## Scott Aaronson, when reached for comment, said…

About IBM’s new 127-qubit superconducting chip: As I told New Scientist, I look forward to seeing the actual details! As far as I could see, the marketing materials that IBM released yesterday take a lot of words to say absolutely nothing about what, to experts, is the single most important piece of information: namely, what are the gate fidelities? How deep of a quantum circuit can they apply? How have they benchmarked the chip? Right now, all I have to go on is a stats page for the new chip, which reports its average CNOT error as 0.9388—in other words, close to 1, or terrible! (But see also a tweet by James Wootton, which explains that such numbers are often highly misleading when a new chip is first rolled out.) Does anyone here have more information? Update (11/17): As of this morning, the average CNOT error has been updated to 2%. Thanks to multiple commenters for letting me know!

About the Association for Mathematical Research: Last month, some colleagues invited me to join a brand-new society called the Association for Mathematical Research. Many of the other founders (Joel Hass, Abigail Thompson, Colin Adams, Richard Borcherds, Jeff Cheeger, Pavel Etingof, Tom Hales, Jeff Lagarias, Mark Lackenby, Cliff Taubes, …) were brilliant mathematicians who I admired, they seemed like they could use a bit of theoretical computer science representation, there was no time commitment, maybe they’d eventually do something good, so I figured why not? Alas, to say that AMR has proved unpopular on Twitter would be an understatement: it’s received the same contemptuous reception that UATX has. The argument seems to be: starting a new mathematical society, even an avowedly diverse and apolitical one, is really just an implicit claim that the existing societies, like the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) and the American Mathematical Society (AMS), have been co-opted by woke true-believers. But that’s paranoid and insane! I mean, it’s not as if an AMS blog has called for the mass resignation of white male mathematicians to make room for the marginalized, or the boycott of Israeli universities, or the abolition of the criminal justice system (what to do about Kyle Rittenhouse though?). Still, even though claims of that sort of co-option are obviously far-out, rabid fantasies, yeah, I did decide to give a new organization the benefit of the doubt. AMR might well fail or languish in obscurity, just like UATX might. On the other hand, the barriers to making a positive difference for the intellectual world, the world I love, the world under constant threat from the self-certain ideologues of every side, do strike me as orders of magnitude smaller for a new professional society than they do for a new university.

### 170 Responses to “Scott Aaronson, when reached for comment, said…”

1. Jay L Gischer Says:

You realize, I hope, that we live in a time and media culture where some people believe it’s completely fair and reasonable to make outlandish claims and demands simply to move the Overton Window?

That’s not the way we do things in STEM, we regard evidence as foundational, and hyperbole as anathema. AND, at least one guy made it to the White House on hype, rumor-mongering and “people are saying”.

——

I mean, you could start making demands that the NY publishing industry all resign to make more room for black writers. Or demand that the Justices of the Supreme Court all resign to make room for some that aren’t Ivy Leaguers. Good luck with that.

So, honestly, any sort of “You should resign” from people who are neither the injured party, nor the person proposed to resign, should be ignored. It’s a kind of way to pass any feelings of shame at the organization of the culture off on to someone else. Never mind that the more shame you try to heap on math lovers, the harder you make it for a woman to give rein to her love of mathematics.

AND, at the same time, we need to do work to make sure that we have a clear conscience about this. Gender bias in STEM is a very difficult issue, and we all have a part in it. But it isn’t owned by the people who hold the jobs. It’s owned by every single person in the culture, and it won’t change unless every single person changes. If every white male holding a math job were to resign, we’d hire a bunch of new white males. Maybe the demographics would improve a little, but probably not much. Because, as I said, this is a culture-wide problem. We maybe own a bit more of it than others, but not that much. Girls learn at about age 10-12 to hide or divert any interest in math. Mostly they learn that from other women in their lives.

Anyway, though, I think devoting effort to this, to learn more, to do more, will make you more resilient to hyperbolic demands and statements.

2. Scott Says:

Jay L Gischer #1: The problem is that hyperbolic demands have become increasingly normalized in recent years—along with the insistence that they’re not hyperbolic at all, but are meant completely literally. An obvious example on the “other” side was the demand to decertify the presidential election and (effectively) install Donald Trump as dictator, on the basis of what both sides understood perfectly well were brazen lies. An obvious example on “our” side—the liberal side—has been the demand to abolish the police, as if eons of human nature and obvious-to-a-child game-theoretic logic could be changed just by ardent decree.

And alas, given everything that’s been seared into my psyche about our civilization’s sorry history with such matters—most decent, reasonable people also refused to believe that the Communists or the Nazis literally meant what they said, despite the latter’s constant insistence that yes, they did—I feel obligated to take these things more seriously than perhaps many of friends do.

3. dankane Says:

Scott #2. To be fair, the people I know who supported defund the police wanted the majority of the functions of the police (like traffic enforcement and dealing with noise complaints and non-violent crime) to be handled by people who are not authorized to kill you if they feel threatened. While surely some people people surely wanted to actually abolish police-like institutions altogether, I think most were just victims of being tied to a poorly named movement.

4. Alex Says:

Another reason to be bullish on AMR vs UATX–
It seems a lot easier to judge whether someone’s mathematical output is interesting and good quality than someone’s arguments for heterodox political views.

5. Scott Says:

dankane #3: I think there’s actually a deep point here. In early-20th-century Russia, probably most of the people you’d meet who called themselves communists didn’t support forced collectivization of farms, the murder of millions who resisted, etc., but merely wanted a better life for the poor than the Czars were offering. The trouble is that the extreme, Bolshevik position was never explicitly repudiated … and thus, as soon as there was a power vacuum, it was able to fill it, claiming (with some justification) that it represented the “true essence” of the movement.

6. Ted Says:

For what it’s worth, a different group recently claims to have developed another classical method for sampling from the Sycamore circuits that efficiently generates independent bitstrings. They claim that if run on a top-of-the-line classical supercomputer, their algorithm would run faster than Sycamore did: https://arxiv.org/abs/2111.03011.

7. Scott Aaronson, when reached for comment, said - The web development company Says:

[…] Article URL: https://scottaaronson.blog/?p=6111 […]

8. Scott Says:

Ted #6: Ah, right, thanks! Hard to keep up with all the spoofing proposals these days. 🙂 If and when that gets demonstrated for real, Sycamore will unequivocally no longer have quantum supremacy in time, only quantum supremacy in carbon footprint. I’m not sure about Zuchongzhi (the USTC device) though.

9. dankane Says:

Scott #5

Is this like asking all Muslims to explicitly repudiate Islamic terrorism? Because it feels a lot like it. The people I’ve talked to about this are generally happy to explain which positions they do and do not actually support when queried. Some of them even without prompting posted clarifying memes (for example, noting that when people talk about “defunding schools” they mean decreasing funding for schools, not abolishing them entirely).

At what point would you say that one needs to proactively distance one’s self from extremists on your side? Like I’m sure that some of the people who support the University of Austin do so because they don’t like that it is difficult to explicitly promote Nazi ideology within mainstream universities, and are hoping it will be easier there. Do you need to preemptively claim not to be one of them or risk being complicit?

10. Jason Says:

It’s interesting that UATX seems to have an explicit goal of keeping down the base cost of tuition. The private universities that I’m aware of seem to universally follow the pricing strategy of “extract the maximum value that our market position will allow”. Top schools make heavy use of need-based scholarships so that lower-income students rarely pay the sticker price, but the burden on middle-income families continues to grow at an alarming rate.

I agree that the rhetoric/details ratio of their site is concerning. The FAQ says they will start out with an “MA in Entrepreneurship and Leadership” in 2022 and launch a “comprehensive liberal arts” undergrad in 2024, but not much beyond that.

11. Scott Says:

dankane #9: I feel like a good starting point is to ignore possible dogwhistles and just look at the explicit agendas!

E.g., the explicit agenda of a movement called “Abolish the Police” is to abolish the police.

The explicit agenda of the University of Austin is to “build a university dedicated to the fearless pursuit of truth,” open to all applicants regardless of race, sex, sexual orientation, religion, etc.

The explicit agenda of the Nazis was to restore the Aryan race, headed by Germany, to supremacy over the earth and, one way or another, to rid Europe of its Jews.

12. dankane Says:

Scott #11:

I think that this distinction doesn’t work nearly as well as you seem to think it does. Your original example was Russian communists. Was “forced collectivization of farms, the murder of millions who resisted” actually the explicit goal of the group.

As for abolish the police, I am not sure that that movement is cohesive enough to talk about it’s explicit agenda. It does not as far as I know have a founding manifesto nor a well-acknowledged leadership committee, and people to ascribe to it seem to believe a number of different things about it. (And to be fair, based on your original comment I thought you were referring to Defund the Police which is I think a much more common slogan and often confused with being a call for abolition).

13. Scott Says:

dankane #12:

Was “forced collectivization of farms, the murder of millions who resisted” actually the explicit goal of the group.

Certainly the explicit goal—and Marx couldn’t have been clearer about it—was for the proletariat violently to crush the bourgeoisie and “seize control of the means of production.” My own view is that, for 200 years, Communism has gotten much of its rhetorical appeal simply from the refusal to think through what that actually entails in practice (and did entail, not just once but over and over, in Russia, China, Cambodia, and other places where the system was tried): namely, the mass murder of small farmers, store owners, etc. who stubbornly cling to what they continue to believe is theirs.

