## Archive for the ‘The Fate of Humanity’ Category

### Donate to protect women’s rights: a call to my fellow creepy, gross, misogynist nerdbros

Wednesday, May 4th, 2022

So, I’d been planning a fun post for today about the DALL-E image-generating AI model, and in particular, a brief new preprint about DALL-E’s capabilities by Ernest Davis, Gary Marcus, and myself. We wrote this preprint as a sort of “adversarial collaboration”: Ernie and Gary started out deeply skeptical of DALL-E, while I was impressed bordering on awestruck. I was pleasantly surprised that we nevertheless managed to produce a text that we all agreed on.

Not for the first time, though, world events have derailed my plans. The most important part of today’s post is this:

For the next week, I, Scott Aaronson, will personally match all reader donations to Fund Texas Choice—a group that helps women in Texas travel to out-of-state health clinics, for reasons that are neither your business nor mine—up to a total of $5,000. To show my seriousness, I’ve already donated$1,000. Just let me know how much you’ve donated in the comments section!

The first reason for this donation drive is that, perhaps like many of you, I stayed up hours last night reading Alito’s leaked decision in a state of abject terror. I saw how the logic of the decision, consistent and impeccable on its own terms, is one by which the Supreme Court’s five theocrats could now proceed to unravel the whole of modernity. I saw how this court, unchecked by our broken democratic system, can now permanently enshrine the will of a radical minority, perhaps unless and until the United States is plunged into a second Civil War.

Anyway, that’s the first reason for the donation drive. The second reason is to thank Shtetl-Optimized‘s commenters for their … err, consistently generous and thought-provoking contributions. Let’s take, for example, this comment on last week’s admittedly rather silly post, from an anonymous individual who calls herself “Feminist Bitch,” and who was enraged that it took me a full day to process one of the great political cataclysms of our lifetimes and publicly react to it:

OF COURSE. Not a word about Roe v. Wade being overturned, but we get a pseudo-intellectual rationalist-tier rant about whatever’s bumping around Scott’s mind right now. Women’s most basic reproductive rights are being curtailed AS WE SPEAK and not a peep from Scott, eh? Even though in our state (Texas) there are already laws ON THE BOOKS that will criminalize abortion as soon as the alt-right fascists in our Supreme Court give the go-ahead. If you cared one lick about your female students and colleagues, Scott, you’d be posting about the Supreme Court and helping feminist causes, not posting your “memes.” But we all know Scott doesn’t give a shit about women. He’d rather stand up for creepy nerdbros and their right to harass women than women’s right to control their own fucking bodies. Typical Scott.

If you want, you can read all of Feminist Bitch’s further thoughts about my failings, with my every attempt to explain and justify myself met with further contempt. No doubt my well-meaning friends of both sexes would counsel me to ignore her. Alas, from my infamous ordeal of late 2014, I know that with her every word, Feminist Bitch speaks for thousands, and the knowledge eats at me day and night.

It’s often said that “the right looks for converts, while the left looks only for heretics.” Has Feminist Bitch ever stopped to think about how our civilization reached its current terrifying predicament—how Trump won in 2016, how the Supreme Court got packed with extremists who represent a mere 25% of the country, how Putin and Erdogan and Orban and Bolsonaro and all the rest consolidated their power? Does she think it happened because wokeists like herself reached out too much, made too many inroads among fellow citizens who share some but not all of their values? Would Feminist Bitch say that, if the Democrats want to capitalize on the coming tsunami of outrage about the death of Roe and the shameless lies that enabled it, if they want to sweep to victory in the midterms and enshrine abortion rights into federal law … then their best strategy would be to double down on their condemnations of gross, creepy, smelly, white male nerdbros who all the girls, like, totally hate?

(until, thank God, some of them don’t)

I continue to think that the majority of my readers, of all races and sexes and backgrounds, are reasonable and sane. I continue to think the majority of you recoil against hatred and dehumanization of anyone—whether that means women seeking abortions, gays, trans folks, or (gasp!) even white male techbros. In this sad twilight for the United States and for liberal democracy around the world, we the reasonable and sane, we the fans of the Enlightenment, we the Party of Psychological Complexity, have decades of work cut out for us. For now I’ll simply say: I don’t hear from you nearly enough in the comments.

### On form versus meaning

Sunday, April 24th, 2022

There is a fundamental difference between form and meaning. Form is the physical structure of something, while meaning is the interpretation or concept that is attached to that form. For example, the form of a chair is its physical structure – four legs, a seat, and a back. The meaning of a chair is that it is something you can sit on.

This distinction is important when considering whether or not an AI system can be trained to learn semantic meaning. AI systems are capable of learning and understanding the form of data, but they are not able to attach meaning to that data. In other words, AI systems can learn to identify patterns, but they cannot understand the concepts behind those patterns.

For example, an AI system might be able to learn that a certain type of data is typically associated with the concept of “chair.” However, the AI system would not be able to understand what a chair is or why it is used. In this way, we can see that an AI system trained on form can never learn semantic meaning.

