The Kolmogorov option

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

217 Responses to “The Kolmogorov option”

  1. Harry Johnston Says:

    Assuming an otherwise democratic society, one worthwhile activity, perhaps, would be to do whatever you safely can (given your particular circumstances) to promote law changes or to support existing laws that may mitigate the damage; for example, supporting free speech legislation (not applicable to the US, of course, since that’s already in your constitution) and laws protecting people from malicious lawsuits, and working against employment-at-will-type laws.

  2. Gautam Menon Says:

    You omitted Kolmogorov’s defining contribution to physics, his discovery of the 5/3 law governing the turbulent cascade.

  3. N Says:

    Your post has brought me to tears tonight. There is more I’d like to express, but I am far too tired to try at any complex idea. Instead, I will just say that if you ever end up a target again, please know that you and people like you are the reason the existence of life itself isn’t guaranteed to have been, on net, a tragedy.

  4. Lawrence D'Anna Says:

    Great post! And I must say it obviously has nothing to do with any current hot button issues.

    “absent some crisis that makes them reevaluate their entire life”

    Have you read the parts in GULAG Archipelago about the communist true believers? It’s amazing how big that crisis needs to be sometimes. Apparently getting shipped to a Siberian slave labour camp isn’t necessarily enough of a crisis to make you reevaluate your life. I don’t know what’s more scary, the implications that has for everyone else or the implications it has for me.

  5. Ryan Says:

    Martyrdom and heroics are revered, but only when it fits the narrative. The Catholic Church canonized some of their martyrs, but thousands more were crucified and forgotten.

    It’s a morbid form of celebrity that Americans are particularly susceptible to, just as they’re susceptible to chasing living celebrity, no matter the minuscule odds and the high costs.

    Bravery might elevate people to the top of the social hierarchy, but cautiousness keeps you safe. Fortunately, we have plenty of reckless youths ready to throw themselves at impossible odds.

    Supporting the Inquisition gives the same sensation of political action without risk.

  6. ThirteenthLetter Says:

    Terribly depressing.

    If we can all agree that the closed-minded enforcers of the required ideologies of the past and present eras are horrible, controlling people who would be punished in the afterlife if there was an afterlife, though, I guess that’ll have to do for now.

  7. Santiago Says:

    I think Galileo did the right thing, because the truth would prevail eventually and it’s not like anyone was going to die if people believed the in the wrong World System for a little longer.

    However lots of people died because of Lysenkoism. If there was even a small probability that people like Kolmogorov could have prevented those deaths if they had been willing to be press the issue and risk becoming martyrs, then isn’t becoming a martyr the choice with the greater expected utility?

  8. asdf Says:

    Of course the Hilbert-Brouwer conflict over mathematical intuitionism vs Cantor’s Paradise was unbelievably nasty, with Hilbert considering Brouwer a menace to mathematics and trying to get Brouwer fired from his professor job, getting Brouwer kicked out of an editing slot at a math journal, etc. That was about constructive vs nonconstructive logic: I don’t know if the BHK interpretation (speaking of Brouwer and Kolmogorov) etc. had been discovered yet.

  9. Vladimir Slepnev Says:

    The Soviet Union tolerated mathematicians mainly because they helped build weapons. What do you think of Landau, who believed Stalin was comparable to Hitler but still helped develop nukes?

  10. Michael Says:

    Hi Scott,

    A very interesting post on a topic I have been thinking about often. One problem is however that a person of the stature of Kolmogorov has certainly witnessed public executions of people who dared to dissent, and apparently stayed silent. This already constitutes a moral problem. I don’t judge, as I am not sure how would have I behaved. But clearly Andrei Saharov’s way is by far more laudable.


  11. Matan Says:

    I like this post; it exposes an interesting and perfectly valid strategy for dealing with societal oppression.

    But it leaves me thinking…. maybe we need a couple of martyr tribesmen to storm to battle-tanks before the revolution can happen? Maybe somebody has to crank up the heat before a phase transition occurs?

    I suppose Galileo did this in his subtle way. I also suppose Kolmogorov’s approach did something to help. But I wonder what it is that really does the trick, and whether it can be written out in closed-form or whether its just unique to the historical contingencies of the time and place.

  12. Maciej Ceglowski Says:

    To what extent do you think it matters that Kolmogorov—who came into his prime during the darkest years of the Great Purge—had to fear for his physical safety?

    The question of how to evaluate people’s courage and moral compromises in unspeakable situations, and under great duress, is one that has been haunting me. I think that there are accommodations to power that we have no right to judge, but also no right to make ourselves, until we are in an equivalent position.

  13. Ian Weeks Says:

    Thanks for this post – makes me more optimistic about the future. Just because the resistance against stupidity is hidden doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, or that it isn’t quietly creating resources that can be revealed when the “Emperor’s Nakedness” is finally accepted (if that ever occurs).

  14. asdf Says:

    Depressing reading:üller

    Brilliant German mathematician who was in his 20s when WW2 broke out, joined the NSDAP not to protect his career as some others later claimed they did, but became an actual sieg-heiling Nazi. Got a safe gig in Berlin during the war doing military cryptography stuff for the Reich but volunteered for the eastern front and was KIA in 1943. Have to wonder whether he would have wised up about the Nazi stuff as he got older and if Germany hadn’t crashed and burned.

  15. Ron Says:

    I found your post troubling. Galileo (at least according to lore; I don’t know the actual history of his case), was an expert astronomer who devoted his life to researching it. In fact, it was his detractors who cared little about the issue until he brought it up, and they then decided that it challenged their beliefs. I do not think that there are similar cases nowadays, of world-expert researchers who devote their lives into uncovering a scientific truth, yet their voices are thoroughly silenced by an uninterested, non-expert establishment that cares little about the subject. If you are aware of such cases, let alone if you are personally an expert in some field and feel that your scientific discoveries — which you have thoroughly researched and are confident in your findings at the level Galileo was — I think you should speak up. On the other hand, I am aware of opposite cases where it is the so called iconoclasts who like invoking the word “science” while being less knowledgeable and far less interested in a subject than the establishment they wish to challenge, who demand the aura of Galileo while not actually willing to put in the work required to earn it.

  16. Josh Rehman Says:

    Scott, your writing is so warm and generous it’s hard to believe that you are treating such a dark and dangerous topic like what one might call “prudent collaboration” with an occupier.

    Personally, I believe your view to be very dangerous indeed, because it permits powerful, balanced minds to serve without consequences minds overpowered by craving and aversion. It eliminates an elegant self-limiting mechanism, namely that delicate thinking in math or science often implies delicate thinking in moral or political realms, ensuring that powerful minds are also guided by a powerful moral wisdom. (There are famous exceptions, but I believe it to be largely true.)

    As an example of your view leading to dangerous outcomes, consider North Korea. Undoubtedly there are scientists in North Korea that hold precisely your view, and their “prudent collaboration” has put working nuclear ICBMs under the control of a much lesser, evil mind. This is a far worse outcome for the world than if those scientists had resisted, and been punished, even killed.

    That said, if “prudent collaboration” avoids constructing better tools for the regime to oppress people, then I suppose I agree with you.

  17. Steve Says:

    But we need to talk! (And listen.)

    You put a lot of effort into describing a strategy. It’s not an awful strategy, but it would be tragic if it delayed the resolution of serious issues.

    But more than that, so many issues are locked up in a non-discussion embargo, which is the only thing preventing their resolution. Meanwhile, insular bubbles more often perpetuate and amplify animosity than anything else.

    Besides, you’ll never find a fair solution to a problem caused by another party without that party’s participation in the resolution. The day their domination fails, your efforts will steamroll them and you get to be the bad person for a while.

    That said, I loved reading this post.

  18. A. Bartolini Says:

    You cannot really dodge participating in the discussion of current hot-button issues simply by stating that you are writing something else. In fact, the text will be read in the context of current events, and what you wrote reads as not as a historical comment about Kolmogorov, but as you equating those events to the USSR oppression and Lysenkoism — regardless of whether you intend that or not.

    However, there are several passages in the text that suggests that you actually intend it to comment on current issues, but do not want to come out and say it aloud, instead preferring to dogwhistle about them.

  19. Shecky R Says:

    Beautifully spoken… I just wish I had more confidence that “quiet dignity” (which feels too much like “appeasement”) can ultimately win the day?

  20. Adrian V Says:

    This article spawned an interesting discussion on hacker news:

  21. Dan Says:

    Thanks for the great post Scott.

    I’m reminded of Yuri Orlov [1] as an example of highly organized and calculated dissenter. It’s hard to quantify the impact Soviet activists like him had in the USSR, but I still doubt he’d choose the Kolmogorov option in hindsight (even after the years in labor camps and exile). I must recommend Dangerous Thoughts [2] for his own account of his decisions and how they played out.

    I feel that choosing the Kolmogorov option today is especially hard. Individuals today can easily convince themselves that they’ll reach millions with a well-planned message or action. Related to that, our “social tectonic shifts” often have single faces behind them. We never hear about the silenced whistleblowers or martyrs. Individual dissent, even if it’s irrational, is quite tempting.

    Highest in my mind, though, is the presence of existential threats. Can you still swallow the Kolmogorov option if it implicitly increases the chance of total annihilation? At that point, maybe throwing a well-aimed spear at the tank has higher utility, especially if a massive follow-on attack could be expected from your supporters.


  22. BLANDCorporatio Says:

    Given that last sentence, it seems you must have a really itchy delete finger, Scott 😉

    I don’t have much to say about the Kolmogorov option. It really is the sensible thing to do when one is in such a position that expressing dissent will cause an overwhelming authority to come down on the dissenter like a ton of bricks. (Remember, in “1984” the proles were allowed to be as heretical as they wanted; they weren’t really people anyway.)

    The only thing that’s, I guess, open for debate is gradation. –When– is the Kolmogorov option the only sensible one. And, though your delete finger will itch, whether today is one such time. I will however avoid specific hot-button issues and instead focus on repercussions of dissent.

    It’s long been a talking point that censorship doesn’t have to come from the state. It doesn’t even have to be “hard”, or however you want to call it when a message is actively, physically suppressed. And you don’t need gulags to make someone’s life utterly miserable, if not even precarious. I don’t need to name names here, we know who’s been fond of this argument; and I think they are correct, in principle.

    And yet.

    It is possible to have today’s machinery of ostracism fall upon someone in full force, and its effect is nevertheless dulled into irrelevance. I can name two examples (itchy delete finger, so I won’t), and that’s just because I’m not watching the news too often. There are more, I’m sure. So those social tectonics are definitely churning on.

    And that should worry us. There is such a thing as loyal dissent (loyal dissent of fundamental precepts? eh, take my word for it 😉 ), but loyal dissent is comfortable and sensible and prone to take the Kolmogorov option. When the social tectonics shift, it is fanatical dissent that is already there, ready to catch the wave.


  23. Andris Liedups Says:

    Very good points mr. proffesor!

  24. sam Says:

    Would you be saying the same thing about scientists who worked for the Nazis, though? If Kolmogorov helped to perpetuate the genocidal Soviet system, surely he’s complicit in their crimes; compared to that, whether the earth orbits the sun or vice versa is small beer. Does a random Third Reich mathematician working on something abstract and useless escape censure and responsibility?

    Does Heisenberg get off, despite how he was working towards a nuclear Hitler? If he does, what about Eichmann—if he cultivated his own little bubble of truth, separate from his work, can we condemn him? After all, he was only doing his job and keeping his head down; if he had seriously objected, he’d almost surely have been on one of his own trains.

    Things today aren’t as bad as the Holocaust or the gulags, but considering these extreme cases demonstrates that a general rule here is Hard. We should be quite careful how to formulate it so that when the next atrocity *is* actually on the horizon (or even ongoing), there won’t be a collective deafening silence because we’re all just tending our own gardens.

    Or, more cutely, it’s the Kolmogorov option, but also the Niemoeller option…

  25. wolfgang Says:


    you just wrote a long and interesting blog post about Kolmogorov, just to not comment on this [REDACTED]

    Why are you so afraid of just telling us the truth – which
    is that the whole world has gone nuts and there is nothing anyone can do about it.

  26. prasad Says:

    This is quite right, and beautifully put. Weirdly, it is profoundly dispiriting and calmly motivating at the same time.

    Dispiriting because the section about the psychology of the authorities (“The question of whether or not your arguments have merit won’t even get entered upon, nor will the authority ever be able to repeat back your arguments in a form you’d recognize”) puts quite paid to the native instincts of the good and earnest nerd in such situations.

    The nerdy thought is, if I only craft a sufficiently qualified and well argued articulation of the heretical view, dotting and crossing all the i’s and t’s, then they’ll have no choice but to see the essential reasonableness of my point. No they won’t. What your piece underlines is that the very effort will make the response worse. And it’s a very enervating thing to hold in mind.

    But it is also encouraging, because even if you can’t know – in the sense of common knowledge – that everyone notices these correct and important things nobody wants to say, you can certainly strongly suspect that they probably certainly notice, and that the pockets of truth approach is at least potentially workable. Ain’t much, but it’s enough to get by.

    There’s still the practical political question of *how* you form these pockets of strategic accommodation and what you do inside them. Say you’re not in academia but, to take a random example, work for some large American corporation. At-will employment and social standing will keep you quiet when it really matters (though you may very well occasionally give in to the urge to snipe from the sidelines when utterly silly claims are made.) What next? How do you reform, when exit is impractical and you have no voice?

  27. BLANDCorporatio Says:

    irt. sam #24:

    As a newly somewhat internet-famous philosopher said, “clean your room”. How an one possibly consider changing the world for the better when they can’t even keep their own garden in order?

    The premise behind the Kolmogorov option is that there exists a ruthless regime– and ruthless personal competitors itching for positions vacated because their former occupants’ lack of purity– and that open resistance to the regime is suicidal. You may feel virtuous now judging Kolmogorov as a coward. Do you really think you’d have been brave in his stead?

    There’s a reason figures such as Sakharov or apparently Orlov are revered– they’re -rare-. Don’t presume to be one of them, don’t expect most to be one of them.

    And for all the virtuous heroism displayed by the likes of Sakharov, or Orlov, or Solzhenitsyn, were they the ones that brought the Soviets down?


  28. Alan Crowe Says:

    My favourite example of navigating these treacherous waters comes from a long essay by Bryan Caplan

    about the Anarcho-Statists of Spain. How does Hipolito Lazaro respond to the ‘single wage’. Intuiting rule four of Saul Alinsky’s Rules For Radicals, he makes them live up to their own book of rules. Cutting and pasting:

    “Almost the only problem Sana had not had to deal with was the ‘single’ wage introduced in the theatre. It came to a rapid end in dramatic circumstances one day when the famous tenor, Hipolito Lazaro, arrived at the Tivoli theatre where the union was organizing a cycle of operas at popular prices. He was to sing the lead. Before the audience arrived, he got up on stage and addressed the company. ‘”We’re all equal now,” he said, “and to prove it, we all get the same wage. Fine, since we’re equal, today I am going to collect the tickets at the door and one of you can come up here and sing the lead.” That did it, of course. There had been several previous protests. That night several of us union leaders met and decided at the very start that we couldn’t leave until we had come up with a worthy solution.’ It didn’t take long. Top actors and singers, like Lazaro and Marcos Redondo, were to be paid 750 pesetas a performance – a 5,000 per cent increase over their previous 15 pesetas a day. Second- and third-category artists received large, but differential increases, while even ushers were given a raise.”

    But beware! He gets away with this, yes, but he is the literal star-of-the-show.

  29. bks Says:

    Nice essay. For decades I labored under the delusion that most people want to know the truth. They don’t. They want to be comforted with lies. It takes great bravery to be honest.

  30. Jeremy Kun Says:

    Thoughtful piece.

    There must be a line drawn somewhere, even in the simple regard of whether a line of scientific inquiry is legitimately for the goal of truth or for political agenda. In particular, there are and have always been those that would use science and the faux pursuit of truth as a means to maintain power and deny others the means to participate. I’m thinking about such abominations as phrenology in relation to the history of black America, but I’m sure there are ample examples from Nazi Germany as well.

    For example, if you learned some mathematical fact about quantum mechanics, it seems that you would do your best to spread that knowledge as far as possible to whomever would listen. If, however, you used an open and unsubstantiated theory—which may be an interesting line of thought in the pursuit of truth but nowhere near accepted as truth itself (say, the many worlds hypothesis)—to demand policy changes that kick people out of their homes or take away their health care, that would be a different matter altogether. It makes it all the more dubious if the consequence of that policy is that you get a larger farm and lower health care costs for your family.