14. dankane Says:

Scott #13

I mean property can be seized without murdering people. Especially if it’s like a factory where ownership basically means that people agree that you own it.

Isn’t saying that the rhetorical appeal comes from not thinking things through an acknowledgement that the violence was not an *explicit* goal? That lots of the adherents might have been guilty of magical thinking but not necessarily of supporting mass murder?

15. Scott Says:

dankane #14: There are interesting questions here, but they’re like the question of where exactly negligent homicide shades into murder. Nazism in practice was even worse that one might’ve predicted by reading Mein Kampf, just like Communism in practice was even worse than one might’ve predicted by Marx and Engels. Nevertheless, it’s my contention that in both cases, the explicit program already clearly contained the seeds of the later evil. A 1910s enthuasiastic Communist who later pleads that, when she talked about crushing the bourgeoisie with an iron fist, she didn’t really mean for millions of Ukrainians to starve, sometimes slightly delaying it by eating each other’s dead bodies, is about as credible to me as a 1920s enthusiastic Nazi who later pleads that, when he talked about slaying the serpent of international Jewry, he didn’t really mean for all those naked Jewish children to scream helplessly as their lungs filled with Zyklon B.

16. dankane Says:

But point taken. If you wanted communism in the context of Tzarist Russia and were able to think things through, you could probably determine that it could not be accomplished without significant violence.

But if you are only talking about the violence from the revolution (and not what came after), it seems like a perhaps not unreasonable position to take. Like we don’t condemn the American founding fathers for pushing for ideals that could not have been expected to be achieved without violent revolution.

But on the other hand, one could analogously try to argue that the obvious consequence of the University of Austin would be that it would help legitimize far right groups and cause etc etc etc. If you move beyond the *explicitly stated* goals onto (things that the listener believes to be) obvious consequences of them, you are no longer protected.

17. dankane Says:

Scott #15

I think there’s also an interesting question as to what fraction of the world’s intellectuals need to believe something is a good idea before you can stop saying that it was obvious that it wouldn’t be.

18. Scott Says:

dankane #16: It seems equally obvious to me that the Communists could not have accomplished their goals without mass violence, as that the University of Austin can accomplish its much more limited goals with no violence whatsoever. As I said, it’s entirely plausible that they’ll fail, but if so I don’t expect them to resort to violence as a way to stave off that failure. Would you like to register a different prediction? 🙂

You’re right that the American revolutionaries also couldn’t have accomplished their goals without violence. To my mind, the crucial difference between them and the Communists is that the American revolutionaries were completely obsessed with checks on government power, with the rights of individuals against the state that they were establishing, whereas Marx and the other theorists of Communism couldn’t possibly have cared less about those questions.

Hi Scott,

What’s your take on IBM’s “Quantum Volume” metric? Is this is a sensible way to measure the capabilities of a quantum computer? How does this fit into quantum supremacy (i.e. would you expect the system with the most solid claim to have achieved quantum supremacy to also be the one with the highest QV)?

It’s hard to tell (as a relative outsider) whether this is a good number to keep my eye on, or just a bunch of marketing fluff. Seems especially bad that there’s no universally-adopted metric for “good qubits”, so that it’s not obvious how Sycamore’s 53 qubits compare to IBM’s 127 or Honeywell’s allegedly-very-clean 10.

20. Scott Says:

dankane #17:

I think there’s also an interesting question as to what fraction of the world’s intellectuals need to believe something is a good idea before you can stop saying that it was obvious that it wouldn’t be.

A pretty damn large fraction, actually 😀

21. Scott Says:

Adam #19: See this post of mine from a couple years ago: Turn Down the Quantum Volume

22. dankane Says:

Scott #18:

OK. So
1) The scenario I mentioned didn’t involve any violence on the part of the University of Austin.
2) I’m not claiming it is likely, just that this is the kind of thing that people who are critical of the University of Austin might be worried about.
3) If you think it is fair to decry early communists because obviously their ideology would lead to bad things, I feel like you’ve already given up on your point of only pay attention to explicitly stated goals and ignore dog whistles. Someone who thinks that University of Austin is going to lead to bad results, can by the same token decry you for supporting something that (they believe) will obviously lead to X.

23. dankane Says:

Scott #18:

I feel like there is a lot of hindsight bias at play here. How confident are you that if you didn’t already know the answer and didn’t live in a society shaped by the outcome that you could have correctly predicted which of the American revolution and the Russian revolution would have turned out better?

Scott #20:

What do you mean by “obvious”? I feel like the threshold has to be that nearly every reasonable person who seriously considers it comes to the same conclusion. If this is the case it seems like any proposition that is believed by a reasonable fraction of intellectuals almost by definition cannot be obviously wrong.

24. Scott Says:

dankane #22: The difference is that, when I say it was obvious from the beginning that Communism would exact a terrible human cost, I am right, whereas if someone says it’s obvious that the University of Austin will exact a terrible human cost, they are wrong. But it’s not just that they’re wrong: it’s that they know they’re wrong, and you know, and you know they know. They’re not talking about the terrible cost of a new university because they actually believe it, but as an instance of the weird political performance art that’s lately taken over much of our world. The University of Austin might fail and embarrass everyone who was involved with it. But if it succeeds, it will merely mean that there’s a single university in the US, out of thousands, whose standards the people who hate it don’t get to control—ironically, one that’s actually closer to their professed values than Liberty University, Bob Jones University, or various other universities that have been around for a while.

25. dankane Says:

Scott #24:

1) Being right and being obviously right are very far from being the same thing. You are right about communism’s price. It was not *obvious* at the time though.
2) We don’t actually *know* that the critics of the University of Austin are wrong.
3) How confident are you that the critics of the University of Austin don’t actually believe what they say? I find it pretty icky to claim that people are being disingenuous without having a really good reason to do so.

26. Yonah Says:

Hi Scott,

For someone out of the loop, what is the source of controversy about the AMR? Did someone claim to start it out of disapproval with the other societies? There’s certainly nothing like that on its website (which looks largely like those of AMS and MAA but more focused on research and less on outreach). Is all the twitter controversy really just based on speculation? The members don’t seem like notorious right-wing culture warriors (there’s no Ted Hill or Igor Rivin); Klainerman is the only famous Trump supporter I recognized. Honestly just looking at their website I would never have dreamed it would be caught in a controversy.

This vaguely concerns me, because apparently my advisor is among the founding members…

27. Amir Says:

Regarding the average CNOT error, it is now listed as 2.021e-2, so much much lower.

28. Han Says:

Hi Scott:
From a more theoretical view point, what are the scaling of these new spoofing algorithms in terms of number of qubits, circuit depth, and errors etc? Is it possible to apply them to more generic quantum simulation tasks other than spoofing random circuit sampling?

29. Dill Says:

I went to an extremely conservative college. There are no shortage of them, though certainly most have religious ties. This University of Austin thing strikes me as a typical Silicon Valley grift. If people care about “wokeness”, why not donate money to support an existing college? Why don’t you offer to lecture at one? But everything these days is about disruption, because it’s a best way to concentrate all the profits into the initial investors hands.

30. LK2 Says:

I see that the quantum computing topics are not taking off in this post, in favour of other discussions. This is all fine, but I’d like to go back to CS and ask Scott (and everybody else) some more infos about quantum supremacy. In sparse order: it looks really that the Sycamore chip di not do a great magic after all. Are the arguments of Gil Kalai getting serious now? And the ones of Dyakonov? As a physicist, I always wonder why the “perfect” TCS theory should work smoothly in a lab, were gates and qbits are (will never?) be perfect, gates are applied for a non-infinitesimal time, amplitudes are continuous, cosmic rays are at work, and qbits are close to oneanother with “leaking” wavefunctions and a lot more. I know about the threshold theorem, but there are also the assumptions for a theorem which might not hold in practice. Maybe all this is a physicist’s implicit bias (we get back to the other tipics here!) but I’d like to hear some reassuring words from Scott or others that Kalai’s arguments (or similar) are still not a real danger for QC.

31. f3et Says:

dankane #25

Don’t forget that obvious truth can be consistently unseen by people (and even by prominent intellectuals) for a lot of reasons, cognitive biases or political agendas. For instance, a lot of French respected intellectuals (Jean-Paul Sartre being the best known of them) were defending Stalin (and later Mao) without any conceivable excuses (they were cynically called “useful idiots” by the French Communist party) beside “not despairing (french) working class” and a stubborn conviction that whatever their crimes, those of capitalism were worse.

32. Yiftach Says:

Scott, I don’t really understand why anyone criticizes the AMR. It seems a completely harmless association. Worse, the AMR seems like an international association, while the AMS and the MAA are American based. So do these critics believe that non-American do not have the right to form a maths association? Can you explain the logic?

33. GMM Says:

When Steven Pinker (and others) bail on the project, but Niall Ferguson is (apparently) staying, my adjusted prior as to whether your new university project will succeed at its stated goals takes something of a nosedive. I still wish them well. Freedom-of-expression issues aside – and they are important – the promise to cull the administrative bloat common in most (all?) universities was especially welcome.

34. Anon93 Says:

The BDS support is at https://blogs.ams.org/inclusionexclusion/2021/07/26/one-year-organizing-in-the-mathematics-community/ and it’s disgusting.