–GPT3, when I gave it the prompt “Write an essay proving that an AI system trained on form can never learn semantic meaning”

### Nothing non-obvious to say…

Thursday, February 24th, 2022

… but these antiwar protesters in St. Petersburg know that they’re all going to be arrested and are doing it anyway.

Meanwhile, I just spent an hour giving Lily, my 9-year-old, a crash course on geopolitics, including WWII, the Cold War, the formation of NATO, Article 5, nuclear deterrence, economic sanctions, the breakup of the USSR, Ukraine, the Baltic Republics, and the prospects now for WWIII. Her comment at the end was that from now on she’s going to refer to Putin as “Poopin,” in the hope that that shames him into changing course.

Update (March 1): A longtime Shtetl-Optimized reader has a friend who’s trying to raise funds to get her family out of Ukraine. See here if you’d like to help.

### AlphaCode as a dog speaking mediocre English

Sunday, February 6th, 2022

Tonight, I took the time actually to read DeepMind’s AlphaCode paper, and to work through the example contest problems provided, and understand how I would’ve solved those problems, and how AlphaCode solved them.

It is absolutely astounding.

Consider, for example, the “n singers” challenge (pages 59-60). To solve this well, you first need to parse a somewhat convoluted English description, discarding the irrelevant fluff about singers, in order to figure out that you’re being asked to find a positive integer solution (if it exists) to a linear system whose matrix looks like
1 2 3 4
4 1 2 3
3 4 1 2
2 3 4 1.
Next you need to find a trick for solving such a system without Gaussian elimination or the like (I’ll leave that as an exercise…). Finally, you need to generate code that implements that trick, correctly handling the wraparound at the edges of the matrix, and breaking and returning “NO” for any of multiple possible reasons why a positive integer solution won’t exist. Oh, and also correctly parse the input.

Yes, I realize that AlphaCode generates a million candidate programs for each challenge, then discards the vast majority by checking that they don’t work on the example data provided, then still has to use clever tricks to choose from among the thousands of candidates remaining. I realize that it was trained on tens of thousands of contest problems and millions of solutions to those problems. I realize that it “only” solves about a third of the contest problems, making it similar to a mediocre human programmer on these problems. I realize that it works only in the artificial domain of programming contests, where a complete English problem specification and example inputs and outputs are always provided.

Forget all that. Judged against where AI was 20-25 years ago, when I was a student, a dog is now holding meaningful conversations in English. And people are complaining that the dog isn’t a very eloquent orator, that it often makes grammatical errors and has to start again, that it took heroic effort to train it, and that it’s unclear how much the dog really understands.

It’s not obvious how you go from solving programming contest problems to conquering the human race or whatever, but I feel pretty confident that we’ve now entered a world where “programming” will look different.

Update: A colleague of mine points out that one million, the number of candidate programs that AlphaCode needs to generate, could be seen as roughly exponential in the number of lines of the generated programs. If so, this suggests a perspective according to which DeepMind has created almost the exact equivalent, in AI code generation, of a non-fault-tolerant quantum computer that’s nevertheless competitive on some task (as in the quantum supremacy experiments). I.e., it clearly does something highly nontrivial, but the “signal” is still decreasing exponentially with the number of instructions, necessitating an exponential number of repetitions to extract the signal and imposing a limit on the size of the programs you can scale to.