  31. Watanabe Caesareo Says:

    Is there a “science” of political economy?

    We seem to be approaching a world in which the eradication of legacy afflictions: crime, poverty, disease, and other human instituted injustices become “solved” problems. Think for example of perfect ubiquitous systems of surveillance coupled with biometric identification that would render “getting away with it” impossible. Oh, how Stalin would have loved that!

    We in the 21st century free world seem only too willing to exchange personal essential liberty for security and convenience. Science fiction plays the Cassandra here, often warning us of the unintended consequences of our realized techno-utopias.

    Ones silence is always complicity. Whether you are working on quantum computing or neural models of superhuman intelligence you have a definite moral responsibility for the outcomes engendered by your discoveries. And thats assuming pure benevolence on the part of those you would implement these technologies!

    After all, what is wrong with letting the masses we are disrupting have a little representation in how their lives are upended?

  32. Or Meir Says:

    Regarding the question “what’s the inner psychology of the authorities?”: Karl Popper wrote that there are two kinds of philosophers, “lovers of truth”:

    1. There is the philosopher who loves the truth and therefore he constantly seeks it.

    2. There is the philosopher believes he already owns the truth, and since he loves it, it is his duty to make sure that everyone else recognizes it.

    Popper’s argument is, roughly, that the first type is the basis of democratic philosophies and the second one is the basis of fascist philosophies. I think that this is the best explanation of the inner psychology of the authorities: “We already know the truth, so there is no need to debate it or to listen to different arguments, we only need to spread it. A dissenter is simply an obstacle in spreading the truth”.

  33. Mark H. Says:

    It is true that science has no need for martyrs, yet it also has no need for myths. It is very easy to learn the wrong lessons from oversimplified stories, especially those with an easily identified hero and villain. One should tread very carefully when there vitriolic disagreement over the very identities of the heroes and villains.

    Let’s take Galileo [1]. Later scientific observations proved him and Copernicus to be correct about the question of whether the Earth rotates and moves around the Sun, but what is often more important in good science is the evidence presented. What evidence did Galileo have that the Earth moved?

    – The ancient Greeks knew that if the Earth moved, they would see parallax effects in the stars. No such effects were seen. One could argue that the stars are too far away, but then that’s another unproven assertion.

    – Similarly, it was known that a rotating Earth would cause deflections in the path of projectiles. No such deflections were witnessed at the time.

    – Since Galileo and Copernicus insisted on circular orbits, their solar system had just as many epicycles as Ptolemy’s. The epicycles were smaller, but their system was no less complicated.

    – The moons that Galileo discovered with his telescope only show that not every body in the heavens orbits the Earth. The moons provide no evidence for the motion of the Earth.

    All of the conclusive evidence for a moving Earth (stellar aberration, deflection of falling objects, Foucault’s pendulum) was observed after Galileo’s death. Furthermore, contemporaneous writings of the church showed a clergy that was willing to revise doctrine and biblical interpretations based on physical evidence (such as Bible verses that seem to imply that the Earth is flat). Galileo simply did not have the evidence to prove his belief at the time, so it rested upon unfounded assumptions and assertions having more to do with humanist philosophy than science. The fact that Galileo was eventually shown to be right does not retroactively increase the quality of his evidence or reasoning.

    It is harder to cheer for one side or another when the dispute is over such a complex issue as astronomy or some other analogous topic, especially when there are more moving parts to the story than just conflict between the purported hero and villain (there were larger forces at play: the Protestant Reformation and the resultant Thirty Years War). I am in no way saying that Galileo is the villain. The entire situation is a tragedy. Galileo was brought down for hubris and bad scientific reasoning. The church was wrong to ex-communicate Galileo, and its heavy-handed political maneuvers would cause it to suffer a tarnished reputation to the present day. This history is more complicated than a truth vs. power story. Changing these events into a good-vs.-evil battle only serves to divide people into screaming, warring camps.

    Progress is slow, frustrating, and painful with innumerable mistakes. Such a situation requires that we have patience and listen to each other. Let’s not diminish anyone’s suffering, nor deny anyone’s story as illegitimate or invalid. The only just way to deal with each other is by acknowledging the full complexity of our histories.


  34. Nick Nolan Says:

    Beautiful defense of utilitarianism in the face of tyranny.

    Let’s follow the thinking trough to it’s conclusion…

    “I cannot recognize the verdict of guilty. . . ., once the war started, there was also martial law. … I did not persecute Jews with avidity and passion. That is what the government did. . . . At that time obedience was demanded, just as in the future it will also be demanded of the subordinate.”

    Maybe we should give Adolf Eichmann a second change and rethink Nuremberg Principle IV. If the act of individual can’t change the outcome, and he can even reduce the suffering by being unenthusiastic, that person is maximizing the expected value of the moral utility?

    For rational actor, there should be no things it can’t do or bridges it can’t cross as long as the moral utility is maximized.

  35. N. Says:

    There is also a long history of scientists and mathematicians who made great advances in one field and ended up poorly regarded for their later “contributions” to other fields, despite applying the best of their truth-loving rational intellects to the knowledge of the day. William Shockley is said to have regarded his later work on eugenics as his greatest work, but we regard his approach and views on race as “corrosive” to the fabric of our society today. Is eugenics a truth that will win out someday, or will 20th and 21st-century approaches continue to be seen as barbaric as scientific understanding improves? A number of prominent scientists and mathematicians (Serge Lang, Kary Mullis, Peter Duesberg) have been HIV/AIDS denialists. Of course, the rational exploration of theories which later turn out to be false is an important part of science. Is there a point past the visible success of antiretrovirals at saving lives where advocating alternative therapies becomes morally problematic?

    I appreciate your message about the importance of cultivating your own garden, being good and true to the people around you. I also appreciate the acknowledgement, perhaps grudging, in your personal first amendment, that what appears to be the unfiltered truth right now might not be the correct solution to all apparent problems at all times. (My personal version: in social interactions, in society as a whole, in public health, mental health, there may not be one universal truth but instead a range of perceived experiences. How as a society are we to balance collective well-being?)

  36. anonymous Says:

    pretty good post but can you remove the bit about nazis and trump?

  37. L. Says:

    Don’t forget that Kolmogorov wrote a paper in the Pravda supporting Soljenitsyne’s expulsion and citizenship stripping. Compare both of them and find who was the real truth lover.

  38. harpersnotes Says:

    Excellent post. The idea of commitment in existentialism presents counter-arguments. It would be interesting to see the two sets of arguments debated. (Though I would not consider myself in any way qualified to do so.) In a sense, all of post-WWII continental philosophy is about the question of how did it happen. Lack of commitment to resistance was one major theme coming out of the French Resistance movement and central to the thinking of Camus and Sartre. (For whatever it’s worth if some reader of this comment is interested in some general background they might trying page-search commitment at the Stanford Plato server philosophy encyclopedia under existentialism.)

  39. Grant Says:

    It is also interesting that even though the scientific community has largely taken Kolmogorov’s axioms as definitive for probability, Kolmogorov himself apparently recognized that his axioms were much too liberal in what they allowed as a probability space, saying that his student Rokhlin’s axioms of Lebesgue spaces ( “do not restrict the subject but simply emphasize the correct class of objects” (“V.A. Rokhlin and the modern theory of measurable partitions.” Amer. Math. Soc. Transl. Ser. 2 202, 11-20 (2001)). Also, in keeping with his interest in constructivism, he also later considered basing probability on sigma-complete boolean algebras, considering that his earlier work didn’t give a proper justification of countable additivity and wrongly (at least from a philosophical perspective) took points in the probability space as basic when in reality they are constructions out of events ( So definitely a guy willing to keep reflecting and significantly changing his views.

  40. Anonymous Coward Says:

    A related historical topic is the responses of figures who are on-board with an ideology, but who object to the tactics used by its supporters against its opponents.

    I’m thinking specifically of US Senator Margaret Chase Smith (R-Maine), who in 1950 delivered the “Declaration of Conscience” speech, against the excesses of McCarthyism.

    Here is a powerful excerpt:

    I think that it is high time that we remembered that we have sworn to uphold and defend the Constitution. I think that it is high time that we remembered that the Constitution, as amended, speaks not only of the freedom of speech but also of trial by jury instead of trial by accusation.

    Whether it be a criminal prosecution in court or a character prosecution in the Senate, there is little practical distinction when the life of a person has been ruined.

    Those of us who shout the loudest about Americanism in making character assassinations are all too frequently those who, by our own words and acts, ignore some of the basic principles of Americanism:

    The right to criticize;

    The right to hold unpopular beliefs;

    The right to protest;

    The right of independent thought.

    The exercise of these rights should not cost one single American citizen his reputation or his right to a livelihood nor should he be in danger of losing his reputation or livelihood merely because he happens to know someone who holds unpopular beliefs. Who of us doesn’t? Otherwise none of us could call our souls our own. Otherwise thought control would have set in.

    The American people are sick and tired of being afraid to speak their minds lest they be politically smeared as “Communists” or “Fascists” by their opponents. Freedom of speech is not what it used to be in America. It has been so abused by some that it is not exercised by others.

    This had an “only Nixon can go to China” aspect because she was concerned about the threat of Communism:

    The Democratic Administration has greatly lost the confidence of the American people by its complacency to the threat of communism here at home and the leak of vital secrets to Russia though key officials of the Democratic Administration. There are enough proved cases to make this point without diluting our criticism with unproved charges.

    In contrast, it lacks the same moral force for someone who thought the Red Scare was stupid in the first place to oppose its excesses.

  41. sam Says:

    Scott, something is badly wrong with your WordPress installation. I just refreshed this page and this form came back filled with a *different* commentator’s name and email.

  42. John Garrett Says:

    Seems to me that Kolmogorov’s risk, as a closet gay man in a murderous dictatorship, cannot be compared to any risk any of us run for telling the truth. Attack and condemnation (which many of us have faced) is part of the cost of truth telling in a still relatively free society. Any other option enables lies.

  43. Craig Says:

    What relevance does Kolmogorov’s experience with the USSR, Galileo’s experience with the church, etc. have today in a society where scientists are given lots of money to do lots of cool stuff and the authorities don’t really care what the scientists come up with unless it can help them make better weapons or more money?

  44. Dan Fitch Says:

    For some insight into how authority figures behave under a regime that contradicts their own beliefs about the world, Stanley Cohen’s book States of Denial is highly recommended.

    He manages to cover those mental states and deliberations as they apply to large things (the purges, in Scott’s example; the Holocaust is Cohen’s focus) but also to the smaller denials and cognitive dissonance about these issues in our everyday life.

  45. Rational Feed – deluks917 Says:

    […] The Kolmogorov Option by Scott Aaronson – Kolmogorov was a brilliant mathematician as well as a sensitive and kind man. However he cooperated with the Soviets. An option for living in a society were many falsehoods are ‘official truth’: Build a bubble of truth and wait for the right time to take down the Orthodoxy. Don’t charge headfirst and get killed. There are no ‘good heretics’ in the eyes of the Inquisition. […]

  46. Steve Cobb Says:

    “Kolmogorov knew better than to pick fights he couldn’t win.”
    Rather, Kolmogorov knew better than to pick fights that could get him killed. One wants to take on challenges where victory isn’t certain, and great, worthy causes even if victory is unlikely, or costly. A man needs war stories to tell in his old age. There’s a reasonable range between the conformist and the quixotic, and it seems that Kolmogorov was comfortably within it.

  47. wolfgang Says:

    @Mark H #33

    You forgot the Venus phases.

  48. Denis Says:

    What Maciej Ceglowski said, only without the question mark. There was no option in USSR of the 30-40s to dissent (in the sense that it was utterly suicidal). And when that option did become available in the late 50s and 60s, the ones who took advantage of it were mostly the new generation, who haven’t experienced first hand the purges of the 30s. Even in today’s Russia, the tradition of “keep silent, saying something so that they notice you can only make things worse” is alive and well (source: I am a Russian living in Russia [with both parents, naturally, graduating from Soviet math schools]). All this to say that I’m afraid that your interpretation of Kolmogorov’s motives is largely misguided. He didn’t possess a fraction of the choice you attribute to him. People who discuss “current hot-button ideological disputes” on the Internet today have far more freedom. Even if they receive death threats (though I had some feminists virtually gang up on me in the days of my cyber-innocence, and I know that can be extremely stressful).

  49. Boaz Barak Says:

    Interesting post. It’s unclear that a scientist has a special duty to speak about what she/he perceives as such “truths” even when these are outside their domain of expertise.

    Perhaps many mathematicians are more “lovers of math” than “lovers of truth” and don’t feel the urge to take up fights in math-unrelated cases where they feel the consensus might be wrong. (They might also recognize that their ability to tell right from wrong in areas outside math is not necessarily that much better than the general person’s.)

    My own feeling is that as a tenured professor, I should use my academic freedom and job security to:

    a) Pursue freely my own research area and publish my findings.


    b) Speak out when I feel that there is a moral or policy issue directly related to my area of expertise or my own department. (e.g., surveiilance vs privacy tradeoffs, or if a colleague or a student is treated unfairly.)

    In addition, as a citizen, I am involved in issues that I care about. But I don’t think I have an obligation, neither as a citizen nor as a scientist, to form an opinion about every issue under the sun, and then, if my opinion counters popular consensus or hurts people’s feelings, to shout it from the rooftops.

    p.s. You didn’t tell us what these “unspeakable truths” are, but if you have a factoring algorithm or a classical simulation of BQP, please don’t keep it to yourself 🙂

    p.p.s. Perhaps Kolmogorv has one more thing to do with controversial statements in this age of Twitter mobs. You might be able to say anything you want as long it is not possible to compress it to a 140 character fury-inducing snippet.

  50. danyzn Says:

    This is very wise. But someone is going to be hurt because they think you “compared them with Stalin” or something.

  51. Scott Says:

    asdf #8:

      Of course the Hilbert-Brouwer conflict over mathematical intuitionism vs Cantor’s Paradise was unbelievably nasty, with Hilbert considering Brouwer a menace to mathematics and trying to get Brouwer fired from his professor job, getting Brouwer kicked out of an editing slot at a math journal, etc. That was about constructive vs nonconstructive logic

    That whole fight sounds pretty … nonconstructive to me! 🙂

    (IIRC, wasn’t Brouwer also pretty cruel to Cantor, and didn’t that aggravate Cantor’s mental illness? In any case, I’d say the verdict of history is that Cantorian set theory was a massive contribution to mathematics, regardless of your philosophical views about the reality of transfinite sets or the definiteness of statements like CH and AC.)

  52. Scott Says:

    Vladimir #9:

      The Soviet Union tolerated mathematicians mainly because they helped build weapons. What do you think of Landau, who believed Stalin was comparable to Hitler but still helped develop nukes?

    Wasn’t it mostly physicists, not mathematicians, who were tolerated because of their contributions to building nuclear weapons? Accounts I’ve read claimed that math was tolerated largely because it was cheap and apolitical.

    My feelings about people who contributed to Soviet nuclear weapons development are complicated and hard to summarize—as, for that matter, are my feelings about those who contributed to American nuclear weapons development, although the original Manhattan project scientists had the pretty good excuse that they incorrectly thought they were racing Hitler to build the bomb. Certainly I prefer Sakharov’s courageous stance to that of people who didn’t even try to speak out for human rights. Anyway, maybe if I read a biography of Landau (is there one that you recommend?) it would help to clarify my thoughts.

  53. Scott Says:

    Michael #10:

      I don’t judge, as I am not sure how would have I behaved. But clearly Andrei Saharov’s way is by far more laudable.

    But didn’t Sakharov have the advantage that he was “effectively un-killable” because his contributions to the Soviet nuclear program were common knowledge, and didn’t Kolmogorov lack that advantage? (Not rhetorical questions; genuinely asking to be educated)

  54. Scott Says:

    A. Bartolini #18: People can read my text in light of anything they want, just like people in the 50s could watch The Crucible in light of McCarthyism, etc.! I don’t imagine that I get to control readers’ reactions. All I ask is that those who come here obey my comment policy—already, it seems to have led to much more interesting comments than I predict we would’ve gotten without that policy.

  55. Anonymous Junior Academic Says:


    I deeply respect and admire your wisdom and humanity. I didn’t know what you might say today, and I decided it wasn’t fair of me to expect you to say anything at all. But I hoped.

    This post was beautiful. It brought tears to my eyes.

    Before reading this post, I feared there might be nothing left but to ally with the forces of darkness. Now I don’t feel that way.

    Thank you.

