that they expected would cause them to act contrary to their values? “What if somebody just has terrible values” just seems like a different sort of problem entirely.

    Gabriel #67:

    You didn’t get the point. All the problems that you mention (people having to move because of rising water levels, agricultural failure, etc etc), the reason they are bad is because they have negative economic consequences.

    I think you’ve put this poorly. The reason they’re bad is not because of negative economic consequences; rather, their badness is encompassed in their negative economic consequences. It’s a logical relation, not a causal one. Of course, the rest of your comment makes this clearer. Bunsen Burner’s reply #69 seems to have missed this — people starving to death is, again, encompassed in negative economic consequences. (Or at least, if it’s not, you’re doing something wrong.)

    Art Randolph #52, Scott #58:

    I think this eleventh oath is a bad one, because it can be used against you. What exactly are the “largest problems of society”? Some people have a very, uh, a very particular view of this, that they are very insistent on, and, well, I suspect you see where I’m going with this…

  92. Gabriel Says:

    Sniffnoy #91: Yes, I phrased myself poorly over there. Thanks for the clarification.

    Mass starvation would indeed have terrible economic consequences. And yet, the IPCC 2014 climate change report, in its “summary for policymakers”, states: “For most economic sectors, the impacts of drivers such as changes in population, age structure, income, technology, relative prices, lifestyle, regulation, and governance are projected to be large relative to the impacts of climate change.” (Page 19 here: https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/02/WGIIAR5-PartA_FINAL.pdf )

    Lomborg paraphrases this sentence as follows: “The IPCC tells us that climate is just one of many issues for the world, and that it actually pales when compared to most other issues for the 21st century.” (Source: https://www.facebook.com/bjornlomborg/posts/10156173194128968 )

    Is Lomborg cherry-picking in these thousand-page IPCC reports? It seems to me that he has picked a very big cherry over here…

Leave a Reply

Comment Policy: All comments are placed in moderation and reviewed prior to appearing. Comments can be left in moderation for any reason, but in particular, for ad-hominem attacks, hatred of groups of people, or snide and patronizing tone. Also: comments that link to a paper or article and, in effect, challenge me to respond to it are at severe risk of being left in moderation, as such comments place demands on my time that I can no longer meet. You'll have a much better chance of a response from me if you formulate your own argument here, rather than outsourcing the job to someone else. I sometimes accidentally miss perfectly reasonable comments in the moderation queue, or they get caught in the spam filter. If you feel this may have been the case with your comment, shoot me an email.