### Scott Aaronson Speculation Grant WINNERS!

Friday, February 4th, 2022

Two weeks ago, I announced on this blog that, thanks to the remarkable generosity of Jaan Tallinn, and the Speculation Grants program of the Survival and Flourishing Fund that Jaan founded, I had $200,000 to give away to charitable organizations of my choice. So, inspired by what Scott Alexander had done, I invited the readers of Shtetl-Optimized to pitch their charities, mentioning only some general areas of interest to me (e.g., advanced math education at the precollege level, climate change mitigation, pandemic preparedness, endangered species conservation, and any good causes that would enrage the people who attack me on Twitter). I’m grateful to have gotten more than twenty well-thought-out pitches; you can read a subset of them in the comment thread. Now, having studied them all, I’ve decided—as I hadn’t at the start—to use my entire allotment to make as strong a statement as I can about a single cause: namely, subject-matter passion and excellence in precollege STEM education. I’ll be directing funds to some shockingly cash-starved math camps, math circles, coding outreach programs, magnet schools, and enrichment programs, in Maine and Oregon and England and Ghana and Ethiopia and Jamaica. The programs I’ve chosen target a variety of ability levels, not merely the “mathematical elite.” Several explicitly focus on minority and other underserved populations. But they share a goal of raising every student they work with as high as possible, rather than pushing the students down to fit some standardized curriculum. Language like that ought to be meaningless boilerplate, but alas, it no longer is. We live in a time when the state of California, in a misguided pursuit of “modernization” and “equity,” is poised to eliminate 8th-grade algebra, make it nearly impossible for high-school seniors to take AP Calculus, and shunt as many students as possible from serious mathematical engagement into a “data science pathway” that in practice might teach little more than how to fill in spreadsheets. (This watering-down effort now itself looks liable to be watered down—but only because of a furious pushback from parents and STEM professionals, pushback in which I’m proud that this blog played a small role.) We live in a time when elite universities are racing to eliminate the SAT—thus, for all their highminded rhetoric, effectively slamming the door on thousands of nerdy kids from poor or immigrant backgrounds who know how to think, but not how to shine in a college admissions popularity pageant. We live in a time when America’s legendary STEM magnet high schools, from Thomas Jefferson in Virginia to Bronx Science to Lowell in San Francisco, rather than being celebrated as the national treasures that they are, or better yet replicated, are bitterly attacked as “elitist” (even while competitive sports and music programs are not similarly attacked)—and are now being forcibly “demagnetized” by bureaucrats, made all but indistinguishable from other high schools, over the desperate pleas of their students, parents, and alumni. And—alright, fine, on a global scale, arresting climate change is surely a higher-priority issue than protecting the intellectual horizons of a few teenage STEM nerds. The survival of liberal democracy is a higher-priority issue. Pandemic preparedness, poverty, malnutrition are higher-priority issues. Some of my friends strongly believe that the danger of AI becoming super-powerful and taking over the world is the highest-priority issue … and truthfully, with this week’s announcements of AlphaCode and OpenAI’s theorem prover, which achieve human-competitive performance in elite programming and math competitions respectively, I can’t confidently declare that they’re wrong. On the other hand, when you think about the astronomical returns on every penny that was invested in setting a teenage Ramanujan or Einstein or Turing or Sofya Kovalevskaya or Norman Borlaug or Mario Molina onto their trajectories in life … and the comically tiny budgets of the world-leading programs that aim to nurture the next Ramanujans, to the point where$10,000 often seems like a windfall to those programs … well, you might come to the conclusion that the “protecting nerds” thing actually isn’t that far down the global priority list! Like, it probably cracks the top ten.

And there’s more to it than that. There’s a reason beyond parochialism, it dawned on me, why individual charities tend to specialize in wildlife conservation in Ecuador or deworming in Swaziland or some other little domain, rather than simply casting around for the highest-priority cause on earth. Expertise matters—since one wants to make, not only good judgments about which stuff to support, but good judgments that most others can’t or haven’t made. In my case, it would seem sensible to leverage the fact that I’m Scott Aaronson. I’ve spent much of my career in math/CS education and outreach—mostly, of course, at the university level, but by god did I personally experience the good and the bad in nearly every form of precollege STEM education! I’m pretty confident in my ability to distinguish the two, and for whatever I don’t know, I have close friends in the area who I trust.

There’s also a practical issue: in order for me to fund something, the recipient has to fill out a somewhat time-consuming application to SFF. If I’d added, say, another $20,000 drop into the bucket of global health or sustainability or whatever, there’s no guarantee that the intended recipients of my largesse would even notice, or care enough to go through the application process if they did. With STEM education, by contrast, holy crap! I’ve got an inbox full of Shtetl-Optimized readers explaining how their little math program is an intellectual oasis that’s changed the lives of hundreds of middle-schoolers in their region, and how$20,000 would mean the difference between their program continuing or not. That’s someone who I trust to fill out the form.

Without further ado, then, here are the first-ever Scott Aaronson Speculation Grants:

• $57,000 for Canada/USA Mathcamp, which changed my life when I attended it as a 15-year-old in 1996, and which I returned to as a lecturer in 2008. The funds will be used for COVID testing to allow Mathcamp to resume in-person this summer, and perhaps scholarships and off-season events as well. •$30,000 for AddisCoder, which has had spectacular success teaching computer science to high-school students in Ethiopia, placing some of its alumni at elite universities in the US, to help them expand to a new “JamCoders” program in Jamaica. These programs were founded by UC Berkeley’s amazing Jelani Nelson, also with involvement from friend and Shtetl-Optimized semi-regular Boaz Barak.
• $30,000 for the Maine School of Science and Mathematics, which seems to offer a curriculum comparable to those of Thomas Jefferson, Bronx Science, or the nation’s other elite magnet high schools, but (1) on a shoestring budget and (2) in rural Maine. I hadn’t even heard of MSSM before Alex Altair, an alum and Shtetl-Optimized reader, told me about it, but now I couldn’t be prouder to support it. •$30,000 for the Eugene Math Circle, which provides a math enrichment lifeline to kids in Oregon, and whose funding was just cut. This donation will keep the program alive for another year.
• $13,000 for the Summer Science Program, which this summer will offer research experiences to high-school juniors in astrophysics, biochemistry, and genomics. •$10,000 for the MISE Foundation, which provides math enrichment for the top middle- and high-school students in Ghana.
• $10,000 for Number Champions, which provides one-on-one coaching to kids in the UK who struggle with math. •$10,000 for Bridge to Enter Advanced Mathematics (BEAM), which runs math summer programs in New York, Los Angeles, and elsewhere for underserved populations.
• $10,000 for Powderhouse, an innovative lab school being founded in Somerville, MA. While working on this, it crossed my mind that, on my deathbed, I might be at least as happy about having directed funds to efforts like these as about any of my research or teaching. To the applicants who weren’t chosen: I’m sorry, as many of you had wonderful projects too! As I said in the earlier post, you remain warmly invited to apply to SFF, and to make your pitch to the other Speculators and/or the main SFF committee. Needless to say, anyone who feels inspired should add to my (or rather, SFF’s) modest contributions to these STEM programs. My sense is that, while$200k can go eye-poppingly far in this area, it still hasn’t come close to exhausting even the lowest-hanging fruit.