    An Assistant Professor Afraid to Say Anything on Social Media

  56. Scott Says:

    Sam #24:

      Would you be saying the same thing about scientists who worked for the Nazis, though? If Kolmogorov helped to perpetuate the genocidal Soviet system, surely he’s complicit in their crimes…

    These are complicated questions, because there are so many gradations of behavior under genocidal regimes. Just taking the Nazi example: at one extreme there’s Mengele, about which nothing further need be said. Then there’s real, serious enthusiasm for the ideology, although without direct participation in the atrocities (Teichmuller, Heidegger). Then there’s working for the genocidal regime, but more for misguided nationalist reasons than for the sake of the genocidal ideology (Heisenberg). Then there’s quiet acquiescence (most German scientists, probably). Then there’s private disgust, or even meeting with Hitler in 30s in a vain attempt to urge him to be more moderate (Max Planck). Then there are all the flavors of defiance, from quietly helping Jewish friends as long as one can do so at little cost to oneself, all the way up to resistance and martyrdom.

    If we tried to map Kolmogorov onto this spectrum, maybe he ends up somewhere near Max Planck?

  57. Scott Says:

    wolfgang #25:

      Why are you so afraid of just telling us the truth – which
      is that the whole world has gone nuts and there is nothing anyone can do about it.

    Alright, then: the whole world has gone nuts and I’m not sure what any of us can do about it. However, different parts of the world have gone nuts in different and sometimes even diametrically opposed directions.

  58. dm Says:

    People are quick to breakdown past societies as Good or Evil, and neglect to imagine the complexities of actually living in that space. There isn’t only one right option.

    The great movie “The Lives of Others” (German: Das Leben der Anderen) dwells in the societal space this post is all about.

  59. murmur Says:

    Whatever I call you Scott, I’ll never call you a coward. I disagree with you on many things (e.g. Trump) but you showed tremendous courage when you stood up to SJW bullies like Amanda Marcotte.

    I was asking myself the same question today in light of recent events and reached the same conclusion as you: if the authorities tell me to say 2 and 2 make 5, I’ll say 2 and 2 make 5. But I don’t find this dignified; I hate myself for being a spineless scum.

  60. Scott Says:

    Mark H. #33: I completely disagree with you about the science. I think that, even taking into account what people didn’t know at the time (e.g., the elliptical nature of orbits), it should already have been abundantly clear to any astronomer in 1600, able to look at the evidence, that the Copernican model offered a huge simplification over the Ptolemaic one in accounting for the orbits of Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.

    In fact, my understanding from Weinberg’s book To Explain the World is that, when you try hard to make the Ptolemaic model work, it basically becomes the Copernican model in all but name! More precisely, the epicycles that arise in calculating the orbits of Mercury, Venus, etc. are just precisely the corrections you would make if you knew from the beginning that they, along with the earth, were all orbiting the sun. So at that point all that remains is a final slice of Occam’s Razor, which Copernicus provided tepidly and Galileo later provided with gusto.

    In summary, I view “the Church was right in its dispute with Galileo” as analogous to “the American Civil War had nothing to do with slavery”: a perfect example of a belief people utter when they’ve learned just enough to be wrong, but not yet enough to be unwrong.

  61. Abe Says:

    Regarding why the “authorities” cannot accept truth that conflicts with the status quo:
    A rule I hereby dedicate to Voltaire (who said similar things) says: The human brain is unable — not unwilling but physically unable — to let in a fact that lowers its owner’s income or self esteem.
    I.e.: Those whose entire life, income, self definition, self esteem, etc., depend on a certain foolish theory, cannot possibly let their brain absorb what you are telling them, if this proves that they are, or have been, idiots. At the moment your words are heard, Occam’s Razor stops working, and their brain becomes a pretzel and starts making absurdly unlikely hypotheses that can explain what you are saying in a different way. Often it is that “here is an evil person that has to be exterminated because he makes us feel bad.”
    To test Voltaire’s Dictum, try saying the words [REDACTED] and you’ll see what I mean. So don’t say it.

  62. Nicholas Teague Says:

    Hilbert categorizing Gallileo’s approach as ‘precisely correct’ is overshooting. Becoming a matyr may only have an outside chance of any benefit, but it’s purchase at personal expense demands a kind of bravery that should be admired. If everyone takes the safe approach is resolution really inevitable? Even in science I am not so sure.

  63. wolfgang Says:


    >> nuts in different and sometimes even diametrically opposed directions

    and this is what one would expect from madness, but why spend the time and effort to sort it out?

    As for Galileo, as I already stated, the phases of Venus pretty much falsify Ptolemeus and this was well understood by Galileo and contemporary astronomers.

    The confrontation with the church was in the end about the question if truth can be discovered outside of theology and the power of the church.

  64. Scott Says:

    anonymous #36:

      pretty good post but can you remove the bit about nazis and trump?

    No, but I’ll state for the record: I think it’s clear that Trump is not Hitler (equating the two is even offensive), but equally clear that Trump has taken the US down the first steps of the long path that historically leads to totalitarianism. Trump probably has the closest resemblance to tinpot autocrats of a sort that’s been common all over the world, although unknown in the US at least since Andrew Jackson.

    In any case, the analogy I was trying to draw wasn’t at all about Hitler and Trump themselves, but only about the shape of possible resistance to them.

    Just like the capitalists and communists temporarily set aside their differences to defeat Hitler, ever since before the election I’ve maintained the fantasy that countless segments of American society normally considered diametrically opposed to each other—for example, libertarians and socialists, Silicon Valley nerds and social-justice warriors, New-Age hippies and business leaders, pacifists and national-security hawks, atheists and principled religious believers, etc. etc.—would bury their hatchets for awhile and come together for the shared goal of stopping Trump. It remains a beautiful vision to me, and one that I still hope comes to fruition.

  65. Scott Says:

    L. #37:

      Don’t forget that Kolmogorov wrote a paper in the Pravda supporting Soljenitsyne’s expulsion and citizenship stripping. Compare both of them and find who was the real truth lover.

    I didn’t know that, but yes, it appears Kolmogorov did co-sign a letter condemning Solzhenitsyn in the 1970s. Do you know how this letter came about—e.g., did Kolmogorov sign it under duress? More blackmail?

    In any case, it’s not good for his legacy, and depending on the details, moves him further into the collaborationist side of the spectrum I outlined in comment #56. Thanks for telling me.

  66. Scott Says:

    Anonymous Coward #40:

      I’m thinking specifically of US Senator Margaret Chase Smith (R-Maine), who in 1950 delivered the “Declaration of Conscience” speech, against the excesses of McCarthyism.

    Wow, I didn’t know that the tradition of female Maine Republican Senators standing up to the loons in their own party went all the way back to 1950! 🙂

  67. Scott Says:

    sam #41:

      something is badly wrong with your WordPress installation. I just refreshed this page and this form came back filled with a *different* commentator’s name and email.

    Oh no, it sounds like the bug I thought was defeated for good has now resurfaced! Are others having this problem as well? I’ll let the WordPress Concierge team know.

  68. Scott Says:

    AJA #55, murmur #59: Thanks, it means a lot to me.

  69. Darf Ferrara Says:

    Dmitri Shostakovich had to make many of the same choices as Kolmogorov, but as an artist rather than as a scientist. He didn’t have the benefit of being admired by Stalin (he was denounced as an “enemy of the people”). He was forced to tow the party line musically, but hid messages in his music.

  70. dorothy Says:

    uncountable, no way to know, dozens, 1, 2, don’t know what this means

  71. Scott Says:

    Dorothy #70: Sorry, what’s that in reference to?

  72. dorothy Says:

    your questions: #hate comments, #ideologies, #firing attempts, #kill threats, #law suits, ‘kill yourself kike’ (don’t know the term)

  73. laretluval Says:

    What do you make the argument that all effective organizations will have unspeakable truths and mandatory-to-believe nonsense, because this provides the organizations with an efficient and highly accurate way to assess loyalty?

    Obviously this community design pattern can become pathological, but a mild amount seems unavoidable.

  74. Edgar Poe Says:

    Scott #65:

    The following is an excerpt from the book “Naming infinity: a true story of religious mysticism and mathematical creativity” by Loren Graham and Jean-Michel Kantor:

    A partial explanation for the moral lapses and silences on ethical issues on the part of Alexandrov and Kolmogorov may be found in their own relationship. The Soviet secret police gathered information on all prominent people, including scholars, noting their sexual and personal habits. If there was something about an individual that could be used against him or her — such as an unsanctioned sexual relationship or a weakness for alcohol — that information was useful to the secret police even if never actually acted upon. The police could gain control over people simply by making known to their victims what they know about them. The police soon learned of Kolmogorov and Alexandrov’s homosexual bond, and they used that knowledge to obtain the behavior that they wished. When the police asked Kolmogorov and Alexandrov to join in attacking Luzin, they did so. When the government asked them to defend the pseudo-scientist Trofim Lysenko, they did so, even though Kolmogorov had earlier criticized the biologist. When, after World War II, the police asked that Alexandrov and Kolmogorov write a condemnation of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, calling him a traitor, they published such a joint letter in the Party newspaper Pravda. Kolmogorov on several occasions tried to explain his inconsistencies and disloyalties to colleagues, saying, “Sometime I will explain everything to you.” Shortly before his death he stated that he would “fear ‘them’ [the secret police] to his last day.”

  75. Seo Sanghyeon Says:

    Scott #60: I disagree with you about science of heliocentrism here. Apart from explaining the solar system observation, Ptolemaic/Copernican model do make a definite prediction that differ, and that is stellar parallax. I think you are underestimating the power of argument that “stellar parallax is not seen, so heliocentrism is suspect”. This was the first bullet point of Mark H. you replied to, and this was also contemporary objection, most notably advanced by Tycho Brahe. I am pretty certain Brahe here was simply evaluating available evidences without regards to church dogma.

  76. Ghost Says:

    Heh. It’s interesting how US starts to look so much like Soviet Russia that intellectuals feel the need to advocate private bubbles of decency — not resistance, of course! — but merely decency and attachment to truth.

    I know this situation well: my father used to be a professor at the best university in the country, was fired and blacklisted over wrongthink, and had to construct his own “Kolmogorov bubble” to stay afloat.

    So, you’re saying that’s how the Land of the Free works now?

  77. Abdullah Misnimah Says:

    You amendments are just self-castration. “There is not a truth existing which I fear… or would wish unknown to the whole world.” —Thomas Jefferson

  78. sam Says:

    I think my fundamental objection to the Kolmogorov option is that it can’t universalise. There *are* hills worth dying on, but if too many exercise the option then the regime gets away with it.

    Considering just how extreme the penalty for not exercising the Kolmogorov option is, I find it hard to put (too much) condemnation on the shoulders of anyone who takes it. Even the ones who had no possible other excuse besides self-preservation. At the same time, we ought to look at them and place *some* weight on them: not much, but it’s not the Right Thing, and as such it has to carry some moral penalty, however small. (I’m most definitely a utilitarian and I believe in incentives; deontological thinking may be different.)

    BLANDCorporatio’s reply to my first comment is a good point. Even if all the scientists who weren’t ideologically committed had rebelled in the Third Reich or the USSR, it’s not at all clear that they’d’ve brought the regimes down. But—I don’t think it’s solely the scientists’ responsibility, either. If the train drivers didn’t drive and the coal miners didn’t mine—now *that* can bring down a government. But train drivers and coal miners have the same keep-your-head-down incentives as the scientists.

    So, I don’t think that scientists are the only ones with a Kolmogorov option. Anyone should be able to take it and receive the same moral weighting for it: it’s about collaboration and responsibility as well, not just truth-seeking. Everyone in a society has an interest in all of those—even people who aren’t professional truthseekers.

    I mentioned this in passing in my first post, but I think it’s worth saying again: Galileo didn’t exercise the Kolmogorov option by recanting his cosmology, at least as I’m understanding the Kolmogorov option. If the secret police offered me the wonderful opportunity to swear that 2+2=5, fire is the supreme element, humans evolved from dandelions, and the photoelectric effect is caused by tiny gnomes, I’d sign the statement in an instant; if the choice was torture or passive complicity in mass murder, I sincerely hope I would give defiance a serious thought, even if I am not at all sure I wouldn’t exercise the Kolmogorov option. The truth will win out eventually, but you can’t un-murder a person. Lysenkoism, as a falsity that can actually kill people fairly directly, is a harder question.

    So, what’s to be done? Organising an effective resistance in the face of state oppression is an open problem. Standing up one at a time to be cut down is stupid; if it’s that or the Kolmogorov option, you can call me Andrey Nikolaevich every day of the week and twice on Sunday. I have a hope for superrationality, but I am precisely the sort of weirdo who would. Maybe—maybe—in the good times, we can establish commonly-known red lines and Schelling points for resistance and then we’ll be able to solve the collective action problem without the ability to coordinate in the bad times. But, when the bad times come and we’re dealing with an unfree press and pervasive surveillance and thin ends of wedges that are only slowly being driven in, I am not sure it would work.

    Sorry, this turned into a mini-manifesto (minifesto?). I definitely agree that we’re not living through the Fourth Reich (well, at least not in the West). Compared to Kolmogorov, our compromises are small, and our punishment for making ourselves awkward is also small. But, of course, that means that this is the perfect time for this sort of discussion.

  79. Douglas Knight Says:

    Scott 60, to be more precise, Ptolemy gives each planet an epicycle and a equant. Half of this data accounts for the Earth’s orbit and the other half for the elliptical nature of orbits. But the epicycles don’t have a uniform effect. They do different things for the inner and outer planets. I believe that the for the outer planets the epicycles are the Earth’s orbit and the equants approximate the elliptical nature of the outer planets’ orbits. But for the inner planets, I think the equants account for the Earth’s orbit and the epicycle for the eccentricity of the Earth’s orbit (not the inner planets’).

    Copernicus’s goal was to eliminate the equant. He replaced it with epicycles upon epicycles, ending up with a much more complicated model. And I think a much worse one, but he probably claimed it better based on overfitting and self-serving errors.

    The equant is a very good model of elliptical motion, including the speed of the motion. It is a great mystery how the Greeks came up with it, whether through analysis of high quality data (which Ptolemy didn’t have) or an elliptical theory (which Ptolemy didn’t mention).

    I believe that Kepler took the Copernican model and fit the data anew, giving him a higher quality model than anyone else was using. It was only then that he could measure the errors. This should have caused him to notice the redundancy of the parameters, eg, repeated periods, but I don’t know that he followed this line of thought.


    So I think your description of the argument is anachronistic. Another confusion is whether the argument was about the rotation of the Earth or about the revolution of the Earth about the Sun. Although there were at the time models separating those questions (eg, Brahe’s geocentric Copernican model), both Bellarme and Galileo equivocate on this.

    Anyhow, the question is rarely one of correct answers, but of correct methods. The Church did make scientific arguments. That is good. But then it claimed the right to stop debate. That is bad regardless of how you adjudicate the specific argument.

    What I’ve never understood is lack of popularity for the theory that the inner planets orbit the Sun, perhaps without committing to the behavior of the outer planets. This was proposed in both antiquity and the Renaissance, but almost everyone who thought the inner planets orbited the Sun insisted that so did the outer planets.

  80. Grew up in the USSR Says:

    > students of Jewish descent excluded from the top math programs for made-up reasons

    That was just low-key affirmative action. The authorities noticed how the Jewish university applicants succeeded by themselves, giving no chance to Soviet ethnic minorities (Uzbeks, Georgians, other southern and far-eastern ethnicities).

  81. Scott Says:

    dorothy #72: OK, thanks for clarifying!

    “Kike” is an extremely derogatory term for Jew, analogous to the N-word for black people. Within the space of a year or two, I got that from Trump supporters, and also “douchebro misogynist asshat” and “Zionist shill” and I forget what else from the social-justice left. In the future, I suppose if the balance tilts too far toward “kike,” it’s a sign I should write some posts that will enrage social-justice leftists to even things out, and vice versa? 🙂

  82. Scott Says:

    Abdullah #77:

      You amendments are just self-castration. “There is not a truth existing which I fear… or would wish unknown to the whole world.” —Thomas Jefferson

    Yeah, what about his relationship with Sally Hemings? 😀

    I try to formulate moral principles such that a hypothetical all-knowing biographer would be able to say after my death that I lived by them.

  83. nn3 Says:

    Do we know that Kolmogorov was actually secretly opposed to Stalinism? Perhaps he really was a believer and thought it was the “truth”

    It’s easy to assume today that everyone under Stalin was secretly opposed, but from what I read there were a lot of people, possibly even a majority, who believed in his system.

    I like your argument in general, but would be reluctant to call it after Kolmogorov (even though it’s catchy) because we don’t know if he really thought this way.

  84. Scott Says:

    Grew up in the USSR #80:

      That was just low-key affirmative action.