35. Anon93 Says:

Scott #15: Indeed the Nazis didn’t invent the Final Solution until the war started. It’s a common misconception that Nazi ideology was inherently genocidal. It was inherently antisemitic but not inherently genocidal. It ended up being genocidal anyway. Sometimes things can be even worse than you might expect a priori.

36. Scott Says:

Yonah #26:

For someone out of the loop, what is the source of controversy about the AMR?

Yiftach #32:

I don’t really understand why anyone criticizes the AMR. It seems a completely harmless association … Can you explain he logic?

Man oh man, spend 5 minutes looking on Twitter and you’ll see! 🙂 It’s actually a clear, straightforward application of one of the central axioms of the woke worldview: namely, that any organization that’s about math or basket-weaving or fan fiction or protecting coral reefs or any other topic, but that doesn’t explicitly center “antiracist work” as the woke get to define that term, is therefore a racist white supremacist organization by definition, all the worse for evilly trying to hide its white supremacy and racism. The fact that some of the AMR’s founding members have objected to this Manichean worldview in the past, clinches the case beyond doubt.

37. Scott Says:

LK2 #30:

it looks really that the Sycamore chip di not do a great magic after all. Are the arguments of Gil Kalai getting serious now? And the ones of Dyakonov?

No, as far as anyone can tell two years later, Sycamore did precisely the “magic” that was originally claimed: namely, it sampled from a certain complicated probability distribution over 53-bit strings with 0.2% fidelity, and it did so by exploiting a 9-quadrillion-dimensional Hilbert space. Furthermore, the achievement has now been replicated (and extended to 60 qubits) by USTC in China. Even more relevantly for the future, these experiments have found that the circuit fidelity simply scales like the fidelity of an individual gate, raised to the power of the number of gates. If that continues to be true, then the central assumption of the threshold theorem is satisfied, and building a fault-tolerant QC should indeed be “merely” an engineering problem, exactly as was predicted 25 years ago. This is why Gil Kalai has spent much of the past two years trying to poke holes in what these experiments found (especially the independence of the errors)—but so far totally unsuccessfully, in my view.

What’s been happening is something different: namely, classical computers have predictably also been getting better at replicating the “magic,” due both to algorithmic improvements, and simply to more supercomputing hardware being thrown at the problem. But the state-of-the-art tensor network contraction methods, as used for example in the new work I wrote about in this post, still need an amount of compute that’s exponential in the number of qubits n. Which means that, if you just scale to 70 or 80 qubits while maintaining the same circuit fidelity, then the quantum speedup becomes decisive (although, ironically, much harder to verify with a classical computer!). While if quantum error-correction works, then this scaling can continue indefinitely.

38. AMR Member Says:

I am another “founding member” of the AMR, and I am unsurprised by the reaction. In fact I was fully expecting exactly the reaction that we got, especially when I saw how the AMR started conducting their rollout (which I do not think was very strategic to say the least).

However, I do not think that these wokiest-of-the-woke critics are completely inventing their reasons to be mad at the AMR (even if the hyperventilation is at self-parody levels). They have correctly surmised that the AMR is full of people who are less sympathetic to their political agenda within the math community. Like me! I am less sympathetic!

So I would not call their reaction “paranoid and insane.”

But wait– am I against diversity or DEI initiatives? No. Do I think we should be doing much more to change the demographic ratios of those doing mathematical research? Oh yes. Do I think it should be a priority? Yes.

Some of the people behind the AMR have said things in public that I obviously do not agree with and in fact strongly oppose (e.g., Klainerman and, to a less extreme extent, Kirby). Politically, I am to the left of Scott, I would never even consider voting for a republican, etc, so needless to say, I do not share many opinions with Klainerman.

So why am I a member of the AMR and what do I think the “real reasons” behind the AMR founding are? I think there are several. First, and this is not (just) a dig at AMS in particular, but there is a lot of institutional inertia everywhere and it’s frustrating. Alex Kontorovich mentioned AMR as trying to be a math “startup” in a twitter post, to much mockery on twitter, but I think that is really where some of us are coming from. There are other reasons I won’t get into, but to the extent that it’s about math politics, it’s really not mainly about DEI politics per se. The fact is that those of us really doing mathematical research are probably a minority of the AMS membership. This is why you can have (for example) the AMS executive committee passing a policy that all papers should be handled double-blind in the refereeing process for all of their journals, including the flagship J of the AMS (which sounds nice, but double-blind reviewing in mathematics is unworkable and insane and no serious math journal does this), over the strenuous objections of some of the editorial boards. Because many of those voting for such a policy erroneously think something like “I could get a paper in JAMS if the gate-keeping editorial board didn’t know it was written by me!” It’s leftist populism in math world politics, if you want.

(There is a lot of stupid gate-keeping in the math world, don’t get me wrong, but it is much more subtle than this.)

Bottom line is this. If you think that the people at places like Princeton or MIT and publishing in fancy journals are (generally speaking) not doing work that is fundamentally deeper or more important than those working at much less prestigious institutions (e.g., non-research teaching institutions), and that these people got their positions because of “privilege” and some good ole boys networks or whatever, and that many people working at less fancy institutions and publishing in less fancy journals are doing work that is *just as good*…. then you won’t like the AMR. Because the AMR is trying precisely to push back against the trend of pretending that everyone is doing equally good work. Thus the emphasis on the research aspect of mathematics. I also think this is what the woke critics really hate, and the attacks around DEI need to be deciphered and understood as such. Many of the prominent twitter critics, for example, cannot aspire to power/authority in the math world based on scientific achievement– but they have found they can have lots of power by whipping up twitter mobs. They can become famous and important! This is what it’s all about.

39. Scott Says:

Han #28:

From a more theoretical view point, what are the scaling of these new spoofing algorithms in terms of number of qubits, circuit depth, and errors etc? Is it possible to apply them to more generic quantum simulation tasks other than spoofing random circuit sampling?

The “new” method that we’re talking about is basically just tensor network contraction, but heavily optimized to take advantage of the circuit structure and massively parallelized. Which means: for a fixed circuit fidelity, and n qubits in a square grid, and circuit depth that’s large compared to √n, the scaling is still exponential in n. Of course, with no error-correction, the circuit fidelity will ultimately decrease exponentially with the number of gates, which will cause the classical simulation cost (suitably defined) to switch over to being polynomial in n. That’s why error-correction is so important.

Yes, you can use tensor network methods to simulate any quantum circuit, not just random circuits. But better methods might be available if the circuits have other exploitable structure.

40. LK2 Says:

Scott #37:
Thank you very much for your very clear words.

41. fred Says:

Apparently Wokeism has all the characteristics of a religion

42. Scott Says:

Anon83 #35:

Indeed the Nazis didn’t invent the Final Solution until the war started. It’s a common misconception that Nazi ideology was inherently genocidal. It was inherently antisemitic but not inherently genocidal. It ended up being genocidal anyway.

As you might or might not know, this is one of the biggest, longest-running debates in Holocaust scholarship. I tend to agree with you that there are many possible universes where the Nazis take power but there still isn’t a Holocaust. At the least, though, we’d have to say that from the very beginning, Nazism explicitly repudiated any “guardrail,” any principle that would explain why Jews shouldn’t just all be exterminated. Which is why, when I look at modern ideologies—from Trumpism to wokeism—the first question I ask is always: what guardrails, if any, are in place to prevent my worst nightmares, should the proponents of this ideology get unchecked power? And the appeal of liberal Enlightenment ideologies is precisely that they do have such guardrails—in the form, for example, of due process, the presumption of innocence, and free speech.

43. Max Chaplin Says:

“If you’re against witch-hunts, and you promise to found your own little utopian community where witch-hunts will never happen, your new society will end up consisting of approximately three principled civil libertarians and seven zillion witches. It will be a terrible place to live even if witch-hunts are genuinely wrong.”

The other Scott, Neutral vs. Conservative: The Eternal Struggle

I hope the UATX project ends up differently than the predictable way. The website doesn’t seem to say anything about the way they’re going to uphold their stated values of truth and freedom, and so far the impression I got is that they simply won’t expel you for some of the stuff that you’d get expelled for in most universities. But refraining from intentionally creating an oppressive environment doesn’t prevent one from appearing organically.

44. X Says:

As of this morning, the max CNOT error rate on IBM’s Washington system appears to be 0.0358, so the post appears to be erroneous. Perhaps it was accurate at the time it was written?

Re: double-blinded reviews. This strikes me as particularly insane, since anybody qualified to review a work would be able to tell who probably wrote it based on the content and style. The only solution I see to the very serious problems in the current review system are zero-blind public reviews. As Facebook demonstrated, putting your real name on a comment is no guarantee that the comment will be sane, but at least everybody else will know that the reviewer is the problem.

45. Scott Says:

Dill #29:

This University of Austin thing strikes me as a typical Silicon Valley grift. If people care about “wokeness”, why not donate money to support an existing college? Why don’t you offer to lecture at one?

Err … have you been in a cave these past 5 years? 🙂 The whole impetus to start something new is that existing colleges have been cancelling lectures, returning donations, firing faculty, etc. etc. if the lecturers or donors or faculty are found to hold any forbidden opinions (even—and I can’t repeat this enough—what were conventional center-left opinions just a decade ago).

Indeed, what makes the opposition to UATX so ironic is that the wokeists themselves almost deserve credit as UATX’s cofounders! They’re the ones who’ve been hounding people out of standard academia, so then where the hell else did they expect those people to go?