Also needless to say, the opinions in this post are my own and are not necessarily shared by SFF or by the organizations I’m supporting. The latter are welcome to disagree with me as long as they keep up their great work!

Huge thanks again to Jaan, to SFF, to my SFF contact Andrew Critch, to everyone (whether chosen or not) who participated in this contest, and to everyone who’s putting in work to broaden kids’ intellectual horizons or otherwise make the world a little less horrible.

### Win a Scott Aaronson Speculation Grant!

Thursday, January 20th, 2022

Exciting news, everyone! Jaan Tallinn, who many of you might recognize as a co-creator of Skype, tech enthusiast, and philanthropist, graciously invited me, along with a bunch of other nerds, to join the new Speculation Grants program of the Survival and Flourishing Fund (SFF). In plain language, that means that Jaan is giving me $200,000 to distribute to charitable organizations in any way I see fit—though ideally, my choices will have something to do with the survival and flourishing of our planet and civilization. (If all goes well, this blog post will actually lead to a lot more than just$200,000 in donations, because it will inspire applications to SFF that can then be funded by other “Speculators” or by SFF’s usual process.)

Thinking about how to handle the responsibility of this amazing and unexpected gift, I decided that I couldn’t possibly improve on what Scott Alexander did with his personal grants program on Astral Codex Ten. Thus: I hereby invite the readers of Shtetl-Optimized to pitch registered charities (which might or might not be their own)—especially, charities that are relatively small, unknown, and unappreciated, yet that would resonate strongly with someone who thinks the way I do. Feel free to renominate (i.e., bring back to my attention) charities that were mentioned when I asked a similar question after winning $250,000 from the ACM Prize in Computing. If you’re interested, there’s a two-step process this time: Step 1 is to make your pitch to me, either by a comment on this post or by email to me, depending on whether you’d prefer the pitch to be public or private. Let’s set a deadline for this step of Thursday, January 27, 2022 (i.e., one week from now). Your pitch can be extremely short, like 1 paragraph, although I might ask you followup questions. After January 27, I’ll then take one of two actions in response: I’ll either (a) commit a specified portion of my$200,000 to your charity, if the charity formally applies to SFF, and if the charity isn’t excluded for some unexpected reason (5 sexual harassment lawsuits against its founders or whatever), and if one of my fellow “Speculators” doesn’t fund your charity before I do … or else I’ll

(b) not commit, in which case your charity can still apply for funding from SFF! One of the other Speculators might fund it, or it might be funded by the “ordinary” SFF process.

Step 2, which cannot be skipped, is then to have your charity submit a formal application to SFF. The application form isn’t too bad. But if the charity isn’t your own, it would help enormously if you at least knew someone at the charity, so you could tell them to apply to SFF. Again, Step 2 can be taken regardless of the outcome of Step 1.

The one big rule is that anything you suggest has to be a registered, tax-exempt charity in either the US or the UK. I won’t be distributing funds myself, but only advising SFF how to do so, and this is SFF’s rule, not mine. So alas, no political advocacy groups and no individuals. Donating to groups outside the US and UK is apparently possible but difficult.

While I’m not putting any restrictions on the scope, let me list a few examples of areas of interest to me.

• Advanced math and science education at the precollege level: gifted programs, summer camps, online resources, or anything, really, that aims to ensure that the next Ramanujan or von Neumann isn’t lost to the world.
• Conservation of endangered species.
• Undervalued approaches to dealing with the climate catastrophe (including new approaches to nuclear energy, geoengineering, and carbon capture and storage … or even, e.g., studies of the effects of rising CO2 on cognition and how to mitigate them).
• Undervalued approaches to preventing or mitigating future pandemics—basically, anything dirt-cheap that we wish had been done before covid.
• Almost anything that Scott Alexander might have funded if he’d had more money.
• Anything that would enrage the SneerClubbers or those who attack me on Twitter, by doing stuff that even they would have to acknowledge makes the world better, but that does so via people, organizations, and means that they despise.

Two examples of areas that I don’t plan to focus on are:

• AI-risk and other “strongly rationalist-flavored” organizations (these are already well-covered by others at SFF, so that I don’t expect to have an advantage), and
• quantum computing research (this is already funded by a zillion government agencies, companies, and venture capitalists).

Anyway, thanks so much to Jaan and to SFF for giving me this incredible opportunity, and I look forward to seeing what y’all come up with!

Note: Any other philanthropists who read this blog, and who’d like to add to the amount, are more than welcome to do so!