    Well, it was ‘affirmative action’ that was never openly declared or defended as such, and whose sole target (as far as I know) was Jews. So probably a closer analogy would be the Jew quotas that elite US universities like Harvard, Princeton, and Yale started enforcing in the 1920s. Though insofar as US admissions policies today function to cap Asian-American enrollment, that comes pretty close.

  85. Joshua Zelinsky Says:

    Scott #60,

    The situation in regards to epicycles is a bit more complicated than that. First, it wasn’t obvious that the epicycle correction was identical (in fact if I’m not mistaken one actually will end up with an infinite series of epicycles to get the same set of observations). Second, Copernicus’s system itself used epicycles, albeit fewer, so it wasn’t clear that the system was in general better. Third, in 1600 those were not the only systems floating around. One also had Tycho’s model (which incidentally is almost completely ignored by Galileo). Fourth and most seriously, heliocentric models had the extreme problem of a lack of stellar parallax which implied that the stars were insanely, mind-boggingly far away.

    All of that said, I still essentially agree with your point on number 60 regarding the Church’s interaction with Galileo, although part of their bad behavior was due to his general lack of concern for navigating the sensibilities of those around him, and not going out of his way to piss people off.

  86. Scott Says:

    nn3 #83:

      Do we know that Kolmogorov was actually secretly opposed to Stalinism? Perhaps he really was a believer and thought it was the “truth”

    I found the passage quoted in comment #74 immensely clarifying here.

    In general, from everything I’ve read about Kolmogorov, a picture emerges that he was generally kind and decent in extremely trying circumstances, except that he’d immediately throw any principle and any person under the bus for the sake of his relationship with Alexandrov. This is a tragic flaw, but also a human and understandable one. And of course the ultimate blame lies with the Soviet authorities who forced him to make the choice.

  87. Doug K Says:

    if speaking out will get you killed or destroy your life, as it would have for Kolmogorov, then I hesitate to judge.
    I did not speak out loudly enough about apartheid while living under it, because it would have resulted in me or my family killed or disappeared (happened to several family friends). There was a large and efficient secret police in charge of that. I served as a conscript in the armies of apartheid because the alternatives were jail or an exile I would not have survived. This was of course wicked and false and it gnaws at me daily, but at least I’m here to be gnawed at.

    “science, unlike religion, has no need for martyrs, because it’s based on facts that can’t be denied indefinitely.”
    “the market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent.”
    I’m not sure that acceptance of the facts will arrive in time for anyone but the beetles..

  88. Curious Wavefunction Says:

    The Church was not only repressive in its treatment of Galileo but also utterly disingenuous. Galileo had had six visits with Pope Urban, the conclusion of which was that he was allowed to teach the Copernican theory as a hypothesis rather than a fact. But when he was hauled in front of the authorities, they produced a piece of paper which purportedly had the pope’s sign on it and said that Galileo couldn’t even teach the theory as a hypothesis. That was supposedly the linchpin of the accusation that did him in. Turns out it was a totally fake and retroactively dated document. All this is nicely documented in Jacob Bronowski’s magnificent “The Ascent of Man” (when’s Bronowski when you need him).

  89. Scott Says:

    Seo #75 and Joshua #85: I specifically remember the discussion of stellar parallax from Galileo’s dialogues, because of how insightful it was. Salviati correctly deduces that the stars are too immensely far away for the observations of the time to do anything but lower-bound their distances. Simplicio objects: but here are parallax measurements suggesting that the stars are X distance away. Surely, even if those measurements were off by a few percent, the true distances would only be a few percent greater than X? That prompts Salviati to launch into a general disquisition about the error-sensitivity of measurements (possibly the first time that was discussed in human history?), and why stellar distance actually diverges as a function of your raw data. You couldn’t give a clearer explanation lecturing to modern freshmen.

    More generally, I’m reluctant to endorse a principle that says that, even though Galileo got the right answer by a combination of sound reasoning and inspired guesswork, he doesn’t get full credit, because a less smart person would’ve gotten stuck on the stellar parallax issue and not figured it out with the data available at the time.

  90. Josh Rehman Says:

    Scott, #86 presents a subtle problem, one that I’ve seen before. When people say “seems bad but everyone is doing it”, or some other resigned acceptance, it takes away the social consequence of doing something bad, and effectively redefines what “bad” means. You throw up your hands, say “its a trend that can’t be stopped” and stop resisting. Soon enough, the resistance to some bad thing has dropped to zero, because the cost is too high.

    Indeed, it would not surprise me at all if the Russians greatest tool in this fight is not just to bully the good people of the world into staying silent, but that this silence gives them the impression that they are alone, helpless, and are better off fighting another day.

    I suggest that rather than compromising principles to adapt to practical realities, good-hearted people should act to strengthen and support each other in the face of attack. Instead of shrinking back, weak and alone, get strength from like-minded people, and continue to speak calmly, confidently, and courageously.

  91. Joscha Bach Says:

    Thank you for this beautiful, brave and balanced essay. I grew up in Eastern Germany, and I find that the current opinion climate has serious similarities to the 1980ies GDR.

    That is not the same as Stalin’s Soviet Union, however. Nobody was “unkillable” under Stalin, even his closest comrades could be tortured to death the very moment they fell from his graces. In the 1980ies, even the Soviet Union was no longer a terror regime. In my youth, if a student spoke up too much truth to power, they would lose the chance to study (and work as an academic later on). If a senior engineer, hospital director or a professor were opposing the current political narratives, they would be fired from their positions. An author or artist might lose the chance to be published and to travel abroad, or to come back from a trip to Western Germany (if they were among the few that had traveling privileged in the first place).

    It took very serious political action to land in prison. Usually, the worst that happened was a loss of status, career opportunities, and exposure to harassment by authorities and, lets not forget, sometimes almost everyone else. The majority has a greater need to be right than to be true.

    The situation in the US is even more tame. I find that many of my colleagues in academia are terrified of saying the wrong thing. They are not afraid of landing in prison, but of harassment, of losing their job, their career, possibly their house or their visa. At the same time, there are a few economically powerful groups that are able and willing to shelter the intellectual elite of scientists. If someone at your level (and especially you, great Scott), lost their job over a political disagreement, I am sure you will miss your students, but you certainly won’t run a risk to lose livelihood and social participation.

    The same is not true to the same extent for less famous people or people outside computer science and related fields. Being blacklisted from employment would likely be disastrous for a social scientist or teacher.

    You Americans are not today facing the same perils as Kolmogorov in Stalinist Russia. You won’t go to prison, you won’t be executed, you won’t be deported to Alaska. You might be subjected to injustices, but you can afford to be considerably bolder (as you obviously did with your timely blog post). But you are of course correct, it is very important to pick one’s fights well.

  92. Eric Dennis Says:

    This kind of renunciation is never the right option. If these are indeed the circumstances, then it is time to retreat a few hundred years into the realm of secret societies and subversive pamphlets, but then to advance relentlessly from a reclaimed beachhead.

  93. Joshua Zelinsky Says:

    Scott 89,

    Yes, Galileo acknowledges and discusses the issue of stellar parallax. The problem though is that it wasn’t unreasonable for someone to note that this was implying a universe which was many orders of magnitude larger than they had any other line of evidence for, and that by itself is questionable.

    I’m not also sure what you mean by “full credit” here. Is this full credit in the sense of “we should have a lower opinion of his work and accomplishments”- then of course certainly not. If it is not giving”full credit” in the sense that it is important to realize that Galileo was one of a whole bunch of people whose work lead to our understanding of where we are today
    and that the common narratives don’t quite note where his best work was (in particular that his really best work was on the observational end), then sure.

  94. Not What It Says On The Tin Says:

    1. “I try to formulate moral principles such that a hypothetical all-knowing biographer would be able to say after my death that I lived by them.” Wow. If I said this, it would mean that my moral bar were set low indeed. I’m no longer a Catholic, but I know I fall short of my own ideals on a nearly daily basis. That said, I’ll give you that Jefferson’s statement was nearly 180º from mine, in that I profess to have secrets while he claims none.

    2. My comment form was also filled out with plausible-looking contact information, including a math blog website

  95. Chana Messinger Says:

    “You avoid a direct assault on any beliefs your culture considers necessary for it to operate.”

    What I worry about is if that’s true. What if it is the case that it’s necessary for it to operate, or period are so overeager to update on small effects that even saying true things leads to predictably unfortunate consequences? What if talking about what’s true changes what’s true?

  96. Scott Says:

    Chana #95: Indeed, I’d say the risk of terrible consequences that you don’t know about, certainly counts as one possible valid reason not to say even clearly-true and innocuous-seeming things, if your culture strongly insists that you shouldn’t say them. (This is also exactly the sort of thing that defenders of a powerful but falsehood-riddled ideology would say, were they to put forward an honest case for their position.)

  97. pierremenard128 Says:


    Beautifully written. Can I offer an amendment to your Kolmogorov strategy? It’s this: seek occasional battles with the orthodoxy on safe ground.

    Kolmogorov did this when he took a stand on genetics. You’ve done this quite a few times in your blogging, actually. The point is not to come out swinging against the system, but fight battles on localized points were you can actually win.

  98. Scott Says:

    pierremenard #96: Excellent strategy, if I do say so myself! 🙂

  99. William Bell Says:

    I think the Eichmann question is mostly ignored in this post. What if Eichmann had tried to develop a ‘bubble of truth’, all the while orchestrating the Holocaust? There are limits to prudential imperatives, and a lot of what you describe sounds like the sort of excuse for banal evil that Eichmann was the perpetrator of.

    From the other end, the USA isn’t the USSR. Those who believe something to that effect are the sorts of people that if they were religious would believe that persecution of Christians in the USA is comparable to the feeding of Christians to lions during the Roman Empire’s time. A tenured professor in the USA is unlikely to lose their job for political reasons (ignoring extreme cases, they might receive tepid condemnation from their administration (e.g. or )).

  100. Scott Says:

    William #99: Eichmann seems like a terrible comparison (and, separately, a terrible person 🙂 ). Firstly, because there’s an enormous spectrum of official untruths that one can choose not to contest, which are less consequential than “we are not systematically exterminating millions of people.” And secondly, because Eichmann was not exactly a passive observer. Indeed, I don’t even buy the theory that Eichmann was “banal,” in the sense of just thinking of himself as doing a job. It’s true that he wasn’t reflective or thoughtful, but later historians have argued that, in order to fit Eichmann into her preconceived philosophical thesis, Hannah Arendt had to ignore a lot of evidence that he was actually an enthusiastic antisemite. (Of course, after he was captured and put on trial, it was in his interest to present himself differently.)

  101. Liz Says:

    It’s pretty clear what you’re trying to say between the lines here. And I imagine you’ll delete this post (although I hope you won’t). I think it’s dishonest to write so obviously on a topic but allow no responses to what you’re actually saying. As a younger researcher in the field, I find it disappointing to see such lack of accountability coming from a prominent senior professor.

  102. Liam Woolsworth Says:

    #95 Thats an interesting point. Similar to Harari’s points in Sapiens about social realities – some things exist only because everyone believes they do yet they are very real – eg money or cultural norms/beliefs and their consequences.

    Once many people believe a shared reality as this, the marginal cost/benefit for 1 person to also believe it works out in favor of belief (because then everyone can reason that “if everyone believes it it mist be true right?”)

    Cultural beliefs are rigid to change in some ways. One thats interesting is its much easier to flip a belief 180 than make a smaller nuanced change. Then we are stuck for a while in the X or not X dichotomy before society adjusts to a belief somewhere between – if a belief corresponds to a vector in a vector space with basis b , the belief can be flipped but its MUCH harder to change the basis of the vector space.

    All this to say, todays truths are yesterdays beliefs or simple modifications thereof..

    Maybe the limits of communication , time constraints and attention spans 😉 etc. mean that it will always be that way. That things will be seen as X or not X, with us or against us instead of Y.

  103. Scott Says:

    Liz #101: So am I to understand that (1) it’s intellectually dishonest to try to abstract away from the hot-button controversies of the present, and get a broader view by focusing on meta-questions and instructive examples from the past, but also (2) if you do directly discuss hot-button controversies of the present, then regardless of how politely you express yourself, or even how much you agree with the usual views, if you accidentally deviate from orthodoxy on some particular then you might need to be outed, shamed, and fired from your job?

    In any case, as I said earlier, one bonus of my commenting policy is that I already feel like we’ve gotten much more interesting comments than we would’ve had without it. E.g., I’ve learned various interesting new tidbits about Kolmogorov, and other things relevant to the “psychology of unspeakable truths,” a subject that’s interested me for as long as I remember.

  104. Liz Says:

    If you prefer having a conversation about Kolmogorov, then write just about Kolmogorov. If you don’t feel comfortable talking publicly about a controversial topic, then don’t write about it. I see plenty of junior people taking the risks of speaking out—and suffering the consequences. It is your right to decide you don’t want to talk about any given topic but it is telling people they cannot respond to something you are obviously insinuating given the timing etc. (not the abstractions in your original post) that I find dishonest.

    As far as meta discussion about ideologies go (a topic I appear to be allowed to comment on), I’ve been interested in a slightly different angle, namely smart historical figures who got wrapped up in ideologies that today we would say are misguided. An obvious example is Heidegger (I’m thinking philosophers here), but also a lot of other 20th century thinkers became very enamored with communism before some of its various flaws became apparent. It’s interesting how wrong very otherwise rational, thoughtful people can go when it comes to ideology—and leaves you wondering if there’s something they could have seen at the time to tell them they would be on the wrong side of history. To be clear, I’m actually trying to make no insinuation here because I think this can go both ways; things can become too extreme on any part of the spectrum. I think there’s a lot to learn from how thinkers in the 20th century (a time of huge ideological turmoil) interacted with the ideas of the time, and how their views evolved depending on the historical context.

  105. Scott Says:

    Liz #104: Thanks for your comment. If you want to argue against whatever you think I might have insinuated without saying it, then of course you’re welcome to do that anywhere else on the Internet (I think a couple others already have). But surely you agree that, on my blog, I can set the rules for comments in whatever way I think will lead to a productive discussion … just like a private company can fire its employees for whatever reason it wishes? 😉

    It’s worth noting that, when my friend “the other Scott A” blogs about extremely controversial topics, he now often simply turns all comments off, out of fear of inviting endless flamewars. I viewed limiting the comments the way I did as a much milder solution.

  106. Liz Says:

    Yes you’re free to set the rules on your blog, and I’m free to disagree with them; just as you’re free to disagree with the rules for firing at a private company (which I may also either agree or disagree with you about).

    Anyway continuing along these lines further may not be fruitful, but thanks for making my posts visible.

  107. Scott Says:

    Joscha #91: Thanks for your comment. I do agree about the importance of distinguishing between the Stalinist phase of the USSR and the “kinder, gentler” phase that came later—i.e., the one where a wrong opinion would merely get you fired and blacklisted, not shot.

    In fact, a couple years ago I was talking to an older Russian physicist now working in the US. He told me stories about the enforcement of academic orthodoxy in his current university—I’d share his stories here, except that I can’t without violating my own “no hot-button issues” policy. He remarked on how vividly it all reminded him of what he had witnessed in the USSR. However, he also explicitly clarified that he was talking “only” about the Brezhnev phase, not the Stalin phase that his parents had lived through.

  108. Sumukh Atreya Says:

    Incidentally, here’s the most comprehensive account of Landau, his school and his students that I know of. That, along with this article and this brief memoir by his student Boris Ioffe (which is also included in the first link), give a pretty good account of Soviet theoretical physics and anti-semitism (from the scientists’ point of view) in Stalin’s Russia.

  109. Tin man Says:

    I’m for it, but I wonder if Scott is living in a bubble of sorts. I believe the ideological orthodoxy he encounters is weaker than he thinks. Indeed, Paul Graham’s essay on the same topic “what we can’t talk about” discusses the Galileo case specifically. It is precisely the institutions/ideologies that are halfway between power and obscurity that fear dissent and mockery. The truly powerful ones have no need of persecuting heresy, while the weak ones are unable to. G was persecuted because the Church was waning in power, while Copernicus before him wasn’t, b/c the Church was more secure then. Likewise, modern day ideological orthodoxy (of ANY stripe, not just the ones Scott is bothered by) is weak, its pieties barely known, much less believed, out here in real America (outside college-educated circles, let’s say). I suspect it also holds true for real England, France etc.