Even so, as I said, it’s far from obvious that starting a new university will be an effective solution. Maybe a better solution is simply to keep making the case for diversity of thought in the existing universities. Or, alas, maybe there’s no solution at all, except to wait for the current ideological monomania to burn itself out.

46. Scott Says:

fred #41: I just finished reading John McWhorter’s new book, and was impressed by its eloquence and insight. I might or might not get around to reviewing it on this blog, but if not: everyone here should read it!

47. Keith Wynroe Says:

Scott, this is totally irrelevant but are you planning to continue your series on Forcing/the Continuum Hypothesis in the future? I started trying to dig into the topic around the same time as you and really enjoyed the first post a lot

48. fred Says:

Scott #45

“They’re the ones who’ve been hounding people out of standard academia, so then where the hell else did they expect those people to go?”

Right, do they expect white cis men to be stripped from the right of free speech and the right to assemble and just stay home alone and keep quiet indefinitely until they die off of old age?!

Even the worst genocidal racist movements throughout history have always let the groups that are the object of their hatred assemble in some sort of ghetto/parallel society with at least the comfort of being together.

49. Scott Says:

Keith Wynroe #47: The problem is that I was in a sort of CH-related trance a year and a half ago, and then I fell out of the trance just as I started writing that planned series, and now I don’t know how to get back into the trance! I’ll try though… 🙂

50. Scott Says:

fred #48:

Even the worst genocidal racist movements throughout history have always let the groups that are the object of their hatred assemble in some sort of ghetto/parallel society with at least the comfort of being together.

I don’t know if you’re being sarcastic, but the worst genocidal racist movements … committed actual genocide of their targets. And obviously we’re not nearly at that point with the woke purge of anyone who disagrees with them about how to fight racism and sexism, although I don’t think comparisons to (e.g.) the “kinder, gentler” Soviet Union of the 1970s are as out-of-place as they would’ve been just a few years ago.

51. fred Says:

The rhetoric these days is to only look at the worst and then of course ignore all the good.

Take for example global warming.
We now hear that it’s unfair to expect poorer countries to cut off their reliance on coal because one or two hundred years ago the (now) richest societies also relied on coal with no self-control whatsoever.

Well, okay… but:

1) a hundred years ago, we didn’t know about global warming and we didn’t know about alternative energy sources.

2) everyone in the world now currently reap the benefits (there are obvious inequalities of course) of the industrial and digital revolutions that happened in the West and contributed mainly to global warming: cars, planes, electronics, computers, the internet, phones, biomedical technology, and the potential solutions to global warming… all this is taken for granted, especially by the loudest “revolutionary” voices in our societies, standing on this heap of miracles to force their non-sense onto everyone else. Those people expect to have their cake and eat it too.

The same thing applies to every aspects of western society that are now being revisited in a purely negative light, like colonialism.
If the only acceptable progress is the progress that happened without any pain, we would still be living in caves, all of us.

52. Han Says:

Scott #39: Does that mean these spoofing methods still scales like $exp(\sqrt{d n})$, so Google can get the supremacy back by merely(?) adding more qubits while keeping the same circuit depth?

53. fred Says:

Scott #50

I’m not being entirely sarcastic.

Yes, I’m aware that genocidal racist movements put their effort on actually killing the groups they hate, and that keeping those groups together in one location is the most effective way to get the job done, not from kindness so that their victims could find some solace from being together till the very horrible end.

But one could imagine an even worse form of hatred where the groups that are the object of the hatred are not exterminated but tortured by keeping them alive in the worst possible states of existence.
Imagine if an entire population of millions was kept in giant Guantanomo style camps, in constant state of isolation, with no allowed free communication with one another, and nothing to look forward to, even quick death.

So, as you said
“where the hell else did they expect those people to go?”
what’s the end game in the supposedly milder situation we’re currently facing?

54. Scott Says:

Han #52: No, alas. Tensor network methods undergo a sort of phase transition, from doing extremely well to doing poorly, when the circuit depth becomes large compared to the diameter of the qubit lattice. So to evade those methods, and maintain exp(n) classical hardness, you want the depth to grow at least like √n. But for a fixed gate fidelity and number of qubits, the total circuit fidelity also goes down exponentially with the depth. Until we can error-correct, of course!

55. Scott Says:

AMR Member #38: Thanks for the insight. The inequality of talents is a difficult fact that all of us in research need to reconcile with sooner or later, with the possible exceptions of Witten and Tao. It’s ameliorated only by being a partial order rather than a total one, and of course, by the fact that not even Witten and Tao have the time to investigate most questions.

I chose the career I did partly because I surmised early that, while I could be awesome as a theoretical computer scientist, I’d probably only be mediocre as a topologist or an algebraic geometer.

Just for the record, I also have never considered voting Republican. The way I put it recently is that, if the Republicans disavowed their authoritarian strongman and came around on climate change (neither of which they will), and if the Democrats continued their current descent into woke quasi-Maoism, my chance of voting Republican would surely increase to at least a snowball’s chance in hell, from its current individual snowflake’s chance in hell. 🙂

56. fred Says:

An example of the good and the bad I think I heard in the 1969 Louis Malle documentary “Phantom India” (it’s great and on youtube):

For thousands of years the way of life in India was such that the death and birth rates were in balance, leading to a stable population.
But when the Brits took over, they brought along huge improvements in healthcare without any adjustments of the local lifestyle, and the resulting drop in infant mortality created a sudden imbalance quickly creating a massive overpopulation (over a few generations).

57. fred Says:

Scott #55

but could you ever imagine yourself not voting, because both alternatives equally suck?

(some people like Andrew Yang are trying to come up with new parties, but, sadly, I doubt that’s ever going to become a viable alternative given the grip the two parties have on the system).

58. GRickM Says:

Since this thread was on Scott’s comments, Perhaps he might comment on this: https://arxiv.org/pdf/1107.5794 and https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1408/1408.5410.pdf

The so-called “realistic” quantum theory was proposed ab0ut a decade ago, but clearly is not in the mainstream. The author proposed experiments that could validate his theory, but apparently no one has done any of them. If true, the universe described by this theory would support a very different quantum computer than that of mainstream quantum theory.

59. Scott Says:

fred #57: No, I also can’t imagine not voting against the Republicans — at least until the conditions that I mentioned in #55 are satisfied.

60. Scott Says:

GRickM #58: That looks like the crackpot works that now fill my physical office mailbox (often in beautifully-bound, self-published volumes) whenever I go to check it. I immediately scanned it for any mention of the Bell inequality, and finally found the following, near the end:

It would be interesting to re-analyze the results of these [Bell] experiments with this picture in mind, to see if this could account for the measured results in a way that does not require non-locality.

I can answer that question: no. That’s the entire point of the Bell inequality, that you don’t have to look over and over at every local hidden-variable theory that anyone comes up with, but just cleanly rule out the whole lot of them in one shot. I see no indication that the author even understands this let alone being able to surmount it.

61. Louigi Says:

AMR Member #38:

You write that “double-blind reviewing in mathematics is unworkable and insane and no serious math journal does this”. I won’t respond to the “unworkable and insane” part, but I do want to respond to “no serious math journal does this”.

Here is an example of a serious math journal (openly supported by Tim Gowers, in case you need “appeal to mathematical authority” in order to take it seriously), that is using doubly-anonymous refereeing: https://escholarship.org/uc/combinatorial_theory/editorialBoard

I’ve done quite a lot of editorial work for math journals, and I think trying to instate some version of doubly anonymous refereeing within our community is a great idea. Big shots DEFINITELY get an easier ride – it is psychologically very hard to treat a paper from a Fields medalist in the same way as a paper from a grad student at University of Nowheresville.

And even if it’s frequently the case that with a little digging, one could figure out a likely guess for some or all of the authors of a paper, that doesn’t automatically mean there is no value to keeping things anonymous. Like many other aspects of the refereeing process, it relies on the goodwill of those involved – the editors can ask the referees not to try too hard to figure out who wrote the paper, and many referees will agree. The system won’t be perfect, sure – but it already isn’t perfect, in lots of different ways.

This example is actually a good point of how I think the AMR’s attempt to stay “apolitical” is misguided and impossible. The current refereeing process has biases, and keeping it maintains them. Changing to a different system may help with those biases – it may also introduce others! But either way, it is not “neutral”, and sticking with the status quo is not “apolitical”.

Also, you insinuate that most AMS members are “not really” mathematicians, and that this is why you can have AMS executive committee voting in favour of a move to doubly-anonymous refereeing. Are you suggesting that the AMS executive committee members are mostly not mathematicians? No wonder you wrote your post anonymously… https://www.ams.org/about-us/governance/exec-comm/ec

62. AMR Member Says:

Louigi #61:

1. It is obvious why I wrote my comment anonymously.

2. I agree that there are huge problems with journals and the refereeing system, which includes (but is not limited to) the fact that name recognition is often a decisive factor, especially for top journals. I do not agree that double-blind refereeing in math is a good idea, or that implementing this policy change would fix this particular unfairness (especially for top journals). I stand corrected that no serious double-blind journals exist, as I did not know about that Combinatorics journal. Thanks for correcting the record. I think we can still agree that few such journals exist.