### On tardigrades, superdeterminism, and the struggle for sanity

Monday, January 10th, 2022

(Hopefully no one has taken taken that title yet!)

In such a dark time, it’s easy to forget that I’m a theoretical computer scientist, mainly focused on quantum computing. It’s easy to forget that people come to this blog because they want to read about quantum computing. It’s like, who gives a crap about that anymore? What doth it profit a man, if he gaineth a few thousand fault-tolerant qubits with which to calculateth chemical reaction rates or discrete logarithms, and he loseth civilization?

Nevertheless, in the rest of this post I’m going to share some quantum-related debunking updates—not because that’s what’s at the top of my mind, but in an attempt to find my way back to sanity. Picture that: quantum mechanics (and specifically, the refutation of outlandish claims related to quantum mechanics) as the part of one’s life that’s comforting, normal, and sane.

There’s been lots of online debate about the claim to have entangled a tardigrade (i.e., water bear) with a superconducting qubit; see also this paper by Vlatko Vedral, this from CNET, this from Ben Brubaker on Twitter. So, do we now have Schrödinger’s Tardigrade: a living, “macroscopic” organism maintained coherently in a quantum superposition of two states? How could such a thing be possible with the technology of the early 21st century? Hasn’t it been a huge challenge to demonstrate even Schrödinger’s Virus or Schrödinger’s Bacterium? So then how did this experiment leapfrog (or leaptardigrade) over those vastly easier goals?

Short answer: it didn’t. The experimenters couldn’t directly measure the degree of freedom in the tardigrade that’s claimed to be entangled with the qubit. But it’s consistent with everything they report that whatever entanglement is there, it’s between the superconducting qubit and a microscopic part of the tardigrade. It’s also consistent with everything they report that there’s no entanglement at all between the qubit and any part of the tardigrade, just boring classical correlation. (Or rather that, if there’s “entanglement,” then it’s the Everett kind, involving not merely the qubit and the tardigrade but the whole environment—the same as we’d get by just measuring the qubit!) Further work would be needed to distinguish these possibilities. In any case, it’s of course cool that they were able to cool a tardigrade to near absolute zero and then revive it afterwards.

I thank the authors of the tardigrade paper, who clarified a few of these points in correspondence with me. Obviously the comments section is open for whatever I’ve misunderstood.

People also asked me to respond to Sabine Hossenfelder’s recent video about superdeterminism, a theory that holds that quantum entanglement doesn’t actually exist, but the universe’s initial conditions were fine-tuned to stop us from choosing to measure qubits in ways that would make its nonexistence apparent: even when we think we’re applying the right measurements, we’re not, because the initial conditions messed with our brains or our computers’ random number generators. (See, I tried to be as non-prejudicial as possible in that summary, and it still came out sounding like a parody. Sorry!)

Sabine sets up the usual dichotomy that people argue against superdeterminism only because they’re attached to a belief in free will. She rejects Bell’s statistical independence assumption, which she sees as a mere dogma rather than a prerequisite for doing science. Toward the end of the video, Sabine mentions the objection that, without statistical independence, a demon could destroy any randomized controlled trial, by tampering with the random number generator that decides who’s in the control group and who isn’t. But she then reassures the viewer that it’s no problem: superdeterministic conspiracies will only appear when quantum mechanics would’ve predicted a Bell inequality violation or the like. Crucially, she never explains the mechanism by which superdeterminism, once allowed into the universe (including into macroscopic devices like computers and random number generators), will stay confined to reproducing the specific predictions that quantum mechanics already told us were true, rather than enabling ESP or telepathy or other mischief. This is stipulated, never explained or derived.

To say I’m not a fan of superdeterminism would be a super-understatement. And yet, nothing I’ve written previously on this blog—about superdeterminism’s gobsmacking lack of explanatory power, or about how trivial it would be to cook up a superdeterministic “mechanism” for, e.g., faster-than-light signaling—none of it seems to have made a dent. It’s all come across as obvious to the majority of physicists and computer scientists who think as I do, and it’s all fallen on deaf ears to superdeterminism’s fans.

So in desperation, let me now try another tack: going meta. It strikes me that no one who saw quantum mechanics as a profound clue about the nature of reality could ever, in a trillion years, think that superdeterminism looked like a promising route forward given our current knowledge. The only way you could think that, it seems to me, is if you saw quantum mechanics as an anti-clue: a red herring, actively misleading us about how the world really is. To be a superdeterminist is to say:

OK, fine, there’s the Bell experiment, which looks like Nature screaming the reality of ‘genuine indeterminism, as predicted by QM,’ louder than you might’ve thought it even logically possible for that to be screamed. But don’t listen to Nature, listen to us! If you just drop what you thought were foundational assumptions of science, we can explain this away! Not explain it, of course, but explain it away. What more could you ask from us?