  110. Sniffnoy Says:

    I’m a bit unconvinced that Galileo being held up as heroic figure makes sense. Based on what I’ve read — and I’ll admit most of what I know comes just from reading The Renaissance Mathematicus — he seems more like a glory-hound who couldn’t stand to be proven wrong (e.g.: his completely wrong theory of the tides), rather than a heroic seeker of truth. And my understanding is that at the time the hypotheses weren’t grouped as geocentrism vs. heliocentrism, but rather that each system was considered separate, so that Kepler’s heliocentric hypothesis was considered opposed to Galileo’s heliocentric hypothesis rather than as a refinement! Galileo in fact rejected Kepler’s elliptical hypothesis (although it’s the latter that got heliocentrism widely accepted).

    That said… who the hell is saying that the Church was right to persecute Galileo?? Geez…

    (One thing I have to disagree with The Renaissance Mathematicus on: He occasionally says that, well, the Church’s suppression of Galileo isn’t so big a deal because, you see, the Church didn’t say Galileo couldn’t teach that it was a good model, he just couldn’t talk about it in terms of it being a true description of reality. To which I say… no, I still think that’s pretty fricking bad!)

  111. Renato Andrielli Says:

    To solve the collective action problem, we would need a religion where saying the truth and being martyred for it is the holiest way to live and die.

    Maybe that guy (won’t offend sensibilities by saying the name) was onto something.

  112. secret Says:

    I worry that I lack the self control to exercise this option. I speak my mind reflexively, and when I can’t do so I’m extremely uncomfortable. Prudence is hard, sometimes especially when I’m concerned about the consequences I might face.

    I keep secrets from literally everyone in my life about my heretical opinions on various things. I’m a good enough liar to cover my slips. But I feel like it’s driving me to despair. Recklessness seems like a superior option to this emptiness. “Don’t fight fights you can’t win” is hard advice to follow when you’re not strong enough to win any fights at all.

  113. Jason Crawford Says:

    This reminds me of a story about Kolmogorov told to me by CS professor. It may be apocryphal, and there are different versions of it floating around.

    The story goes that at one point Kolmogorov was confronted by agents of the Soviet government and challenged on his work on “independent events”. They charged that this concept contradicted Marxist philosophy, which says that all events are interconnected.

    Kolmogorov replied: “Consider the following events: The pope prays for rain. It rains. These events are independent.”

    The Soviet agents left him alone.

  114. Nilima Says:

    Kolmogorov is one of my heroes. There are mornings where I prepare for a lecture on CFD, and my spouse prepares a lecture in probability, and the same name appears. This amazes me. Thank you for a marvellous post about him and his struggles.

    I also very much like your law and its amendments. Most days when I get fired up about a truth I believe, ready to hoist myself on mine own petard – I try to take a little walk, and ask myself if the truth meets criteria very close to what you describe.

    Many self-evident (to me) truths are not giant truths in the ways of Kolmogorov. This means I have to think hard about considering myself a beleaguered martyr for stating them.

    This may be how my mind works- but not every statement I come up with is valuable, deep, important enough to risk hurting people, or morally critical. Even worse, sometimes the (to me) self-evident truths are about matters on which the evidence is hard to acquire, changeable, perhaps mutable.

    When I started my career in mathematics, the prevailing truths were that (a) no one does good mathematics past 25, and certainly not past 40; (b) what is called applied mathematics is not even mathematics; and (c) women are absent in the very extreme ends of the distribution of mathematical ability for reasons of biology, and therefore there would almost surely never be a truly, truly great female mathematician in my lifetime.

    Some of these are recognizable as sentiments dating back to Hardy, and some is recognizable as the then-available evidence-backed claims of the ’90s.

    Perhaps these are immutable truths. Nonetheless, I am not sure they are *valuable* truths. They do seem to violate your amendment.

    So I very much like your law and its amendments.

  115. gentzen Says:

    Great post! A bit unusual to see so many comments saying that this is a great post. But they are right! No comparisons of recent minor hot-button topics to Nazi Germany. Those would only feel pathetic to people like the parents of Otto Warmbier, who know that they will never learn what happened to their son in North Korea. And a very clear and upfront comment policy that current hot-button topics will be deleted. As a result, the comment thread is of impressive high quality too.

    The discussed topic is timely and relevant for the world we live in today. What can (or should) you do as an individual that “knows” its actions will not change the global succession of events? Statements like Adorno’s “There is no right life in the wrong one” from Minima Moralia just don’t feel like sufficient answers to me. There are no right answers, but that is a bad excuse for not discussing such questions. Looking at what historical individuals did and how it worked out is a good idea, and way better than staying silent!

  116. gentzen Says:

    I recently read a bibliography of Werner Heisenberg by Ernst Peter Fischer. The reason why I read it was that I had read Heisenberg’s autobiography “Physics and Beyond” before, and then read Walter Moore’s biography of Schrödinger. Moore described certain “private and political mistakes” of Schrödinger, and I wondered whether Heisenberg had committed similar mistakes too, and just remained silent about them in his autobiography. I learned that Heisenberg did remain silent about certain events, but that he was not the actor but the victim of those events.

    One such unpleasant event was Wilhelm Wien ensuring that Heisenberg got the worst possible passing grade for his doctorate. It got worse during Nazi time, when Heisenberg got accused for being a jew in spirit, for teaching Einstein’s theory of relativity. He was lucky that his mother knew influential people for getting out of that one, which could easily have cost him his live. The story of von Weizsäcker’s parents preventing his engagement with their daughter (because he was not of sufficiently noble origins) is also telling of the German society at that time. And Heisenberg’s role in the German effort at building an atomic bomb are still discussed today, even so the historical documents rather suggest that he always was quite honest in those respects, and Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker’s role might have been the more questionable one. But Carl Friedrich was still young back then, and it is unbelievably easy to make mistakes when you are young (and the circumstances are bad).

    One event that is both described by Heisenberg himself and in his external biography is how he became a political actor in post-war Germany, and how he ensured success of the Göttinger eighteen in opposing Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and Defense Secretary Franz-Josef Strauß’s move to arm the West German army, the Bundeswehr, with tactical nuclear weapons.

  117. Ishaan Says:

    Good article professor!

  118. Scott Says:

    Nilima #114: Thanks for your comment. As it happens, I don’t believe a single one of your statements (a), (b), or (c)—that is, I don’t consider them “true but not useful,” just false. Sufficient counterexamples:

    (a) Wiles completing the proof of FLT at 41
    (b) Archimedes, Newton, Gauss, Euler all doing lots of “applied math”
    (c) Maryam Mirzakhani

    There might be other statements in the same galaxy that I could defend, but at any rate, I wouldn’t discuss it here. 😉

  119. leoboiko Says:

    > truths were the ones that undermined the entire communist project: for example, that humans are not blank slates;

    I often see this point stated like this, as a given, and I never understood it. What’s the rationale behind such an assertion? How is genetic diversity supposed to “undermine” the communist idea? If anything, it’s meritocratic capitalism that presupposes blank-slatism.

    To recap, the capitalist principle is that people should have access to resources in proportion to their abilities, as a reward for their application as market-desirable labor. Capitalism believe this extrinsic reward system (the “profit motive”) is such a crucial incentive, that society would implode without it. (There’s one complication in the form of inheritance laws, which surely undermine whatever principle of fairness that meritocratic rewards may have; but let’s leave that aside as something skirting too close to a contemporary unspeakable truth). The communist project, by contrast, is that people should have access to resources based on their needs, not on their ability.

    If you believe that people are more genetically diverse than normally thought, surely the meritocratic system should be the one being undermined? The more someone’s abilities, disposition, personality etc. is determined by their genes, the more it’s beyond their control; the more it’s beyond their control, the less sense it makes to punish them for it. Capitalism says, this guy doesn’t deserve housing and healthcare because he’s lazy and dumb; but that presupposes he could have been smart and hard-working as easily as your neighborhood surgeon or lawyer. What if he’s born lazy and dumb, and nothing he can do will ever change it? Punishing him for it would be the same as allocating resources based on height or skin color.

    Please notice I’m not saying that intelligence and personality traits are determined genetically. I’m saying that, the more they are, the less sense meritocratic capitalism makes, not the more.

    One simple litmus test is mental disability. Imagine a severely impaired man with a congenital disease that renders all his cognitive abilities well below adult level. Imagine this unfortunate man was born in a bustling capitalistic country where, despite abundance of resources and wealth, income inequality is high, real estate markets are severely overinflated, education and health have insane price barriers on them, healthy food costs a lot and crappy food is enough to create an obesity epidemic, there are very few employment opportunities for the uneducated, and so on. In such a dystopic, horrifying country, our mentally impaired man would be, though no fault of his own, literally unable to secure sufficient income to cover his basic human needs (food, housing, medicine, clothing, a modicum of culture and dignity…). Do you think he should be provided with access to those resources, even if he can’t offer anything that the market values right now? Do you think, on the other hand, that it’s only fair that he should contribute to society in his own way, for example doing community service etc., even if right now no one in the market is interested in paying for, say, planting trees? Then you think he should be provided according to his needs, and provide according to his ability. The previous sentence is the literal definition of communism.

  120. Michael Says:

    @Scott#54- Miller admitted in interviews that the Crucible was about McCarthyism- and was criticized as being self-serving because he himself had praised Stalin a few years earlier.

  121. Joe Shipman Says:

    No. Although there is much of value in what you say, you are completely unjustified in comparing fear of being fired by a cowardly and reprehensibly unsympathetic employer and of receiving anonymous threats from nasty jerks on social media to fear of being shipped off to a Gulag or getting a bullet to the head. You live in America. That ain’t gonna happen. That means you have more of a duty, especially as a tenured professor, a position of intellectual authority, to call it as you see it. We agree that one may be morally justified in not fighting battles one can’t win; but the “battle” that needs to be fought from your point of view is simply that the truth should prevail, and especially that the Knowledge that the Emperor is naked should become Common. You will not lose tenure or your blog for speaking the truth in a professional manner, with clear arguments and evidence and avoidance of invective. Although you won’t get fired, the private company you don’t work for that fires dissenters may bias their search results against you, but that’s not martyrdom.

  122. Robert Goldberg Says:

    Shouldn’t we place the Manhattan Project in the same vein? Noble scientists working in a bubble but clearly knowledgeable about the political and deadly consequences of their work?

  123. Nick Nolan Says:

    I just discovered Bertrand Russell’s 1920 analysis of Soviet Russia. It’s very insightful. Russel points out that old revolutionists have very clear moral dimension in their ideology and they insisted from everyone.


    “… In a very novel society, it is natural to seek for historical parallels. The baser side of the present Russian Government is most nearly paralleled by the Directory in France, but on its better side it is closely analogous to the rule of Cromwell. The sincere Communists (and all the older members of the party have proved their sincerity by years of persecution) are not unlike the Puritan soldiers in their stem politico-moral purpose. Cromwell’s dealings with Parliament are not unlike Lenin’s with the Constituent Assembly. Both, starting from a combination of democracy and religious faith, were driven to sacrifice democracy to religion enforced by military dictatorship. Both tried to compel their countries to live at a higher level of morality and effort than the population found tolerable. Life in modem Russia, as in Puritan England, is in many ways contrary to instinct. And if the Bolsheviki ultimately fall, it will be for the reason for which the Puritans fell—because there comes a point at which men feel that amusement and ease are worth more than all other goods put together. …”

  124. Jason Says:

    A very nice and well thought out write-up, even though I probably disagree with you on current issues that shall not be named here :-). It makes me wonder though:

    – What if the “thought police” are not the authorities, but just an extremely vocal minority instead? Shouldn’t we just grow thicker skins, and re-learn to “agree to disagree”? After all, they have Twitter and not Gulags.

    – What if some of the “dogmas” are actually true? As scientific minded people we shouldn’t care either way. A troubling corollary of the fact that you can’t question the flat earth is that you can never prove that it is flat (or round).

    – That makes me think that the “inquisitors” actually hurt the “church” in the long run. (And I suspect some extreme inquisitors are just strawmen or bogeymen invented by heretics, but I disgress.)

    – I found it extremely valuable to have an, err, safe space (cough) to discuss dogmas / hot topic issues with friends. I could ask, “Gee, I know Lamarck was WRONG, but it really looks like the Giraffe’s neck grows when he tries to reach those leaves high up the tree.” Sometimes, these discussions convinced me of Orthodoxy, sometimes they strengthened my heresy. But they are valuable in any case.

  125. Uncle Brad Says:

    Abe #61

  126. Ash Says:

    When tenured professors will not speak about corruption in academia, which is at the root of hot button issues, why should I as a taxpayer vote to fund academia? Why should I as a citizen support academic freedom?

    Modern academia is coming for the throats of my kids.

  127. European reader passively ignorant of US and perhaps even world news.. Says:

    Could someone please direct towards some info concerning these “unspeakable” recent events that seems to be hidden between the lines and behind the sentiment of this post? (perhaps a link or other hint that don’t risk bringing the discussion towards “current hot-button topics” suffices 😉

  128. Kevin S Van Horn Says:

    Scott #64: You write, “I think it’s clear… that Trump has taken the US down the first steps of the long path that historically leads to totalitarianism.”

    No, not the first steps — perhaps the ninth and tenth. Have you already forgotten about the Bush Administration? And how Obama, elected to reverse the harm Bush did the country, instead embraced and extended all of Bush’s usurpations? The Patriot Act, destruction of habeas corpus, destruction of the Fourth Amendment, universal surveillance of Americans, invading and conquering nations that never attacked us, etc.? We’ve been living in a creeping military/police state since at least 2001.

  129. Ronald Monson Says:

    Are “warm-button” issues, in the bubble, fair game? Beliefs in say P!=NP, or in the inevitability of quantum supremacy seem to be current orthodoxy but I’m curious if you hold any heresies in your professional field Scott?

  130. Bruce Smith Says:

    laretluval #73 said:

    > What do you make [of] the argument that all effective organizations will have unspeakable truths and mandatory-to-believe nonsense, because this provides the organizations with an efficient and highly accurate way to assess loyalty?

    > Obviously this community design pattern can become pathological, but a mild amount seems unavoidable.

    I disagree that this is an accurate way to assess loyalty — except the kind of “blind loyalty to every action, even mistakes” which any “good” organization should want to strongly discourage. I think that kind of “blind” or “shallow” loyalty is not only different than, but is often negatively correlated to, the kind a “good” organization should want — loyalty to its overall goals and “spirit”, and to its continuing long-term ability to survive and remain effective and “good”.

  131. Scott Says:

    Ronald #129: Within my field, probably my most heretical belief is that the view explored in my Ghost in the Quantum Turing Machine essay isn’t self-evidently insane.

    Within math, my only heretical beliefs that I can think of—if they count—are in the Platonic definiteness of statements about integers and Turing machines, and in the potential for massive computer searches to someday tell us something relevant to circuit lower bounds. Surely Graph Isomorphism in P doesn’t count.

    In a gathering of rationalist nerds, my most heretical belief is probably in the non-imminence of an AI Singularity, with agreement across an enormous swath of other topics. These things are very context-dependent.

  132. Scott Says:

    laretluval #73 and Bruce #130: I think it’s reasonable for any organization to ask its employees to believe in and support the purpose of the organization (the clear and obvious purpose, not some postmodern redefinition of the purpose).

    Thus, if you work at a university, you should support the creation and dissemination of knowledge, and the upholding of scholarly standards.

    If you work at a potato chip factory, you should support the creation and sale of potato chips, consistent with product safety and protecting the environment and human rights and other general values.

    Beyond that, I think the most effective and admirable organizations are ones that give their employees enormous leeway to brainstorm about how best to fulfill the mission.

  133. Curious Wavefunction Says:

    Scott, you might be interested in a little but illuminating book by the philosopher Albert O. Hirschman titled “Exit, Voice and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States”. It explores different conditions under which exiting, voicing your objections or staying loyal can occur and provides plenty of food for thought for individuals struggling to adapt within the culture of an organization. Hirschman applies the theory to several cases, including emigration, political situations and employment relations.

  134. moscanarius Says:

    Scott #60

    In addition to what was raised by #75, #79, #85, #93, I think you are giving too little consideration to the resistance to the idea of a moving Earth. Any celestial motions model that assumed it would get penalized by Occham’s razor, given the knowledge of the time. No one had proof nor strong evidence for the movement of so large a mass as the whole planet, and the very idea sounded very strange. Accepting the movements of the celestial bodies was less problematic, as they… we could observe them moving, and they were assumed to be made of different matter than the earthly things.

  135. BLANDCorporatio Says:

    irt. sam #78:

    Nicely put.

    My own problem with the Kolmogorov option is that I don’t think it’s rational –now–. We don’t live in a time like Kolmogorov’s.