3. I am neither suggesting that AMS exec committee members are not mathematicians nor that they are not research mathematicians. I am suggesting that some of them were *elected* by mathematicians who are maybe less focused on doing research than the typical tenured faculty at the top schools, and have political agendas which are therefore not the same. There is nothing wrong with this, and a society that is for all mathematicians should be elected by all mathematicians. But it is also ok, in my view, for the proper subset of mathematicians who are very active and focused on research, to form an association focused on this aspect of the profession, as they may have different interests and concerns and want to focus on this aspect of the profession. This doesn’t imply they are horrible racists deserving of condemnation, as the twitter mob would have it, at least in my view.

I think the most controversial or elitist part of what I said is the implication that not every published math research paper is “serious” research, and that maybe it is worthwhile to separate/recognize the really great research. I do think this! I stand by it, and I do believe that is indeed at the heart of some disagreements I have with my woke math friends.

4. We agree that the AMR is not apolitical. Saying “we want to focus on research” is already political.

63. Scott Says:

A common problem in these conversations is that “apolitical” is an ill-defined or relative concept. For example, I might say that I want to keep the basic research enterprise apolitical, to the extent possible. Someone else might interject: “aha, but that itself is a political stance! Nothing is apolitical!” And then I would cheerfully agree with that person, and say “very well then, I am taking a political stance, namely that I’d like even people who are at each other’s throats politically to be able to collaborate freely in the same scientific enterprise.”

64. Louigi Says:

AMR member #61: it is not obvious to me why you wrote your comment anonymously. I have no time to engage more right now – my daughter wants my attention (she asked “if they’re anonymous, why are you arguing with them?”).

65. Scott Says:

Aaaand … unsurprisingly, this post is now being attacked on Twitter, including with the argument that the AMS blog that called for a boycott of Israel, abolishing the police, and the mass resignation of white males from math departments carries a disclaimer clarifying that it doesn’t represent the official positions of the AMS, which means that if I truly favor free speech then I should be fine with it.

It boggles my imagination that, before they tweet these things, people don’t take two seconds to conduct the most obvious thought experiments. It’s like, suppose that an AMS blog had called for the mass resignation of female or Black mathematicians, or a boycott of the Palestinian Territories, or a police crackdown on BLM rioters. Wouldn’t the reaction be swift and thermonuclear — possibly including a complete replacement of the AMS’s leadership, if not the whole organization’s dissolution? Wouldn’t the argument that these weren’t the “official” positions of the AMS be swept aside like a piece of tissue paper in front of an aircraft carrier?

66. mjgeddes Says:

Scott used the phrase “weird political performance art”

But I think that the arts and politics are very close in conceptual space! (And indeed, in my ontology, the literal information distance between them is quite small).

As I mentioned in the other thread, I now think that Linguistics, Axiology, Game Theory & Arts are all part of one unified domain, which I now identity as LOT (the ‘Language Of Thought’).

The “Metaverse” idea ties together all the domains mentioned above. If we simply define “Metaverse” as the collective shared ‘fictional worlds’ of all media (of which virtual reality will simply be a future iteration of what already exists), then indeed, art , culture, politics and economics are seen to be inseparable. The implications of this are only now just starting to dawn on folks (with cryptocurrencies and NFTs concrete examples of the blurring of art and economics).

Implications for social science here… the idea that arts and game theory are linked could possibly be carried much further than it has been so far… treating games as ‘fictional universes’ .

Psychologically, there are various kinds of selves… persons , agents (decision making selves) and avatars (narrative selves), what happens when we treat minds as selves in fictional universes ?
Going back to the thread on religion, I should have mentioned the importance of archetypes. The “God” concept plays the role of the “ultimate avatar”. I think there must indeed be some kinds of ‘natural archetypes’.

Any way, it’s clear that a lot of politics is “theatre”, but is this actually a feature rather than a bug?

Was Elon Musk involved with that new university? Sounds OK, but the worry is that Musk might turn out to be “the thinking man’s Trump” … if you look at some of the pics of Musk , he’s got the same narcissistic smirk 😉

67. Daniel Litt Says:

@Scott #65: Is it your position that the AMS leadership, or a substantial proportion of its membership, believes in the positions you enumerate from the inclusion/exclusion blog? If not (and I think it is obvious that these are not consensus views), it seems to me that this argument is silly.

68. Han Says:

Scott # 54: Now I am quite confused. https://arxiv.org/pdf/2001.00021 seems to suggest that tensor networks methods have a complexity of $exp(d\sqrt{n})$ for a constant d>2? What is the scaling of these spoofing method with a constant d? If it is polynomial, they can simulate all QAOA algorithms?

69. Gil Kalai Says:

I just heard about AMR two days ago, and saw no harm with a new global math organization. (Of course, Yiftach, AMS and EMS are also global.) I also read some appealing descriptions by Alex Kontorovich on some proposed activities.

However, if “AMR member” (#62, #38) represents a common view among founders of this new organization then this changes my view in the negative direction. (E.g., “because the AMR is trying precisely to push back against the trend of pretending that everyone is doing equally good work.” This sounds like nonsense.)

I think that the founders and leaders of this initiative have some explanations to do.

(BTW, we have double blind refereeing in “Combinatorial Theory”. I was skeptical about it but it seems to work rather well.)

70. Han Says:

Scott # 54: I guess what I am really trying to say is, if the spoofing methods are generic, either Google can get supremacy at a constant depth, or all NISQ algorithms are dequantized by the spoofing methods. Both statements seems somewhat surprising, so what is the catch here?

71. Scott Says:

Gil Kalai #69: I also get squicked out by discussions of academic prestige that aren’t funny or self-deprecating, and I can understand why “AMR member” wanted to remain anonymous!

At the end of the day, though, I pay the inclusion/exclusion bloggers the intellectual courtesy of presuming that they actually mean what they say, that they’re serious. And their worldview, if consistently applied, really would mean no more Annals or any other exclusive math journals, no more Fields Medal or Abel Prize or other awards, no more STOC or FOCS for those of us in CS, no more tenure at Harvard or Princeton based on those things, because all of that does presuppose a “hierarchy” of more and less impactful research.

I know that many of my colleagues will have a different reaction: they’ll say that the AMS blog’s critique of “mathematical elitism” is bold and radical and necessary, heap every praise in the world on it, and then a minute later, they’ll go right back to battling to get their own paper into the Annals or STOC or FOCS, or getting their preferred candidate a tenure-track offer at Princeton—trusting that no one will ever call them on their hypocrisy. If I can’t bring myself to do the same, it’s because I feel that that attitude patronizes the AMS bloggers, treating them like petulant children to be humored rather than answered, and not like serious intellectual opponents. Personally, I’m unafraid to say that I reject these bloggers’ worldview, precisely because I take their worldview seriously and I understand its implications.

I, too, see myself as 100% committed to the fight against racism, sexism, and homophobia, but I don’t cede to some doctrinaire faction the right to dictate what that means.

72. Ted Says:

AMR Member #38: Could you explain why “double-blind reviewing in mathematics is unworkable and insane”? Simply removing the authors’ names from the version for review might not perfectly conceal their identities, but it seems pretty operationally straightforward and harmless when ineffective.

Scott #45: I think you may have missed the first part of Dill’s comment #29. Dill was suggesting that opponents of wokeness donate to a conservative college, not to a typical one (although I suspect that this idea won’t really resonate with you either 🙂 ).

73. Scott Says:

Daniel Litt #67: I expect that the AMS leadership’s position about the views expressed on the inclusion/exclusion blog is much the same as Mitch McConnell’s position about the views of the January 6 insurrectionists! I.e, it’s “please don’t put me on the spot by making me directly contradict what they’re saying. Please let’s change the subject right now.”

If I’m wrong, then kindly show me where they have contradicted it!

As I explained in comment #71, I find such an attitude to be intolerably patronizing. The inclusion/exclusion bloggers are out there clearly sharing their views, and they deserve the clear disagreement I’m giving them.

74. AMR Member Says:

Scott #71: Thanks for doing the work of replying to Gil Kalai #69 for me. That’s a perfect reply. I will only add that, for anyone who has spent any time in the elite mathematics world, or even knows someone from that world, the idea that we are not constantly comparing and ranking each other all the time is absurd. We are constantly asking ourselves questions like “but does this paper *really* have a new idea worthy enough to be included in the prestigious journal X?” The whole community is elitist through and through. But if I someone mentions it in comment #38 of someone’s blog, we need Gil Kalai to pause his work on whatever prize committee he’s serving on to come and reassure us that it is all “nonsense.”

Please, let’s stop the bullshit!

Ted #72: Referees will very often have heard of an important new result before they are asked about it, and know who has authored the paper. If not, they will be able to guess who the author is in most cases (even in the rare cases that the paper is not posted to the arxiv). The idea that referees will refrain from googling or guessing seems absurd, because they are suppose to be searching for papers on the topic when doing the review. On the other hand, the “fake blindness” requirement does tie the hand of editors in ways that can make the process more random and less fair. They cannot ask someone, for instance, “I received a submission from authors A & B on topic X. It seems like a strong paper, but I’m not an expert. Do you know of a good referee who knows this topic well, who is not too close to the authors who could give an impartial review?” One of the hard parts of being a good editor is sorting out who is in a position to give a fair review and not too close or likely to be too envious of the authors, etc. Math is a small world and an important paper might only have a half dozen experts who could plausibly review it, and many if not most of them will have relationships with some of the authors.