Here’s my challenge to the superdeterminists: when, in 400 years from Galileo to the present, has such a gambit ever worked? Maxwell’s equations were a clue to special relativity. The Hamiltonian and Lagrangian formulations of classical mechanics were clues to quantum mechanics. When has a great theory in physics ever been grudgingly accommodated by its successor theory in a horrifyingly ad-hoc way, rather than gloriously explained and derived?

Update: Oh right, and the QIP’2022 list of accepted talks is out! And I was on the program committee! And they’re still planning to hold QIP in person, in March at Caltech, will you fancy that! actually I have no idea—but if they’re going to move to virtual, I’m awaiting an announcement just like everyone else.

### Book Review: “Viral” by Alina Chan and Matt Ridley

Saturday, January 1st, 2022

Happy New Year, everyone!

It was exactly two years ago that it first became publicly knowable—though most of us wouldn’t know for at least two more months—just how freakishly horrible is the branch of the wavefunction we’re on. I.e., that our branch wouldn’t just include Donald Trump as the US president, but simultaneously a global pandemic far worse than any in living memory, and a world-historically bungled response to that pandemic.

So it’s appropriate that I just finished reading Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19, by Broad Institute genetics postdoc Alina Chan and science writer Matt Ridley. Briefly, I think that this is one of the most important books so far of the twenty-first century.

Of course, speculation and argument about the origin of COVID goes back all the way to that fateful January of 2020, and most of this book’s information was already available in fragmentary form elsewhere. And by their own judgment, Chan and Ridley don’t end their search with a smoking-gun: no Patient Zero, no Bat Zero, no security-cam footage of the beaker dropped on the Wuhan Institute of Virology floor. Nevertheless, as far as I’ve seen, this is the first analysis of COVID’s origin to treat the question with the full depth, gravity, and perspective that it deserves.

Viral is essentially a 300-page plea to follow every lead as if we actually wanted to get to the bottom of things, and in particular, yes, to take the possibility of a lab leak a hell of a lot more seriously than was publicly permitted in 2020. (Fortuitously, much of this shift already happened as the authors were writing the book, but in June 2021 I was still sneered at for discussing the lab leak hypothesis on this blog.) Viral is simultaneously a model of lucid, non-dumbed-down popular science writing and of cogent argumentation. The authors never once come across like tinfoil-hat-wearing conspiracy theorists, railing against the sheeple with their conventional wisdom: they’re simply investigators carefully laying out what they’re confident should become conventional wisdom, with the many uncertainties and error bars explicitly noted. If you read the book and your mind works anything like mine, be forewarned that you might come out agreeing with a lot of it.

I would say that Viral proves the following propositions beyond reasonable doubt:

• Virologists, including at Shi Zhengli’s group at WIV and at Peter Daszak’s EcoHealth Alliance, were engaged in unbelievably risky work, including collecting virus-laden fecal samples from thousands of bats in remote caves, transporting them to the dense population center of Wuhan, and modifying them to be more dangerous, e.g., through serial passage through human cells and the insertion of furin cleavage sites. Years before the COVID-19 outbreak, there were experts remarking on how risky this research was and trying to stop it. Had they known just how lax the biosecurity was in Wuhan—dangerous pathogens experimented on in BSL-2 labs, etc. etc.—they would have been louder.
• Even if it didn’t cause the pandemic, the massive effort to collect and enhance bat coronaviruses now appears to have been of dubious value. It did not lead to an actionable early warning about how bad COVID-19 was going to be, nor did it lead to useful treatments, vaccines, or mitigation measures, all of which came from other sources.
• There are multiple routes by which SARS-CoV2, or its progenitor, could’ve made its way, otherwise undetected, from the remote bat caves of Yunnan province or some other southern location to the city of Wuhan a thousand miles away, as it has to do in any plausible origin theory. Having said that, the regular Yunnan→Wuhan traffic in scientific samples of precisely these kinds of viruses, sustained over a decade, does stand out a bit! On the infamous coincidence of the pandemic starting practically next door to the world’s center for studying SARS-like coronaviruses, rather than near where the horseshoe bats live in the wild, Chan and Ridley memorably quote Humphrey Bogart’s line from Casablanca: “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”
• The seafood market was probably “just” an early superspreader site, rather than the site of the original spillover event. No bats or pangolins at all, and relatively few mammals of any kind, appear to have been sold at that market, and no sign of SARS-CoV2 was ever found in any of the animals despite searching.
• The Chinese regime has been every bit as obstructionist as you might expect: destroying samples, blocking credible investigations, censoring researchers, and preventing journalists from accessing the Mojiang mine. So Shi at least has the excuse that, even if she’d wanted to come clean with everything relevant she knows about WIV’s bat coronavirus work, she might not be able to do so without endangering herself or loved ones. Daszak has no such excuse.

It’s important to understand that, even in the worst case—that (1) there was a lab leak, and (2) Shi and Daszak are knowingly withholding information relevant to it—they’re far from monsters. Even in Viral‘s relentlessly unsparing account, they come across as genuine believers in their mission to protect the world from the next pandemic.