    (Aside: and all the noise about Trump, Trump is a weak wannabe autocrat. A weak wannabe with an itchy trigger finger for the nukes, but also one that’s bound by the possibilities of impeachment, and of article 25, and some other things, all within the law. He’s also bound by being increasingly isolated within his own party. Forgive me for not knowing details, I’m not from the US.)

    The real unchallengeable orthodoxies of today are turning out to be rather challengeable lately. Oh, they were absolute terror a couple years ago; they were terror when they set their eyes on Scott. And it’s not clear that their grip is loosening for good and we’re just witnessing some desperate death throws in certain recent events.

    But, they do seem to be weakening. Wrong think got defined so loosely, and its punishment so extreme, that people are starting to notice the disparity. And then they’ll notice that other crowd, over there, saying “we told you so about (((those people))) all along! come to our side, we have milk and sanity”.

    Some people, God bless them, are too autistic to know you’re not supposed to say some things some times, and when their mouth works overtime it’s that other crowd that will leap to defend them– and it’s the rest of us who may notice that the clumsy person actually may have a point, and wonder if the other crowd has a point too, by association.

    Basically, I’m saying if you don’t dissent to the orthodoxy, then ask yourself if you’re happy about those who do. You may find you won’t like them either, but unless you speak up there’s no other challenger available– and arguably the times are a-changing and a challenger is sought.


  136. Scott Says:

    BLANDCorporatio #135: Your comment is fine, except that I can’t think of any possible useful point that one would need non-ironic triple parentheses to make. Thanks! –(((Scott)))

  137. BLANDCorporatio Says:

    irt. Scott #136:

    Oh you know why those are there 😉 I’m referencing a certain group in a comically overstated fashion as if I’m holding an arrow with blinking lights on and a claxon. I did everything except actually name who is so fond of using those triple-(.


  138. fred Says:

    Von Neumann told Feynman that
    “you don’t have to be responsible for the world that you’re in”.

  139. Harry Johnston Says:

    Liz #104, it isn’t quite on point, but you might find Read History of Philosophy Backwards of interest. (That’s by the other Scott A.)

  140. Nilima Says:

    Ref. #118

    Scott- my apologies for not being clearer. I, too, do not believe statements a, b or c any more. I did think this stuff, at some point.

    The statements were made with some authority, and I have to believe the people echoing them had good intentions. I’ve often wondered whether these statements served any utility, even back then. Certainly one young nerdy girl had a somewhat lonely time.

    This predates the achievements of Wiles and Mirzakani by many years. I’m glad for both, and I’m glad to have met and worked with many, many similar counterexamples.

    As I have aged, I have a variant of your law and amendment. Your formulation is more eloquent.

  141. fred Says:

    A little known fact: in the late 15th century, an eccentric clock maker from Seville (Lluís Masip) challenged the local Church authorities with the idea that the earth wasn’t the center of anything but that we were actually living on the inside of a giant metallic hollow ball, itself rotating around a bright core surrounded by a complex system of gears, lenses, and mirrors. He was thrown in jail but stuck to his theory till the very end.

    I guess that if you’re gonna fight to the death for your ideas, you better first make sure that you’re right?

  142. Steersman Says:

    Excellent post, and fascinating reading with no shortage of interesting bits on the periphery – as is frequently the case.

    And I think your central “thesis” is a generally tenable one which one might suggest is somewhat analogous to the joke that Woody Allen closed out his movie Annie Hall with:

    It reminds me of that old joke- you know, a guy walks into a psychiatrist’s office and says, hey doc, my brother’s crazy! He thinks he’s a chicken. Then the doc says, why don’t you turn him in? Then the guy says, I would but I need the eggs. I guess that’s how I feel about relationships. They’re totally crazy, irrational, and absurd, but we keep going through it because we need the eggs.

    And as society is relationships writ large one might suggest also that there is, in most if not all societies, any number of “crazy” or highly questionable dogmata – J.K. Galbraith’s “conventional wisdom” – that one more or less puts up with because “we need the eggs”. It’s only when the “eggs” get rotten for a preponderance of the individuals in a society, or even in a subset of it, that there becomes enough motivation, enough “boots on the ground”, to produce a tipping point, a revolution of one sort or another.

  143. anon Says:

    Descriptive scientific truth will always be subservient to prescriptive ideological truth. This is why scientists are always ready to capitulate while the political are always ready to be martyred. The so called “secular” society is an ignoble lie.

    Interesting that discussion of hot button issues will be ruthlessly deleted unless(apparently) you are(“not”) making played out political jabs about Trump and Nazis.

  144. A B Says:

    Vaclav Havel, also living under communism, also had a view on truth. One can argue it’s similar to Kolomogorov’s, but I think the emphasis is a little different. Note that this essay empowered the leaders of the Solidarity Movement in Poland, which was a trigger for the eventual demise of the Soviet Union.

    (warning, long)

  145. asdf Says:

    Scott #64 “Trump has taken the US down the first steps of the long path that historically leads to totalitarianism”, nah, he is one of the later steps. Or if I can say nice things about the Nazis for a minute: they went around goose-stepping and Hitler-saluting and trying to take over the world and stuff like that, nasty business for sure, but there is no pretense or nonsense about who they are or what they want.

    A considerable amount of the US progressive left sees Trump as an enemy who can be confronted out in the open, while the Obama presidency and Clinton nomination was more of a Dolchstoss (stab in the back) by people who were nominally on the “good” side.

    There is a book “The Great Leveler” (by Walter Scheidel) that I haven’t yet read, which argues that the cause of the craziness is ever-increasing income inequality, and this cycle has repeated itself many times through history, usually reaching the point of violent revolution evening things out again (thus the book title). I don’t know if the US is that far gone yet, but it’s a depressing picture.


  146. Dave Pinsen Says:


    You’re a coward.

    If you were risking the Gulag or the torture rack, I wouldn’t say that, but you’re not, so you’re a coward.

  147. Richard Gaylord Says:

    ” In the abstract Susskind claims that his ideas imply that we’ll observe quantum gravity using quantum computers in a lab”

  148. Scott Says:

    Dave #146: It’s all relative. If I’m less of a coward than 99% of the people around me, then unless the stakes are life-and-death, I feel like I’ve done my job.

  149. fred Says:

    I don’t mean to nitpick (it’s besides the point of free open debate vs dogma), but technically Geocentrism and Heliocentrism were both wrong – the earth and the sun rotate around each other at their center of gravity.
    Rotational relativity isn’t particularly obvious either, even to this day (e.g. Mach principle – what does rotation mean in a universe that’s empty of matter, etc).
    And the expansion of the universe in some way suggests that any point in the universe can be considered its “center” (therefore there’s no center?).

  150. L. Says:

    Scott. #65, Unfortunately, I could not find any information about circumstances of Kolmogorov endorsement. But it seems that the authorities have chosen a broad spectrum of intellectuals (mathematicians, actor, novelist, musician…) to sign. This not smells like a willing endorsement.

  151. Adam Treat Says:

    Richard #147, that sounds like quite the hot button idealogical dispute to me! I can see why Scott would take the Kolmogorov option on that one 😉

  152. JSD Says:

    “Meanwhile, you wait for a moment when, because of social tectonic shifts beyond your control, the ruling ideology has become fragile enough that truth-tellers acting in concert really can bring it down”.

    Reminds me of this quote by Friedman about the role of economists:

    “Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”

  153. Nancy Lebovitz Says:

    Stalinism didn’t go away on its own. Khrushchev chose to move towards a less horrible totalitarian government. Presumably he observed, thought, kept silent, and waited. I’m actually quite impressed, even though that’s hardly a morally ideal approach.

    There’s a different lesson I’m seeing in Kolmogorov’s life than most people seem to. Instead of opposing the worst thing in his environment, he made as much good as he could and that turned out to be quite a bit of good. Granting that he had extraordinary talents, it seems to me that not enough people ask about how much good they can do locally.

  154. Nate Thomas Says:

    The Kolmogorov Option … by Robert Ludlum

  155. fred Says:

    Another relatively unknown hero of WW2:

    During World War II, he volunteered for a Polish resistance operation that involved being imprisoned in the Auschwitz death camp in order to gather intelligence and later escape.

    He was later tried and executed.

  156. Adam Treat Says:

    If people are looking for other blogs to talk about current hot button issues of the day, Sabine Hossenfelder has one.

  157. Raoul Ohio Says:

    We can always count on Scott to stick to safe, noncontroversial topics!

  158. AdHominidaem Says:

    Both the soviets and the church were big fans of scrutinizing speaker’s motivations much more than the contents of
    of their speech creating a legacy of whole litanies of lip service designed to avoid being labeled as heretics (DeCartes and Spinoza famously come to mind).
    In general there is no lack of intellectual luminaries who chose not to martyr themselves while also not succumbing to the moral and intellectual debasement of their societies and Its almost as if Kolmogorov was picked here to draw attention that it was among other his work that made probability so fundamental part of sound reasoning so as to make it justifiable to attribute straw-manning and general bad faith in discourse to people attacking existential-probabilistic arguments (and those presenting) them as if they were universal-deterministic ones.

  159. Ronald Monson Says:

    Scott #131. Well that “Ghost in the Quantum Turing Machine” was an epic read (typo pg 29 – constructed) but not sure about it being a “bubble heresy”. I’d say positing something as “not self-evidently insane” kind of comes with the territory when attempting to build such an ambitious and speculative cosmology/philosophy on free-will. The heresy seems more about a one-off foray as AFAIK this was not the start of an ongoing program allied to the field (I don’t know, maybe after this first, post-tenure paper, the University president hauled you into his office – “Aaronson, we give you tenure to help build a quantum computer and you turn around and publish something about gerbils giving AI souls, big-bang, pixie dust as human souls and why we shouldn’t kill millions of cloned thetans or ems or something. What the hell is going on!”)

    The intuition about the “potential for massive computer searches to someday tell us something relevant to circuit lower bounds” seems closer as it potentially entails greater risk (long-term opportunity cost, professional credibility etc) while being based on assumptions not commonly held. But where does its optimism come from?

  160. Raoul Ohio Says:

    Scott sez:
    “as, for that matter, are my feelings about those who contributed to American nuclear weapons development, although the original Manhattan project scientists had the pretty good excuse that they incorrectly thought they were racing Hitler to build the bomb.”

    Where did you get the “incorrectly” from? Is that because the German atomic bomb team has some bad ideas, so there was no chance of them winning the race?

  161. Raoul Ohio Says:

    Trivia from Heisenberg’s Wikipedia page:

    “From 24 January to 4 February 1944, Heisenberg travelled to occupied Copenhagen, after the German army confiscated Bohr’s Institute of Theoretical Physics. He made a short return trip in April. In December, Heisenberg lectured in neutral Switzerland.[23] The United States Office of Strategic Services sent former major league baseball catcher and OSS agent Moe Berg to attend the lecture carrying a pistol, with orders to shoot Heisenberg if his lecture indicated that Germany was close to completing an atomic bomb. Heisenberg did not give such an indication, so Berg decided not to shoot him, a decision Berg later described as his own “uncertainty principle”.[74]”

  162. Raoul Ohio Says:

    Scott #60: I don’t think Mark H.’s argument is quite in a class with slavery apologists. Some points raised by your rebuttal:
    Just how many astronomers do you think there were in 1600? If there were any, were they up to date on Galileo’s theories? Not sure the Astrophysical Journal was running quite yet.

  163. Raoul Ohio Says:

    1. I don’t think the WordPress bug ever went away. My email continues revert to that of a rabbi who died in WW2.

    2. Although Trump getting elected is quite a fluke, the fact that 25% or so actually supported him is the real story. I see some reasons for this that I might yammer about later. It is totally fortunately that a president elected by his core supporters is an egotistical buffoon who is incapable of getting anything done, as opposed to a shrewd manipulator who would have done who knows what by now. Please don’t impeach him, Pence is likely to be much worse.

    3. murmmer: As a a pretty sharp person who happens to be a Trump supporter, are you concerned about Trump’s steady descent into madness? It reminds me of a horrendous play by a neurotic NYC playwright.

  164. Michael Says:

    @Raoul#160- when the war ended, the Germans were about as far away from building an atomic bomb as the Americans were at the end of 1942- it never was a real race.

  165. wolfgang Says:

    @Harry #139

    In my opinion philosophy is the long story of people learning to live without a God and what that means …

    I think the old way of learning/teaching philosophy is fine with me, as long as one keeps this overall theme in mind.

  166. Prussian Says:

    I’m sorry, but I simply cannot agree. I can’t agree at all. I can understand deciding to keep quiet out of fear – who can’t? – but to claim it as a kind of virtue… The amount of times that society has advanced only because certain bloody-minded people would not be swayed from saying what was real. And not even when they knew that most people agreed with them – when they were in the minority.

    The Kolmogorov compromise – well, try it the other way.

    “Hey Hitler! I know you’ve got the secret police and the death camps, so just let me know what the line of the week is. Meanwhile, yeah, Communism is a total horror show, so I’m happy to help you build weapons against it.”

    I know Aaronson does not care for Ayn Rand, but there’s a piece of hers he should read, “To Young Scientists”. In it he asks what we would think of a professional soldier who said “Politics isn’t my business” and just killed for whatever war he could find, for whatever boss would employ him. But that soldier could not do the one-thousandth of the damage of the scientist who put a formula into the wrong hands.

  167. Scott Says:

    Prussian #166: Ok, but nowhere in this post did I ever advocate abdicating moral values—which seems to be a misinterpretation (or rounding to the nearest error?) that several others also made. Instead I explored the thorny question of when living one’s moral values—especially if they include duty to truth but also duty to other people—might leave no option except strategically keeping one’s mouth shut.

  168. Scott Says:

    Ronald #159: Ok, I guess it’s not optimism, so much as just that I don’t think we have sufficient reason we couldn’t learn anything new by, for example, working out the determinantal complexity of the 4×4 and 5×5 permanents by whatever combination of cleverness and sheer brute force would work.

  169. Prussian Says:

    It’s somewhat Straussian, isn’t it? “Persecution and the art of writing” and all that…

    Re-reading your post, I think that I can see exactly where I was rounding. It’s the post about, “Well, Hitler is terrible, therefore it’s fine to support Stalin”. That kind of thing has a nasty way of mutating from ‘momentary expedience’ to ‘business as usual’. Cut to the threat of nuclear armageddon over the human species.

    There’s also the bit about the ‘social tectonics’ shifting. I think this obscures the underlying reality that society is just a bunch of people, and when you get a big shift it’s because many individuals have decided to Zerg-rush the beast. Vide Dixiecrat America, Apartheid South Africa etc.

    Consider those two points my rounding comments.

  170. Amir Safavi Says:

    I totally disagree with you Scott; I don’t think that the way that Kolmogorov was threatened by the KGB and the Soviet system is at all relevant to your life as a tenured university professor in the US.

    The “Kolmogorov Option” makes sense in a state that has degenerated into full fascism (as Landau believed that the soviet regime had: and where you’re in danger of being sent the gulags (e.g. picking a fight you will *lose*).

    It doesn’t apply to Scott Aaronson in the US with his safe job and large audience. In an open society, you don’t “lose” the fights that you pick. It’s a victory as long as it leads to debate, and leads to some people (even <1% of your readers) to actually think about what you're really saying.

    More importantly, if people stop debating, arguing and talking to each other, we all lose. Don't shirk your duty as a public intellectual! To paraphrase Orwell, cowardice always has to be paid for.

  171. Henry Barth Says:

    Comparing K to G is an insult to K. Galileo was arrogant, rash, and a showoff. He had to ignore formal warnings and then try to make fools of his friends in the Church before he was squelched. That he had not been ordered
    to write in Latin amazes me. It takes a complete lack of sense to get into trouble when the Pope is a close friend of long standing.

  172. polyglot Says:

    ‘the Kolmogorov option. This is where you build up fortresses of truth in places the ideological authorities don’t particularly understand or care about,’
    This wouldn’t work for either Stalin’s or Mao’s Utopia because doing stuff the authorities don’t care about, more especially if it requires brain power, would be ‘bourgeois idealism’.
    People like Kolmogorov & Hua Luogeng showed the State that Mathematicians were willing to roll up their sleeves and do applied work so as to overfulfill the 5 year plan or whatever.

    The truth is Lysenko’s idiocy was useful to both Stalin and Mao. It gave them an excuse to starve the peasantry thus bolstering the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’.

    It is interesting that Indian mathematicians fell behind their Chinese counterparts- e.g. Kausambi fell behind Chern (KCC theory) despite having a head start, because
    1) Gandhian India was uninterested in Technology
    2) Kausambi refused to serve Nehru’s pet project- viz. Atomic energy- because of moral, or possibly Marxist, scruples.
    The Bureaucrats allocated money to sycophants or nerds who knew their place. Anyone who felt the atmosphere in India to be too stultifying was welcome to emigrate to the West.