75. S Says:

I feel like the criticisms of the AMS (and hence justifying establishing of the AMR) stem from flawed reasoning, just like the criticism of communism by Prof. Aaronson in the comments. A lot of people (including the woke-left as well as Prof. Aaronson) seem to be taking incendiary things said/written in anger against unfair practices by the establishment very literally and hence feeling alienated by the dialogue that calls for mass resignation of white mathematicians etc.

Not saying the woke-left isn’t guilty of doing the same, pretending that everyone is doing equally good work or calls for mass resignation is just nonsense. Nonetheless, doesn’t everyone who thinks they’re doing good work deserve a chance to have their work considered for publication even if they hail from a Tier 2 school?

I’m not going to pretend to understand all scholarly politics that are going on here and I truly do not know which side is fairer. I just think that a lot of people are angry and there needs to some human dialogue among all this anger, at least among academics, instead of further ghettoization like the rest of society. Maybe that will allow more focus on good math instead of constant anger and frustration, which should be what everyone in a mathematical society wants.

76. Scott Says:

AMR Member #74: I guess the other part that bothers me about this discourse is the bizarre selectiveness. It’s like, if you want to tear down hierarchies of prestige that are supposed to be based on accomplishments, then why not do so in sports, music, art, journalism? Down with the NBA finals, the Grammys, the Pulitzer, the Nobel Prize in Literature? Down with all the honors that have gone to the leading woke theorists themselves, from the MacArthur to tenured positions in the top humanities departments? But no, not that. Somehow it’s always only the mathematicians, scientists, and technologists who don’t deserve whatever recognition they’ve achieved in their lives, who must’ve cheated, faked it, clawed their way up only by pushing others down.

77. Scott Says:

S #75 (and same question to others here): If the strongest defense of the AMS bloggers is that they don’t mean any of it literally, then how do we deal with the fact that they insist over and over, in their Twitter pages and everywhere else, that they absolutely do mean it literally? At least, how do we deal with it without infantilizing them? Have you invested the time actually to read these people?

78. Gil Kalai Says:

AMR member #74

You did not understand. What you wrote “AMR is trying precisely to push back against the trend of pretending that everyone is doing equally good work” is nonsense precisely because there is no such “trend” (opinions on the AMS blog notwithstanding) and certainly AMR is in no position to “push back” against it.

Of course, in our routine professional life we are indeed constantly being judged, and judge others on numerous occasions for positions, tenure, grants, promotions, conferences, papers, prizes, (and even theorems, lemmas, disciplines) etc. etc. Actually, the volume of such activity of judging and comparing is larger now than it was decades ago (in real terms not because I am older) so the trend goes the other way around. (And AMS certainly contributed in the direction of promoting and recognizing excellence.)

The idea that our competitive and full of judgments way of professional life is in danger is an absurd idea.

In any case, your position, and the nature of your response, shed, in my opinion, a negative light on this whole initiative that you are one of its founders.

79. William Says:

You talk about this inclusion/exclusion blogger demanding the resignation of all white males as if it’s a big threat to you… do people really take her seriously? Her twitter contains a lot of flailing around at undergraduate-level math, something even her supporters have to be fully aware of. Is there seriously a contingent of mathematicians who value her opinions to the point where she might influence hiring?

80. Scott Says:

Han #68: What you say sounds right, but that would be relevant only for very low depth d. With random circuit sampling experiments, one typically picks a larger d, specifically in order to prevent tensor network methods from achieving exp(O(√n)) type scaling.

81. Gil Kalai Says:

AMR-member #74. One more remark not about AMR.

“I will only add that, for anyone who has spent any time in the elite mathematics world, or even knows someone from that world, the idea that we are not constantly comparing and ranking each other all the time is absurd.”

As I said, our job requires making judgments and sometimes making comparisons and when I need to do it I try to devote the time and effort and do a good job. (which is both intellectually and emotionally demanding.) On the other hand it is not correct that “we are constantly comparing and ranking each other all the time”. It is far from being correct about me, and I don’t think it is a correct description of most other mathematicians that I know. (I am not even sure that this is related to elitism.)

82. Scott Says:

Han #70: I didn’t quite understand your dichotomy, but as far as we know today, yes, it might be possible to get quantum supremacy with constant-depth circuits. But it would be harder, not only because of tensor network methods, but also because of lightcone-based methods (which Boaz Barak and others have been studying) which achieve some nontrivial Linear XEB score, the advantage falling off exponentially with the depth. That’s why, again, in practice the right circuit depth to use tends to be the largest depth such that you can still extract a signal at the 0.1% or 0.2% or some other such detectable level.

83. Douglas Knight Says:

UATX says what it is, but, as far as I know, AMR says nothing. Scott, Alex, and the AMR Member seem to give different reasons. If they don’t agree, will they manage to achieve any of these goals?

I’m not sure why AMS exists, so why would I want a differently-flavored AMS? Scott doesn’t like the AMS blogs, but is the solution a centralized AMR blog with different politics? If AMR doesn’t have blogs, what has it accomplished? It already doesn’t have blogs. Alex says a startup with many projects. Projects are good; the startup ethos is good; but why an umbrella, rather than many separate projects? In particular, the Member worries that AMS will destroy its journals. Well, maybe create new journals, but why make journals that are part of a Society? Indeed, Alex mentions lots of journals created without Societies.

84. lollipop Says:

Scott #77,

Like many, I read woke math twitter for laughs. What I see is a lot of mediocre mathematicians egging on a handful of ultra-wokes, intentionally getting uw’s riled up about things they know will greatly upset the uw’s, then retweeting the uw’s responses so they can virtue signal. It’s very exploitive/parasitic.

Wishing you all the best with AMR.

85. AMR Member Says:

Gil Kalai #78: There is indeed such a trend. I am surprised you haven’t noticed it, maybe it is because you are working outside the USA?

To be clear, the worry isn’t that “our competitive and full of judgments way of professional life is in danger,” obviously, but that some of the judgments will now be less centered on the quality of mathematical research. I was speculating that this is maybe one of the reasons the AMR has made statements saying in effect that the new group is to be focused only on promoting mathematical research.

Gil Kalai #81: You bizarrely attempt to draw a some kind of line between statements like

“Of course, in our routine professional life we are indeed constantly being judged, and judge others on numerous occasions for positions, tenure, grants, promotions, conferences, papers, prizes, (and even theorems, lemmas, disciplines) etc. etc. Actually, the volume of such activity of judging and comparing is larger now”

“our job requires making judgments and sometimes making comparisons and when I need to do it I try to devote the time and effort and do a good job. (which is both intellectually and emotionally demanding.)”

and what I wrote, which was

“we are constantly comparing and ranking each other all the time.”

Amusing as this is, it suggests to me that you are less interested in charitably reading my responses to understand what I’m actually trying to say, and perhaps more interested in picking out phrases you can “call out” to seem like a good guy in public. It is especially unfair because my *next sentence* is giving an example which defeats your insinuation by making it clear that I meant exactly what you did.

I am once again begging you to please stop the bullshit.

86. Yiftach Says:

Gil #69 I do not wish to be part of the AMS, MAA, and EMS, partly because of financial limitations, and partly because these organizations (especially the American ones) engage in local issues that do not interest me. I am sure there are many others like me.

87. Yiftach Says:

The AMR website looks useful and I am happy with its existence.

I would really like the AMR to focus on maths. I do not like the implicit assumption in AMR-member #38 that mathematical quality should be judged by the prestige of the authors. I am not naïve, I know that there is a correlation between prestige as quality and even causation as people higher ranked have usually more possibilities to conduct high quality research. However, it is a bad message when we focus on people and not maths. In that sense I would preferred that mathematical prizes would be given to research rather than to people.

What worries me about the AMR following the comments of the AMR-member is that important point of this association might be to create “more prestige” in order to increase the financial benefits of people on the top. My own view is that where we have a serious problem is the levels below where very good researchers are squeezed out of resources (especially time) to do maths. So I would have liked to see the maths community focus a lot more on supporting the research of these people (Fields medallists and mathematicians in top universities are probably doing fine, no need to focus on them).

88. AMR Member Says:

Yiftach #87

> I do not like the implicit assumption in AMR-member #38 that mathematical quality should be judged by the prestige of the authors

Indeed, math social status is often decisive for papers (especially at top journals) and prizes and this is terrible. I see it all the time, and there is unfairness all around in mathematics (humans are doing the judging, after all). In my experience, you can count on most referees, if given the chance, to say that the paper of their friends is coincidentally the deepest breakthrough they’ve ever seen since Gauss, or that the prize committee should really be giving the prize to their close collaborators.

However, I do see less unfairness than the woke twitterati does, and if you wish to understand what I’m saying in my comment #38 you need to read my words in this context. I do think that the “math social hierarchy,” distorted as it can be, does have some positive correlation/connection to reality. They, on the other hand, apparently believe that the whole idea of making decisions based on quality of mathematical research is inherently flawed, because there is no such thing as “quality of mathematical research.” Someone who would say “the ideas in paper X are deeper than paper Y” is very bad, should be forever banned from serving on committees. (Not strawmanning here, really! see yesterday’s twitter.) My conjecture was that one of the many reasons AMR was founded was to push back against this, which in less extreme forms is actually showing up in math academia, at least in the USA. It has nothing to do with trying to monopolize financial resources for the top-tier places.

[This is by the way my last comment, otherwise this thread will consume my life completely.]