And it’s like: imagine devoting your life to that mission, having most of the world refuse to take you seriously, and then the calamity happens exactly like you said … except that, not only did your efforts fail to prevent it, but there’s a live possibility that they caused it. It’s conceivable that your life’s work managed to save minus 15 million lives and create minus \$50 trillion in economic value.

Very few scientists in history have faced that sort of psychic burden, perhaps not even the ones who built the atomic bomb. I hope I’d maintain my scientific integrity under such an astronomical weight, but I’m doubtful that I would. Would you?

Viral very wisely never tries to psychoanalyze Shi and Daszak. I fear that one might need a lot of conceptual space between “knowing” and “not knowing,” “suspecting” and “not suspecting,” to do justice to the planet-sized enormity of what’s at stake here. Suppose, for example, that an initial investigation in January 2020 reassured you that SARS-CoV2 probably hadn’t come from your lab: would you continue trying to get to the bottom of things, or would you thereafter decide the matter was closed?

For all that, I agree with Chan and Ridley that COVID-19 might well have had a zoonotic origin after all. And one point Viral makes abundantly clear is that, if our goal is to prevent the next pandemic, then resolving the mystery of COVID-19 actually matters less than one might think. This is because, whichever possibility—zoonotic spillover or lab leak—turns out to be the truth of this case, the other possibility would remain absolutely terrifying and would demand urgent action as well. Read the book and see for yourself.

Searching my inbox, I found an email from April 16, 2020 where I told someone who’d asked me that the lab-leak hypothesis seemed perfectly plausible to me (albeit no more than plausible), that I couldn’t understand why it wasn’t being investigated more, but that I was hesitant to blog about these matters. As I wrote seven months ago, I now see my lack of courage on this as having been a personal failing. Obviously, I’m just a quantum computing theorist, not a biologist, so I don’t have to have any thoughts whatsoever about the origin of COVID-19 … but I did have some, and I didn’t share them here only because of the likelihood that I’d be called an idiot on social media. Having now read Chan and Ridley, though, I think I’d take being called an idiot for this book review more as a positive signal about my courage than as a negative signal about my reasoning skills!

At one level, Viral stands alongside, I dunno, Eichmann in Jerusalem among the saddest books I’ve ever read. It’s 300 pages of one of the great human tragedies of our lifetime balancing on a hinge between happening and not happening, and we all know how it turns out. On another level, though, Viral is optimistic. Like with Richard Feynman’s famous “personal appendix” about the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, the very act of writing such a book reflects a view that you’re still allowed to ask questions; that one or two people armed with nothing but arguments can run rings around governments, newspapers, and international organizations; that we don’t yet live in a post-truth world.

### My values, howled into the wind

Sunday, December 19th, 2021

I’m about to leave for a family vacation—our first such since before the pandemic, one planned and paid for literally the day before the news of Omicron broke. On the negative side, staring at the case-count graphs that are just now going vertical, I estimate a ~25% chance that at least one of us will get Omicron on this trip. On the positive side, I estimate a ~60% chance that in the next 6 months, at least one of us would’ve gotten Omicron or some other variant even without this trip—so maybe it’s just as well if we get it now, when we’re vaxxed to the maxx and ready and school and university are out.

If, however, I do end this trip dead in an ICU, I wouldn’t want to do so without having clearly set out my values for posterity. So with that in mind: in the comments of my previous post, someone asked me why I identify as a liberal or a progressive, if I passionately support educational practices like tracking, ability grouping, acceleration, and (especially) encouraging kids to learn advanced math whenever they’re ready for it. (Indeed, that might be my single stablest political view, having been held, for recognizably similar reasons, since I was about 5.)

Incidentally, that previous post was guest-written by my colleagues Edith Cohen and Boaz Barak, and linked to an open letter that now has almost 1500 signatories. Our goal was, and is, to fight the imminent dumbing-down of precollege math education in the United States, spearheaded by the so-called “California Mathematics Framework.” In our joint efforts, we’ve been careful with every word—making sure to maintain the assent of our entire list of signatories, to attract broad support, to stay narrowly focused on the issue at hand, and to bend over backwards to concede much as we could. Perhaps because of those cautions, we—amazingly—got some actual traction, reaching people in government (such as Rep. Ro Khanna, D – Silicon Valley) and technology leaders, and forcing the “no one’s allowed to take Algebra in 8th grade” faction to respond to us.

This was disorienting to me. On this blog, I’m used just to howling into the wind, having some agree, some disagree, some take to Twitter to denounce me, but in any case, having no effect of any kind on the real world.

It’s like, what do you call someone who’s absolutely terrified about global warming, and who thinks the best response would’ve been (and actually, still is) a historic surge in nuclear energy, possibly with geoengineering to tide us over?

… who wants to end world hunger … and do it using GMO crops?

… who wants to smash systems of entrenched privilege in college admissions … and believes that the SAT and other standardized tests are the best tools ever invented for that purpose?

… who feels a personal distaste for free markets, for the triviality of what they so often elevate and the depth of what they let languish, but tolerates them because they’ve done more than anything else to lift up the world’s poor?