    In the West we are fortunate to have autonomous universities competing with each other, more especially in ‘games against nature’. Does this circumstance permit the deduction of a categorical imperative for Scientists of the sort given in this post?
    Certainly, under a specific type of Dialetheia which features ‘scientific truth’ discoverable in one way and ‘deontic truth’ discoverable in another way. However, this is inelegant and not robust.
    If we forbid Dialethia we either have some sort of evidentiary decision theory- which is equally fraught with problems; we might end up ‘managing the news’ or else get caught up in backward causation type paradoxes.
    Alternatively we could embrace Gibbard type ‘semantic normativism’ but this too has problems.
    Finally, we could think of ‘Truth’ as the solution of a coordination game. However, if Knightian uncertainty obtains, we ought to be hedging through ‘discoordination games’ so similar problems arise.

    Kolmogorov himself gives us a demarcation criteria for ‘alethic’ research programs separating them from ‘Preference falsification’ based ‘availability cascades’. Clearly, only a ‘bandwagon’ would instrumentalise complexity classes far beyond our computational capability for prescriptive purposes.
    Sadly, this approach doesn’t take us very far either because it fails for co-evolved process

  173. Mozibur Ullah Says:

    Post-truth communist USSR and now post-truth capitalist West, the irony of it all. They had the secret police, and we have everyone spying on everyone else, they had Lysenkoism and we have [REDACTED]. Whatever the old USSR could do the West boasted it could do bigger & better, and so it has proved.

    Actually, the West or rather the USA has been here before, the ‘know nothing’s’ were a highly visible, anti-intellectual party round about Lincolns time. It looks like they’re knocking on history’s door again.

    Here’s hoping after they’ve found the door marked ‘Grand Entrance’ they find the door marked exit without too much trouble in between.

  174. Mozibur Ullah Says:

    Having ground my axe, let me add that Kolmogorov is a great mathematician, I learnt most of what I know about Measure theory from one of his books. He deserves an eulogy.

  175. Silva Says:

    Kolmogorov didn’t belong to a community armed to the teeth, therefore he submitted.

  176. Sorites Says:

    Amir #170: You say: “It’s a victory as long as it leads to debate, and leads to some people (even <1% of your readers) to actually think about what you're really saying."

    Depending on whether you believe results like this one this may or may not be true. In any case, I wouldn't know what the solution is though.

  177. Gil Kalai Says:

    As often experienced on the Shtetl, this is a very interesting post with a very nice personal flavor that led to nice comments. (Also the information post seems great but I did not digest it yet.) Generally speaking, mathematicians have very small ingredient of moral dilemmas in their work and very rarely the coward-courageous scale is of any relevance to them. (As an aside, if it’s ok to express a little skepticism of a common view, in my opinion, regarding courage as necessary a virtue, should be carefully reexamined.) I don’t see also why the out-of-science heroism of great scientists is of particular interest. Those scientists who were living in cruel regimes had to face similar dilemmas to many others, and we can only be thankful that we do not live in such terrible environment.

    Following Boaz and Nilima let me also reflect a little on my own experience. I do like debates and discussions (perhaps like Scott), and those are quire rare in mathematics and occur mainly in places where mathematics meets fields of science and real life. Within my professional work I had a few opportunities for debates, or for taking part in “clashes between truths” if you wish. I did took part (which was of a technical nature) in a couple and served as an interested observer in a few others.

    Some of my colleagues got involved and tried to influence in various political and social debates, and often I was very impressed by them (even when I did not agree). The way scientists should be involved in politics is on its own a very interesting and controversial issue.

    As for me, there was a single matter related to academia that I was actively involved with for many decades (but not very intensively, I am afraid). It is abut the question: “What can be done in order to increase the number of women mathematicians?” I am especially proud of a conference I organized (with Alon, Barcelo, Bjorner, and E. Wigderson) in Jerusalem when I was a young faculty member and I am thinking about complementing it with a second one, three decades later.

    In my view, advancing the status of women in mathematics, and more broadly in academics and society as a whole is a crucial and pivotal challenge.

  178. Shmi Says:

    Wonder if you had considered calling this post The Kolmogorov Simplicity.

  179. Poorvi Says:

    Inspired by the thoughts of Nilima 114 and 140, but not claiming that this is how she would continue them herself:

    When we talk about “unspoken truths”, what defines them as “truths”?
    * Do they have to be hard science truths (controlled single-parameter experiments, validating a clearly-articulated theory)
    * Do they have to be mathematical truths (precise and narrow statements about clearly defined structures, supported by logical arguments)
    * Do they become truths because the majority (most of the USSR during communist rule) believes them?
    —- If so, can they be “truths” about the minority, and their subjective experiences?
    For example, suppose most of the USSR believed, but did not dare say, that the Mars aliens living among them did not like cheese. They did not dare say this, even though they saw the liking or not of cheese as affecting their ability to do their science. They were scared because Stalin and his guys were, for some reason, though not aliens themselves, convinced that the aliens loved cheese. Somehow, the loving of cheese helped the fight against Hitler.

    Should those taking the Kolmogorov option in this situation, of keeping their mouths shut about whether aliens loved cheese, really receive any congratulations? Aren’t they just idiots who were just distracted by their own convictions about aliens and cheese? (Independent of whether aliens liked cheese or not; that’s unknowable, though a “commonly-held truth”).

    * Is it possible that what appears to be a “truth” today is not really truth because the observations are functions of the current environment, and Stalin’s focus on changing the environment might change the measurements and invalidate the “truth”?

    Could the majority who believed in this unsaid truth simply be wrong? Should their awareness of this weakness inform what the morally correct thing to do is?

    We know today that “truths” from thirty years ago—such as those stated by Nilima— have been proven false. Does this require more humility of us than was required of scientists fifty years ago?

  180. Michael Vassar Says:

    Seconding John Garrett, Craig, Denis, Sam,, Joscha, Eric & (with a request for more diplomacy) Joe.

    This is not an ethically ambiguous situation. Communication isn’t blocked, minimal force is being used. If we allow an authoritarian take-over right now it will be because we resisted with less courage than any of the people who have ever effectively resisted authoritarian takeovers.

  181. Samson vanOverwater Says:

    Quaker beliefs can be quite simple. One of the chief admonitions is to SPEAK TRUTH TO POWER. This is not so different from the idea that one person speaking is more powerful than a thousand people remaining silent. Or that the only thing Evil requires to win is that the Good remain silent. And all revolve around the story told about when (the Nazis) came for this neighbor and that neighbor I said nothing to help them. And when (the Nazis) came for me . . . no one spoke in my defense.

    So here we are, in these times, each of us being asked by the nature of events how we will speak. How will we? And to whom?

    Had there been no Abolitionists, no Suffragettes ( tell us : “Few English speakers likely know this word”), no march on Selma, no French Resistance, no Viet Nam marches, no Black Lives Matter, no blogs like this . . .

    A critical moment in my understanding of the world was the realization (when I was FAR into adulthood) that there were people alive on this planet, people of power, who would willingly enslave me. Or you. Or anyone. Some critical thinkers would argue that those people are in ascendancy. I doubt prayer will save us. Or the gun.

  182. Mukundarajan Says:

    In this so called Age of Information, the greatest threat to truth speaking scientists is not the state or the secret police. The enemy is within- an intolerant scientific orthodoxy that spews venom on any dissent to accepted scientific wisdom.

    Scientific orthodoxy is not an oxymoron, its existence is real. The nexus between entrenched scientific fiefdoms and the powers that be is an unholy alliance that feels threatened by conscientious objectors.
    Cancer research is focussed on finding cures without bothering to consider causative factors like chemicals in the environment. It appears that preventing cancer by knowing its causes is of little interest to many researchers.
    Anyway, one must appreciate the compulsions of Soviet scientists like Kolmogorov. They had to live to tell the truth one day. Martyrdom may be valiant but foolish.

  183. Bitfu Says:

    Psst. I have a secret. But don’t tell anyone, cuz it’s a secret!

    You might find solace in ‘Fitch’s Paradox of Knowability’.

    Fitch’s paradox of knowability is one of the fundamental puzzles of epistemic logic. It provides a challenge to the knowability thesis, which states that any truth is, in principle, knowable. The paradox is that this assumption implies the omniscience principle, which asserts that any truth is known. Essentially, Fitch’s paradox asserts that the existence of an unknown truth is unknowable. So if all truths were knowable, it would follow that all truths are in fact known.

    Substitute ‘knowable’ and ‘known’ etc. with ‘speakable’ and ‘spoken’ etc. and voila!

    If all truths are speakable, it follows that they all would have been spoken.

    Fitch’s elegant little proof is easy to find, and it provides fantastic frustration.

    Whether or not you agree is besides the point. Offer it up to your critics, and watch them try to refute it. They’ll have better luck imagining one-hand-clapping. They’ll be banging their heads against the wall fighting a battle they cannot win. Meanwhile, you will have deftly extracted yourself from that unpleasant space between Rock and Hard Place.

  184. JimV Says:

    Here’s me speaking impolite truths to (probably) more powerful people:

    People, you can easily find posts where Scott speaks out on hot-button issues. This is one post where he chooses to take the issue up a level. Get off your high horses. And you get minus points for using buzz-words like “accountability”.

    Kolmogorov made a net positive (way positive) contribution to humanity – as Scott is doing, in my opinion. That is the best that can be said about anyone.

    While I’m being disagreeable: capitalism definitely has more in common with the Theory of Evolution than Lysenkoism. It’s survival of the fittest. (That doesn’t make it a just social system – it’s not about justice.)

    I too considered mentioning the phases of Venus (e.g., crescent, half, full), as I know Galileo considered it strong evidence, but what stopped me is that I don’t see how you couldn’t have phases in a geocentric system, for planets that orbited the Earth inside the Sun’s orbit. (Nobody worried about the Moon’s phases in re geocentrism, did they?)

  185. Scott Says:

    Mukundarajan #182: My impression, as an outsider, is that there’s a HUGE amount of research into environmental causes of cancer—at least, like 50% of science journalism appears to be “new study says X causes / does not cause cancer.” But there are two huge problems: one is the immense difficulty of learning something definite, given that you don’t really know the causal mechanisms, there are zillions of confounders, and if you do controlled experiments with mice or whatever then you have to give them massive doses of the alleged carcinogen because the effect you’re looking for is so tiny. And the second issue is that there are powerful pressure groups—on the one hand, industry lobbies that will deny to the end that their products are carcinogenic (tobacco being the famous example), and on the other hand, activist groups that will not take, e.g. “cell phones do not cause brain cancer” for an answer (just like analogous groups won’t take “vaccines do not cause autism” or “GMOs are safe to eat” for answers), and will simply keep demanding more followup studies from now until the sun swallows the earth. Did I get anything wrong? 🙂

  186. josh Says:

    hey scott, i wondered it means when you ban someone from the comment section. there is no account necessary to comment, and random user names pop up when reloading the page. so how are you able to ban someone? do you track IPs?

    more related to the blog entry: what would you say if someone suggests that people as neonazis also use the kolmogorov option?they often cannot speak out their real thoughts against the government as they are hunted and belittled for it, and get regularly fired from jobs when they freely speak about their ideology. i guess most of the points you brought up to show the difficulties you have to handle (nasty comments, death threats, law threats etc.) are well known to them. and they also tend to live in their own bubbles, creating hidden societies like it appears to be your dream for scientists. and they also build unholy alliances if it comes to take down common enemies.

  187. Scott Says:

    josh #186: Obviously I can only ban people from posting under their real (or previously-used) names, not from doing so under a new name and new IP. On the other hand, some of the people who’ve been banned had such distinctive styles that I’d surely recognize them, even wearing the digital equivalent of a fake wig and prop glasses!

    I have no advice whatsoever to offer neonazis as such. For almost any imaginable topic that I could imagine giving advice about—WordPress blogging, advising, blending fruit smoothies—the advice might incidentally be useful to any neonazis who read Shtetl-Optimized (!), but what can you do?

    Unlike our current “president,” I’m more than happy to condemn neonazis by name.

  188. josh Says:

    well, sure, also any algorithm we develop might be useful some day for someone with evil plans. that was not really the essence of my question. but encouraging to build hidden societies and to overthrow the government when the time is right is somehow different to teaching people how to make the perfect pizza, i would say.

  189. JASA Says:

    @ Joe Shipman (#121), Ash (#126), Dave Pinsen (#146)

    Scott isn’t a coward and I think it’s unhelpful to claim otherwise. At the very least, trying to shame him into being more vocal against the SJW crowd seems ironic.

    I like to think that tenured professors are in a decent position to stand up to political bullies, and Scott has weathered more online vitriol than most. He’s not obliged to endure abuse on call.

    Also, it’s not clear that a tenured prof enjoys the degree of immunity some posters here imagine. Others with similar credentials have had their academic careers damaged. And there is more at stake professionally than simply being fired, not to mention the personal toll shaming campaigns can take. How could they be so effective otherwise?

    This is one of a handful of blogs where civil discourse on politically-charged topics can still be found. I’m thankful for that much.

  190. Scott Says:

    JimV #184 and JASA #189: Thanks so much.

  191. Nancy Lebovitz Says:

    Another problem with studying possible environmental causes of cancer is that even if you limit yourself to chemicals, there are so very many chemicals.

  192. polyglot Says:

    What is the Economic theory of ‘naked-emperor equilibriums—i.e., an equilibrium with certain facts known to nearly everyone, but severe punishments for anyone who tries to make those facts common knowledge’?

    This sounds like a ‘pooling equilibrium’ on the basis of ‘cheap talk’. ‘A costly signal’ (e.g. something heavily punished) gives rise to a separating equilibrium- which means there is an arbitrate opportunity between coordination and discoordination games.

    However General Equilibrium theory predicts that the moment this is exploited the whole becomes, at worst, ‘anything goes’, or at best ironic in a Hegelian manner. The ‘martyr’ becomes the bedrock of the everlasting Ecclesia founded upon the lie he exposed.

    I think this question and its ironic outcome lies at the very origin of Western Philosophy in the duel between Isocrates and Aristotle. The former wrote a letter to the boy Alexander urging him to get shot of his tutor who was having him grapple with difficult and abstract subjects like Pure Mathematics. It is better, Isocrates says, to concentrate on perfecting rhetorical style and the arete proper to pre-eminence.

    Isocrates is referred to in the Phaedrus where Socrates comes to the conclusion that the palinode (i.e. being able to change your mind) is paradigmatic of philosophy as something which gives birth to the new. Ironically, Socrates finds an Ariadne’s thread which leads him to become a pharmakos- a scapegoat- for his beloved Polis.

    Isocrates’ ‘Antidosis’ (a Coasian mechanism design quirk in Athenian law whereby, if you were selected to discharge a public function then you could challenge some richer guy to do it or else swap estates) is the opposite of Socrates’ own defense against the charge of misleading the youth.

    Essentially, in Scott’s terms, this ‘good heretic’ is saying he’d be better at the job of clothing the Naked Emperor in a seamless robe of opulence.

    This is an idea which the Russians were familiar with from Doestoevsky. If you want to get a job with the Secret Police, you pretend to be a dissident till they pick you up for interrogation at which point you turn the tables on them and explain how you are an even better agent provocateur than those they set upon you. Of course, the thing works the other way as well. A true dissident who really wants to change the system will have disguised himself as a secret policeman straight off the bat.

    Perhaps this was the game everyone was playing. People like Luzin, by reason of their mystical leanings, were actually safer if denounced by their own. The real danger was Old Bolsheviks.

    The Soviets and the Americans develop O.R to a high standard at around the same time. Two very different systems begin to mirror each other in one respect- their Political Paideia can have a purely mathematical description. The Soviets had Nobel prize worthy mathematical economists just as the Americans did, but it was the latter which developed systematic schools attracting adherents across the globe. Ultimately, in the ’90’s we had the ultimate ‘antidosis’ competition. The Harvard Econ Dept was hired to give Russia an American type economy. We all know how that turned out.

    Perhaps we became complacent at some point in the Eighties. It is sad that shrill complaints re. ‘trait based’ discrimination have vitiated proper statistical research into the genuine article as illumined by Sowell, Loury, Fryer & c. There are a lot of bright and good people doing Junk Social Science in order to show they are ‘engaged’.

    Misology, too, is a type of ‘costly signal’. If a smart and erudite guy makes it a point to utter ignorant non sequiturs it must be the case that he really really cares, right? Either that or he’s just lazy and likes publicity. But, that’s the nature of our current ‘naked Emperor equilibrium’.