89. Daniel Litt Says:

Scott #73: I find your argument extremely confusing. I am not suggesting the inclusion/exclusion bloggers don’t mean what they say (I am certain they do), simply that it is extremely obvious that the inclusion/exclusion blog does not represent the views of the AMS leadership, nor the majority of its membership. I see the AMS blogs as more or less analogous to the letters to the Notices — they’re a place provided by the AMS where members can express their views. I see no reason the AMS should not provide such platforms, nor a reason for them to denounce the views expressed there, which seems to be what you’re asking for.

To be clear, I don’t believe, say, that the criminal justice system should be abolished. I obviously haven’t resigned from my job. I have no plans to boycott Israeli universities, though I think my colleagues have every right to do so if they’d like. Maybe I’ll be dragged on Twitter for saying this, and to be clear *that’s fine*. I also think you have every right to join an organization which counts among its founders people whose political commitments I disagree with, and I think people have every right to criticize you for doing so. Someone who really believes in free expression would agree.

90. Scott Says:

Gil Kalai #81: It’s true that, if research were nothing but a giant status/prestige competition, it would be a dreary and depressing affair. Fortunately, though, counteracting that tendency is the fact that normally, in order to excel at anything, you actually have to love it—to the point that you could obsess about it even when no one’s watching, even when there’s no tangible connection to what anyone else will ever think of you. I’d imagine that’s equally true in sports, music, writing, chess, and any other domain.

91. Sandro Says:

@Scott #15

Nazism in practice was even worse that one might’ve predicted by reading Mein Kampf, just like Communism in practice was even worse than one might’ve predicted by Marx and Engels

Was there any movement that wasn’t worse than its founding document or founding principles would directly suggest? If by and large this almost always happens, then I think erring on the pessimistic side in one’s predictions is well warranted, even for movements with the best intentions.

92. William Says:

Daniel Litt #89: You say that see no reason the AMS should not provide such platforms, but at the same time people with controversial views on the other side would not be provided with such a platform. They are perfectly OK with giving a voice to someone advocating barring white males from faculty positions, but would not ever give a similar voice to people with opinions such as those of some of the AMR’s founding members, which are if anything less controversial. The AMS really does give strong preference to one segment of the ideological spectrum. If some dissenters want to form their own organization, they have the right to do so in my opinion. They believe the AMS doesn’t represent their ideas on how mathematics should be promoted and are trying to start a new organization which represents their vision. The best I can tell, the people who are so outraged are not outraged by their vision, but by the political views of many of the founders.

93. Gil Kalai Says:

Some remarks on the calm quantum computers side of the post:

1) The paper by Feng Pan, Keyang Chen, and Pan Zhang (#6) have solved the uncorrelated sampling problem of the Sycamore quantum supremacy circuits. They efficiently generate independent bitstrings and assert that the running time is roughly a billion times faster compared to Google’s claims. This is nice because when the (amazing to me) earlier paper of Pan and Zhang appeared half a year ago Scott did not think it changed the status quo (I disagreed on that) and specifically challenged the authors to find a method for uncorrelated samples. Now, they achieved it.

2) (#30) Regarding the danger to QC from my argument. Let me mention that it was my argument that was in serious danger from the Google claims. Indeed I said that if the Google claims prevail then my argument was in big trouble. Now it seems the Google supremacy claims did not prevail. (#30,37) I would say that the classical spoofing papers take away about 1/3 of the Sycamore magic, since the computational complexity initial claims are largely diminished. (As Scott mentioned, I also study other aspects of the Sycamore experiment.)

3) Like Scott, I would certainly like to see IBM, IonQ, Rigetti, Amazon and various academic groups trying to carry on experiments with random circuit sampling. Before moving to more qubits and higher fidelities, the benchmark I would like to see crossed convincingly is 30 qubits with fidelity higher than 0.5%

4) In my view the quantum computer issue is an amazing scientific story, and the quantum advantage claims for NISQ systems is an amazing scientific sub-story. And this is why I am interested both in the general story and in the recent claims. (Both the QC question in general and the recent advantage claims are nicely related to some of my earlier not related to QC, and it is a great opportunity to learn new things.)

94. Andy Putman Says:

William #92: Might I point out that Abby Thompson is not just the Secretary of the AMR, but is also currently the Vice President of the AMS, and has written articles in the AMS Notices expressing her political opinions?

95. Scott Says:

lollipop #84: Again and again, I’ve had the experience of reading woke nerd Twitter, seeing myself attacked by name, and feeling the urge to counterargue—or apologize and change my view if I can’t. But then I look for the actual arguments to refute and I can’t find any! It’s just people endlessly agreeing with each other about how terrible I am, comparing me to Scott Alexander or other people they also hate, rolling their eyes and saying “I can’t even,” or (especially) remarking on how it’s no surprise to see me express bad opinion X given that years ago I also expressed bad opinion Y. There’s no grist for the mill. No ball ever arrives over the net. There’s almost nothing for my brain to act upon. How am I supposed to defend myself in such a situation? I still haven’t figured out the answer to that, but it’s directly related to why I’m not on Twitter myself.

96. William Says:

Andy Putman #94: I’d prefer to not name names, but she wasn’t who I had in mind. My main knowledge of her politics is that she is opposed to diversity statements, which does not strike me as that unusual of an opinion.

I actually stumbled upon “woke” math twitter a few months ago, and I found it really appalling. People were making and linking to blatantly racist statements about white people, then a few tweets later complaining about perceived racism in someone else’s comments or tweets. Unlike Scott, I am not afraid of these people. Instead I just find them disgusting, similar to how I view analogous behavior in alt-right twitter, and I personally think these views are not shared by a large fraction of the mathematical community, white or non-white. Since these are the loudest voices against the AMR, I tend to think the loudest anti-AMR people just represent a small but vocal portion of the mathematical community and definitely should not deter the people behind the AMR if they believe in their mission. (Note: I personally am not involved with the AMR in any way.)

97. Andy Putman Says:

William #96: I’m now really confused as to what you’re claiming. What I thought you were saying was that the AMS provided platforms for people expressing (certain kinds of) left-wing views, but would not do so for people with right-wing views. I gave a very prominent counterexample, and now you’re claiming that this is not what you meant. But what exactly do you mean? Can you give concrete examples of political views that you think the AMS is suppressing?

In my experience, mathematicians with strong political beliefs of all kinds don’t seem to have trouble finding ways to share them.

I have seen strong skepticism of the AMR expressed by plenty of mathematicians with pretty conventional political views (and in particular, by people who don’t have the anti-establishment sentiment that you see on “woke math twitter”).

98. And Says:

@Andy: Abigail’s piece found it’s way in AMS almost by mistake (and recall the hoopla after it! AMS had to aplogise). Barring some exaggerated analogies, it was mild (basically opposing grading using compulsory DEI statements).

Woke tendencies like forcing double-blind, forcing DEI statements, forcing random author ordering, changing math-syllabuses and removing gifted track, calling out workshops, PCs where there are not women speakers or people of color may have bad side effects (sometimes, even against the very communities they want to help) as argued by many well-meaning people.

99. William Says:

Andy Putman #97: A lot of left-leaning academics share the opinions of Abigail Thompson’s letter (the one I saw). I really don’t view the letter as expressing a conservative viewpoint.

I think being in academic circles, it’s easy to think of the political spectrum as being farther to the left than it is. Rather than speculate on what I think the AMS would suppress, I’ll just point to a Gallup poll from 2016 https://news.gallup.com/poll/193508/oppose-colleges-considering-race-admissions.aspx This poll asserts that by a margin of 70 to 26, Americans polled said that they should believe race should not be factored into college admissions. This includes a margin of 50 to 44 of Blacks polled. Also, keep in mind *Californian* voters recently voted down a law that would have restored affirmative action.

If you’d like to test whether or not the AMS would publish an article espousing the views of the above majority of Americans, you are welcome to do so. All I am doing is asserting my opinion that they would not be willing to do this, and that such views are no more radical than some of the ones they do publish. And for the record, I personally am in favor of affirmative action, and I consistently vote Democratic. None of the above is about my own personal opinions.

100. Scott Says:

Gil Kalai #93: Looking at the Pan, Chen, and Zhang paper, I don’t see any claim whatsoever to do things “a billion times faster” than Google’s device, even supposing they implemented their method on a modern supercomputer, which they haven’t yet. The claim, rather, is that they’d get performance *comparable* to Google’s, much like the other paper that I wrote about (while presumably Google would still win on energy expenditure). I don’t know what the situation would be for USTC’s 60-qubit device. What have I missed?

101. Stephen Yamam Says:

Andy Putman #97: Anyone familiar with your oeuvre on twitter is cracking up at you trying to pretend you don’t have a dog in this fight.

102. Valentino Says:

Scott 100: I suppose Gil Kalai #93 meant that the Pan, Chen, and Zhang method is “a billion times faster” than Google’s classical algorithm described in the 2019 Nature paper, not the device. Looking at the Pan, Chen, and Zhang paper, they indeed have obtained one million uncorrelated samples using a GPU cluster in 15 hours with fidelity higher than Google’s. This seems quite an accomplishment to do this for the first time. Interestingly, Pan, Chen, and Zhang’s new algorithm looks much faster ( ten-thousand-times faster? ) than the algorithm they proposed half a year ago (which is very similar to the one on the Sunway supercomputer) in generating uncorrelated samples. Hope they can give their algorithm another thousand-times speedup in the near future.