… who’s happiest when telling the truth for the cause of social justice … but who, if told to lie for the cause of social justice, will probably choose silence or even, if pushed hard enough, truth?

… who wants to legalize marijuana and psychedelics, and also legalize all the promising treatments currently languishing in FDA approval hell?

… who feels little attraction to the truth-claims of the world’s ancient religions, except insofar as they sometimes serve as prophylactics against newer and now even more virulent religions?

… who thinks the covid response of the CDC, FDA, and other authorities was a historic disgrace—not because it infringed on the personal liberties of antivaxxers or anything like that, but on the contrary, because it was weak, timid, bureaucratic, and slow, where it should’ve been like that of a general at war?

… who thinks the Nazi Holocaust was even worse than the mainstream holds it to be, because in addition to the staggering, one-lifetime-isn’t-enough-to-internalize-it human tragedy, the Holocaust also sent up into smoke whatever cultural process had just produced Einstein, von Neumann, Bohr, Szilard, Born, Meitner, Wigner, Haber, Pauli, Cantor, Hausdorff, Ulam, Tarski, Erdös, and Noether, and with it, one of the wellsprings of our technological civilization?

… who supports free speech, to the point of proudly tolerating views that really, actually disgust them at their workplace, university, or online forum?

… who believes in patriotism, the police, the rule of law, to the extent that they don’t understand why all the enablers of the January 6 insurrection, up to and including Trump, aren’t currently facing trial for treason against the United States?

… who’s (of course) disgusted to the core by Trump and everything he represents, but who’s also disgusted by the elite virtue-signalling hypocrisy that made the rise of a Trump-like backlash figure predictable?

… who not only supports abortion rights, but also looks forward to a near future when parents, if they choose, are free to use embryo selection to make their children happier, smarter, healthier, and free of life-crippling diseases (unless the “bioethicists” destroy that future, as a previous generation of Deep Thinkers destroyed our nuclear future)?

… who, when reading about the 1960s Sexual Revolution, instinctively sides with free-loving hippies and against the scolds … even if today’s scolds are themselves former hippies, or intellectual descendants thereof, who now clothe their denunciations of other people’s gross, creepy sexual desires in the garb of feminism and social justice?

What, finally, do you call someone whose image of an ideal world might include a young Black woman wearing a hijab, an old Orthodox man with black hat and sidecurls, a broad-shouldered white guy from the backwoods of Alabama, and a trans woman with purple hair, face tattoos and a nose ring … all of them standing in front of a blackboard and arguing about what would happen if Alice and Bob jumped into opposite ends of a wormhole?

Do you call such a person “liberal,” “progressive,” “center-left,” “centrist,” “Pinkerite,” “technocratic,” “neoliberal,” “libertarian-ish,” “classical liberal”? Why not simply call them “correct”? 🙂

### Was Scientific American Sokal’d?

Friday, September 24th, 2021

Here’s yesterday’s clickbait offering from Scientific American, the once-legendary home of Martin Gardner’s Mathematical Games column:

Why the Term ‘JEDI’ Is Problematic for Describing Programs That Promote Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

The sad thing is, I see few signs that this essay was meant as a Sokal-style parody, although in many ways it’s written as one. The essay actually develops a 100% cogent, reasoned argument: namely, that the ideology of the Star Wars films doesn’t easily fit with the new ideology of militant egalitarianism at the expense of all other human values, including irony, humor, joy, and the nurturing of unusual talents. The authors are merely oblivious to the conclusion that most people would draw from their argument: namely, so much the worse for the militant egalitarianism then!

I predict that this proposal—to send the acronym “JEDI” the way of “mankind,” “blacklist,” and, err, “quantum supremacy”—will meet with opposition even from the wokeists themselves, a huge fraction of whom (in my experience) have soft spots for the Star Wars franchise. Recall for example that in 2014, Laurie Penny used Star Wars metaphors in her interesting response to my comment-171, telling male nerds like me that we need to learn to accept that “[we’re] not the Rebel Alliance, [we’re] actually part of the Empire and have been all along.” Admittedly, I’ve never felt like part of an Empire, although I’ll confess to some labored breathing lately when ascending flights of stairs.

As for me, I spent much of my life opposed in principle to Star Wars—I hated how the most successful “science fiction” franchise of all time became that way precisely by ditching any pretense of science and fully embracing mystical woo—but sure, when the chips are down, I’m crazy and radical enough to take the side of Luke Skywalker, even if a team of woke theorists is earnestly, unironically explaining to me that lightsabers are phallocentric and that Vader ranks higher on the intersectional oppression axis because of his breathing problem.

Meantime, of course, the US continues to careen toward its worst Constitutional crisis since the Civil War, as Trump prepares to run again in 2024, and as this time around, the Republicans are systematically purging state governments of their last Brad Raffenspergers, of anyone who might stand in the way of them simply setting aside the vote totals and declaring Trump the winner regardless of the actual outcome. It’s good to know that my fellow progressives have their eyes on the ball—so that when that happens, at least universities will no longer be using offensive acronyms like “JEDI”!