  193. Ronald Monson Says:

    Scott #168: Ok, but “I don’t think we have sufficient reason we couldn’t learn anything new by …” sounds studiously agnostic or perhaps just open-minded. On a spectrum of [“waste of time”—“no opinion”—“well worth exploring”], it seems, at first pass, that the orthodoxy would lean towards the “WWE” side (doing actual computation to understand computation). By taking the middle ground you seem to be indicating no belief either way but presumably this means that the bubble leans significantly to the “WOT” side and have their reasons for pessimism (otherwise, where’s the heresy?).

    I guess there might be under-appreciated insights gained from finding the determinantal complexity of the 3×3 permanent so that doing likewise for the 4×4, 5×5 cases potentially offers hints for the n x n case.

  194. David Says:

    Scott #185. You got it exactly right. While reading #182 I was surprised that you did not redact the “..chemicals in the environment” comment. But your response was perfect.

    In fact: “The chemicals in the environment” meme is a perfect illustration of your comment (#57) that “… different parts of the world have gone nuts in different and sometime even diametrically opposed directions”.

  195. asdf Says:

    I wonder whether claiming a P vs NP solution is even braver for a serious CS person these days than speaking out against Stalin:

  196. Waterbergs Says:

    JimV #184: Regarding the phases of Venus, it is the combined observation of changes in shape, size and brightness that is a knock down that Venus, at least, is orbiting the sun. The moon, for example, exhibits phases without the huge size and brightness change.

  197. Douglas Knight Says:

    Waterbergs 196, that is exactly backwards. The full moon is much brighter than the new moon. Whereas, Venus does not change total brightness. The percent of illumination cancels out the size change: when it is closer to full it is farther away and when it is closer to new, it is closer to us. And it changes size a lot.

    The phases are iron-clad proof that (1) Venus is illuminated by the sun and (2) that Venus is sometimes in front of the Sun and sometimes behind.

    Going back to ancient times various people saw that Venus was always close to the Sun and argued that it orbited the Sun. But I think that other people argued that if this were true, it would change brightness, which it does not. They argued that if it were illuminated by the Sun it would have phases. We can’t see the phases with the naked eye, but they argued that we would be able to see the change in total brightness, which we don’t. Of course, this depends on how the distance from Venus to the Sun compares to the distance from the Sun to the Earth. It turns out that the orbit of Venus is 3/4 AU, very close to the orbit of the Earth, so the size changes are big. But the size and phases are not visible to most naked eyes.

    On the other hand, Mercury, at 1/2 an AU orbit, has a large range of brightness, so I don’t know why people didn’t conclude that it orbits the Sun.

  198. Sniffnoy Says:

    Douglas Knight #197:

    On the other hand, Mercury, at 1/2 an AU orbit, has a large range of brightness, so I don’t know why people didn’t conclude that it orbits the Sun.

    Martianus Capella, writing before Copernicus (Copernicus cited him!), did conclude that.

    (This idea, that Mercury and Venus orbit the sun which in turn orbits the earth, is commonly attributed to Heraclides, but apparently he never actually suggested it? Dunno.)

  199. Brent Meeker Says:

    There is a certain impertinence in allowing oneself
    to be burned for an opinion.
    — Anatole France

  200. Sniffnoy Says:

    BTW, if we’re now down in that part of the thread where we post irrelevant CS stuff like new P vs NP claims… 😛

    Apparently back in January, when the whole “Babai’s graph isomorphism algorithm isn’t actually quasipolynomial time / nevermind he fixed it” thing was going down, Harald Helfgott wrote a paper where he analyzed the fixed version and concluded that it runs in time 2^O((log n)^3) (this is kind of buried in there unfortunately). I hadn’t seen this mentioned anywhere (maybe because I don’t follow many CS blogs 😛 ) so I thought I’d point it out. The only explicit exponent I’d seen on the log n was Babai’s suggestion that it could be taken to be 8, I hadn’t see any mention of Helfgott’s proof that you could take it to be 3.

  201. Waterbergs Says:

    Douglas #197 Have you actually observed the phases of Venus? I can promise you as one who has that the brightness varies considerably over a phase – being significantly dimmer when Venus is the other side of the sun. The change in distance more than cancels the change in illuminated area we can see – up until the final few percent of phase.

    The key point is the combination of shape, brightness and, critically – size. Venus is about 5 times bigger when on our side of the sun and in the form of a beautiful crescent. This is obviously totally different to the behaviour of the moon. the combination of these three observations can only be explained by venus orbiting the sun.

    Also on your orbits: The numbers are – Mercury (while highly eliptical) has a mean orbital radius of 58 million km, Venus 108 million, and earth of course 150 million.

    BTW, I would encourage anyone interested to watch this for themselves. Even a simple pair of binos surfice to see the phases of Venus and to put yourself in Galileo’s boots in 1609/10. The visuals are also stunning, particualrly for the crescent phases.

  202. What I believe II (ft. Sarah Constantin and Stacey Jeffery) – Chillycon Says:

    […] my post “The Kolmogorov Option,” I tried to step back from current controversies, and use history to reflect on the broader […]

  203. svat Says:

    Old Sanskrit proverb:

    satyaṃ brūyāt priyaṃ brūyāt na brūyāt satyam apriyam |
    priyaṃ ca nānṛtaṃ brūyād eṣa dharmaḥ sanātanaḥ ||

    Speak truly, speak pleasantly, do not speak the truth unpleasantly. Do not speak what is pleasing but untrue. This is eternal Dharma.

    Another old Sanskrit proverb:

    sulabhāḥ puruṣā rājan satataṃ priyavādinaḥ /
    apriyasya ca pathyasya vaktā śrotā ca durlabhaḥ //

    It is easy, O King, to find people who always speak pleasantly. Of that which is unpleasant but proper, it is rare to find those would speak or those who would listen.

    Between these two we lead our lives. 🙂

    It is an interesting moral question, between your Law and your Amendment, of what to do in cases where you simultaneously believe (1) that something is true, and (2) that speaking it will cause real harm (at least mental but possibly even career-related or other worse indirect consequences) to some. I think that’s what you were wondering with this post, and it appears the answer isn’t clear, especially when you consider additional beliefs like (3) that *not* speaking it can cause some harm too, and (4) that therefore whether you speak it or not can be taken to say something about whom who are willing to harm, and thereby puts you (in some people’s eyes) on one “side” or other of some putative battle.

  204. Dirdle Says:

    Even after reading Scott’s reply (#54), I find #18 compellingly correct. “Sir, I may agree with what you say, but I deny to the death the merit of darkly hinting at it. Miss me with those Moldbuggian shenanigans.” Or something like that.

    The result of all this hinting and eyebrow-waggling is that reading through the comments, I have to wonder if any of the ‘great post!’s are actually engaged in a secret game of exchanging messages about how much they hate certain political groups and enjoy seeing those groups likened to Stalinists. Or maybe they just really like learning about Russian mathematicians. It’d be nice to think so.

    And yes, you can ask what choice you have, like Kolmogorov must have done. You’re not a coward for choosing not to step into a crocodile’s mouth. That’s just not being stupid. But if ever afterward people find it hard to believe you’re sincerely professing any kind of belief, well, they’re trying not to be stupid, too.

  205. Generic Says:

    These are times where the globalist dangers are more urgent than ever. The opposite philosophy is fascism in terms of national socialism (defining ‘cultures’). But there is the middle where you do not endorse any of the latter theories, nor one at all (this is my current Galileo’s kind of thought). How can I exercise the Kolmogorov option amidst a globalist paradigm where the few are researching on how to encapsulate the knowledge of all? ( This is not mere dictatorship where you can stay low or flee. The time where it is “safe” to speak up may undertake us all to oblivion in a nuclear outfall, Greenhouse Effect’s erosion or sudden holocaust. Your point, Scott, is applied to a local policy. But what about its exercise amongst a unitary global one where we all endorse (in theory) a global paradigm in which we all waste precious resources every second we are breathing?

  206. Daniel Terno Says:

    Thank you for a very nice post. I’d like to add a few bits as a former Soviet kid.

    I lived only through the late, basically vegetarian, Soviet times. Still, I was instructed very early on what, when and where I can, cannot or must say. Projecting back to the thirties leads to an overwhelming sense of terror. Terror that people who lived through this time felt in their bones. That (for me) answers your question: any speaking out would not be just futile: it would be suicidal, both for him, his relatives and some friends.

    And still, unlike many people whom I respect that became members of the Communist Party (and sometimes rubber stamping honorable members of its Central Committee), Kolmogorov did not. I made life harder for people even in the seventies. For the Academician during the Stalin era it was very close to admitting the treason…

  207. Chris Brew Says:

    As an earlier comment said, it was really Kepler who got the heliocentric story right. Gallileo got most of the credit nonetheless, partly through luck, partly because Kepler was socially awkward, his books were difficult to understand, he was a generally poor communicator and because of the constraints imposed by the dances that he had to do as a not-very-orthodox (eventually, excommunicated) Lutheran in an empire ruled by Catholics.

    There’s a lesson there: both Gallileo and Kepler knew they were pushing dangerous ideas, and were admirably persistent in the face of discouragement. But Gallileo was much better at navigating the choppy waters, and picking the right battles, and pretty definitely had a nicer life.

  208. textor Says:

    Scott, I adress this to you with no hope of it being read, of course, but I think there’s a slight disingenuity in your practical proposals.

    I’m a long-time reader, I respect your intelligence, I find your adherence to strict principles admirable; I’m quite bummed by what exactly they entail, but this is beside the point. I’m puzzled by your actions.

    If memory serves, you tried to actively prevent Trump being elected, what with vote-swapping and urging people to not vote for him to not risk nuclear Armageddon or something. This got you some flak from the Right and ultimately failed. But I see no grounds for defeatism here. And, really, I see no reason to cede ground to the current trend in social discourse while Trump is painted as nearly-existential threat. In reality, it’s very probable that the democracy still works, the pendulum will swing back hard on the next elections, and Trump will go down in history as merely the most unsurprisingly ill-mannered POTUS ever. The trend that SJWs embody, on the other hand, has no cause for halting and no legitimate resistance. This is not something that existed in Stalin’s USSR which was, in essence, just another transient dictatorship. Potentially, this is not even Cambodia. This here is chimps-networked. Whatever checks and balances we can hope to have, such as empathy, did not evolve to account for instant and convenient warfare with outgroup, nor for attention economics. We may well be entering the era of increasingly mind-killing social positive feedback loops that will last until some real bad stuff happens. I’m not sure if you buy this any more than you buy a semi-plausible scenario of Trump bringing death to your family. I certainly do. Because this seems way more irreversible than Trump’s rule.
    Without the convenient excuse that opposing this future equals attacking an armoured vehicle with a spear, can you still consider Kolmogorov option to be morally right? Could you keep the quiet dignity if you were …say, forced into the project of mandatory mind-monitoring AI implant that looks for (arbitrarily defined) microagressions? Would you even be appalled if such proposition became publicly acceptable any day now?
    And let’s not forget that despite these terrifying possibilities, at the present moment the system is more of a disorganised mob, too dumb to deal with plain pseudonyms, rather than NKVD. So the risks are still avoidable. More or less.

    I’m not a moral agent. I wouldn’t care to decide your morality. But consider this. While openly stating your contrarian beliefs (like certain someone recently did) is fruitless, devoting your intelligence and a non-insignificant network of like-minded friends to devise an effective vaccine might just be the right thing to do. Do what? I wonder. Shatter the Web, build a platform for actual financially enforced social contracts, so people could be secure in having support and protected from bullying by something more than group outrage. Insidiously promote universal empathy. Accelerate us towards augmentation that would erase current issues (and create new, hopefully predicted). I’m not smart or nice enough to figure it out. But you probably are. Why, then, retreat to the Ivory Tower? Why not even entertain the thought or discussion of an engineering solution?

    One assumption is that, as you’re subject to tribalism like the rest of us mortals, you consider the current political climate, though repulsive, to not really be dangerous to you and your loved ones. And hey, maybe it’s even a necessary evil, to keep in check those other immediately-dangerous guys!

    …well. I hope it’s more than that. Or less than that, and you might one day actually fancy the idea.

  209. Kolmogorov is not a hero Says:


    I don’t buy this. This notion of excusing somebody’s moral failings on “the guy was brilliant” is the main reason despots and authoritarians have had a free pass throughout history. There will always be several of these brilliant jerks willing to consider a Faustian bargain with the despot du jour to ensure their own well-being. Something tells me that you are probably not as sympathetic to Heisenberg and his decision of not picking a fight with Hitler than you are with Kolmogorov and his relationship with Stalin.

    The phrase “everyone has a price” has a deep meaning that goes beyond money. Would you betray your PhD advisor, as Kolmogorov did, to prevent an embarrassing aspect of your life from becoming public? Don’t answer back with “I am a very public person”. That’s dodging the question. Life is very messy. If you live long enough, sooner or later you too will have something you wouldn’t like the public at large to know about you despite your internet presence. Anyone who has lived an interesting life, with the possible exception of Donald Trump, has one of these things in their baggage. And the only reason I exclude Donald Trump from the statement is because he is a living reality TV show. I cannot imagine anything he might be hiding.

    What about winning the Turing Award or another big name prize. Would you go as far as Shing-Tung Yau’s collaborators went in an attempt to steal Grigori Perelman’s credit on his Poincare Conjecture work?

    I think that if we are going to look for role models of virtue, Grigori Perelman or Alexander Grothendieck are much better options. Neither sold their ethics to anyone, not even the Fields Medal committee. In Perelman’s case, he didn’t even bow to the money offered by the Clay Math Institute. Both were willing to pay the price of being people of utmost integrity.

    You are still very young. As you mature, you’ll learn to value the work of intellectual giants without having to admire on ethical grounds the individuals who produced said work. Learning to see people as complex creatures that can be both intellectual giants and ethical crooks instead of along the false dichotomy 100% hero vs 100% villain is part of the process of growing up. One of the problems of the millennial generation, compared to previous generations, is that you have been spoiled for longer than people that were raised in earlier times. By the time Baby Boomers and Gen-X-ers reached their late 20s or early 30s they already understood this basic fact of life.

    So if you feel very strongly about ensuring Donald Trump is defeated, quit your academic position and make it your full time job to fight against him. If you are not willing to do that, that’s fine. You don’t need to come up with rationalizations as to why you prefer to be on UT Austin’s payroll rather than risking your and your family’s well being in the pursuit of what you believe is the “highest ideal”. I, for one, don’t take that against you or your work. Just as I don’t need to excuse Kolmogorov’s failings to appreciate the two works you mention, both of which I studied in graduate school: his axiomatization of probability theory and the complexity theory that bears his name.

    In short: take it easy. If you live long enough to reach 80-90, as somebody of your generation is expected to, you ain’t seen anything yet.

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  211. Noah Says:

    I’m a bit late to the party, but I just read this and strongly felt I should reply. I agree with most of what you said, except this notion of unspeakable truths. However most of the claims you outlined are subjective in nature, for example the idea that the mind is a blank slate upon birth. I don’t think there is a way to scientifically come to some conception of truth on this, since the notion of what constitutes a blank mind is dependent on preconceived notions, and the mind is something which is inherently a part of us the observer, so any scientific study of it will run into the problem of the observer’s preconceived notion of it. Note that this is different from mathematical truth, where based upon certain axioms I use I can prove something is true. This requires no subjective involvement other than defining which axioms are valid or not, but as long as there is agreement on axioms and rules of deduction, truth can be obtained. I like to think of it as a spectrum, where claims made in sociology, and psychology, can never be truths, claims made about mathematics are always truths if they can be proven within some logical system which all observers agree on, and claims made in the natural sciences, somewhere in between where some notion of truth can be obtained, however depending on how often the observer interacts with the object of study, some notion of truth can be obtained that all observers agree on. I realize this got really philosophical but it’s important to realize that truth isn’t something that can be used in every field of study in the same way.

  212. Kelly Curran Says:

    “Two roads diverged in a wood and I – I took the one less traveled by.” – Robert Frost

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  217. Czeslaw Milosz on Ketman/Esotericism | Neotenianos Says:

    […] In the 1950s, Czeslaw Milosz wrote the following about the people’s democracies in which lived, such as Poland. This is from The Captive Mind, Chapter 3, lightly edited. The chapter is called “Ketman,” which is another word for “esotericism,” an older and respectable word which real meaning few people even know, and that I’ve discussed here before (there’s yet another modern way of expressing the same thing, popular among sophisticates in the SF Bay: the Kolmogorov Option): […]