103. Raoul Ohio Says:

Ted #72,

Dill #29 suggests donating to a college, NOT to a conservative college.

Dill’s main point appears to be that many political movements are primarily about putting big money in the pockets of the leaders.

104. Scott Says:

Valentino #102: Ah, OK, thanks for clarifying. I agree that it’s very nice work! Yes, I hope that these classical spoofing methods continue to improve … and of course I also hope that the experiments themselves improve even faster. 😉

105. Scott Says:

A friend, who wishes to remain anonymous, sent me the following email and gave me kind permission to post it here.

First, let me say that I’m not going to join AMR but the reasons why not are worth articulating. I don’t think my own research has been high level enough or extensive enough to seriously justify joining a research focused organization. But the other reason is that given my current position, as someone employed at a left-leaning institution which is not a college or university and has no notion of tenure, I’m very worried about job security. My guess is that there are few people in my sort of position, but my guess is that there are a lot of non-tenured people at universities and colleges in a functionally similar position.

Second, I think there’s a point worth noting about how many of the people founding AMR are Jewish or of Jewish ancestry. During the Soviet era, there was active discrimination against Jews in many ways, including the so-called Jewish problems. In the United States, there is also a history of discrimination against Jews in academic contexts. Direct discrimination dates to almost the founding of higher level math in the US; see for example how Sylvester was treated. Then, while there was less direct discrimination at a graduate level, but one had through the 1960s things like the quotas at the Ivy league schools for their undergraduate admissions. I don’t know of any similar restrictions in math graduate school, but law schools and medical schools often had similar quotas for Jews. Brandeis University was founded in part to be somewhere where talented Jews could actually attend.

And now, after all of that, Jews are being labeled as “white” and therefore told that we should resign from our positions. That somehow despite decades of discrimination (which itself is after actual attempts at outright genocide), we’re now told that we’re too privileged and should resign so that members of other groups can take positions. And people are then surprised that there’s pushback?

There’s a phrase I’ve sometimes seen used about some groups, not just Jews, but also some Asian groups. The phrase is “Schrodinger’s whites” – groups who exist in a superposition of white and not white. But what determines whether one is classified as white for a specific purpose isn’t determined by some amplitude, instead it is determined by whether it is convenient for the group to be labeled as white for the political and rhetorical purposes of the measurer. It seems very relevant here.

106. Gil Kalai Says:

Scott (#100 )

1) The Billion times improvement refers to the required classical effort: The Google paper estimated it by 10,000 years on a supercomputer and the new paper estimated it at a few dozens seconds (let’s say a minute) on the same supercomputer. So the improvement is by a factor

10,000 x 365 x 24 x 60

which is roughly five billion times quicker compared to the Google original claim.

2) “…even supposing they implemented their method on a modern supercomputer, which they haven’t yet.”

They implemented it on ordinary computers. Why should they implement it on a modern supercomputer?

3) “[It is]…much like the other paper that I wrote about”

a) The other paper (Liu et al.) you wrote about is also very nice. But you explained yourself that there, the running time refers to a single sample.

“the time needed to calculate a single amplitude (or perhaps, several correlated amplitudes) using tensor network contraction. It doesn’t refer to the time needed to generate millions of independent noisy samples, which is what Google’s Sycamore chip does in 3 minutes.”

The paper I referred to (Pan et al.) claims generating millions of uncorrelated noisy samples like Google Sycamore chip does.

b) The Pan et al. paper that I referred to answers a challenge that you made yourself in a post about the authors’ previous paper.

107. Anonymous Says:

Daniel Litt #89: I, in turn, find your argument confusing. I feel as though I understand your position, but I don’t really understand what you object to about the first comment of Scott’s that you replied to. I also feel a bit guilty since I left a comment on this blog a few weeks ago which referenced the blog post at the center of this argument (or rather, a follow-up blog post to that one) and it is at least possible that this is how Scott first heard of it.

Since the whole exchange seems to have gotten quite convoluted, let me try to summarize what I understand of the argument.

1) First, in the original blog post, Scott basically complained that the AMS is too woke (though there is some ambiguity in the original post about to what extent he believes this—you could read the phrase “co-opted by woke true believers” as Scott’s true opinion, but I think it’s clear that the next couple lines indicate that’s not quite what he believes).

2) Next, people on twitter apparently complained (though I haven’t seen the complaints for myself) that Scott’s evidence that the AMS is too woke is invalid because it just consists of a blog post on an AMS blog which AMS leadership does not officially endorse.

3) Scott’s counterargument, which seems reasonable to me, is that while the AMS leadership probably does not agree 100% with the contents of the blog post, the fact that they are willing to leave it up and have not apologized for it certainly indicates that they are more okay with it than with other types of content that some might see as equally objectionable. If the question is “is the AMS more okay with calling for all white mathematicians to be fired or all black mathematicians to be fired” then it is pretty clear what the answer is (though I also think it’s reasonable to think that these two views are not at all morally equivalent).

4) You then replied that the AMS leadership clearly does not agree with the views expressed in the blog post and that this means Scott’s response is silly. However, I don’t really understand what you mean here. It seems to me reasonably clear that Scott did not mean that the AMS leadership endorses the contents of the blog post, but rather (if I’m understanding him correctly, and maybe I’m not) that they are more sympathetic to them than to other views that he finds similarly objectionable. He also seems to believe that this indicates the AMS is more “woke” than he would like. Perhaps you disagree with one or both of these views, but they don’t seem “silly” to me.

5) Scott then clarified and (I think) somewhat strengthened his previous claims by comparing AMS leadership to Mitch McConnell. He also said that he dislikes the fact that the AMS leadership will not clearly say that they disagree with the views of the blog post in question.

6) You then replied by saying (I think) that you personally disagree with the views in the blog post and that you don’t think the AMS leadership should have to explicitly denounce those views. I find both of those opinions reasonable. However, I don’t think they really counter Scott’s original argument (or rather, counterargument to people on twitter). As I understand it, Scott believes the blog post indicates the AMS is more woke than anti-woke and the existence of the blog post is evidence of that. I find it hard to disagree with that much at least.

In the end, it is not clear to me that you and Scott disagree on any facts. You disagree perhaps on the implications of those facts, and certainly on their emotional valence, but not on the facts themselves. It seems to me that the two of you are mostly talking past each other at this point. And now perhaps I am a third voice talking past both of you as well.

To clarify my own position: I strongly disagree with the sentiments expressed in the linked blog post. I actually disagree with Scott that they author of the blog post completely agrees with the views expressed in it (I think to some extent the author was hoping to provoke people a bit). Certainly many of the commenters praising the blog post cannot fully agree with it since they continue to take on grad students and hire people who are white, male, cis, etc.

I also disagree with Scott’s apparent view (though maybe I misunderstood it) that the AMS should publicly refute or apologize for the blog post. I find such forced expressions of public emotion disturbing and sad. I don’t want the AMS leadership to denounce the inclusion/exclusion blog and I also don’t want academics on twitter to hound their peers who disagree with them. I am happy to live in a world full of people who hold and express views that I find bizarre or even strongly objectionable. As long as those people don’t directly threaten me or my friends and family with violence (which is an extremely rare phenomenon) and as long as I don’t depend on them for professional advancement, I am even quite happy to discuss their views with them. One thing I have learned both by traveling a bit and by reading some older writing is that people around the world and throughout time have really held quite a lot of views that I find strange and occasionally repugnant and that whatever our differences, my views are closer to the average progressive tweeter than to the great majority of humans who have existed. What saddens me is that this sort of openness to views with which you disagree (and even strongly disagree) seems to me to be receding at an alarming pace in the last few years. This, more than any particular policy disagreement, is what I dislike most about the “woke” crowd (though plenty of parts of the “anti-woke” or conservative movements also hold such an attitude).

Let me give an example of something that frustrates me in all of this. I sometimes see people try to attack liberal politicians or pundits for decrying racism while at the same time not saying much about e.g. Louis Farrakhan or other famous black anti-semites (a similar dynamic was at play with the Jeremiah Wright stuff during Obama’s first presidential campaign and also the controversy around Nick Cannon’s comments last summer). The response from those liberal politicians is often to turn around and denounce Farrakhan or the Nation of Islam or whatever. While I strongly disagree with Farrakhan about many things, this actually makes me quite sad. The Nation of Islam is a weird and unique group and I think many of its members are sincere and good people. I wouldn’t want them to have much power over me, but I can’t begrudge them for existing or having beliefs that I find odd. I would like to live in a world where academics don’t get “cancelled,” Parler doesn’t get banned from the Apple app store and Farrakhan is not a rhetorical punching bag for liberal politicians who want to prove they are even-handed. Instead I live in a world where conservative viewpoints are suppressed in academia, Farrakhan (and others like him) are insulted to balance things out, liberal viewpoints are suppressed in conservative circles, and weirdos with weird ideas are suppressed everywhere.

Of course, to some extent, weirdos with weird ideas have always been suppressed. But I genuinely believe that at least in the very specific case of American politics and academia, this has gotten worse over the past few years. More than anything, that makes me a bit sad.

108. Scott Says:

Anonymous #107: Thanks, but just to clarify, I never called on AMS leadership to apologize for the inflammatory content of the “inclusion/exclusion” blog—content that, taken literally, would mean that much of AMS’s membership would no longer be able to practice mathematics. My position is more like: either AMS should apologize, or else they should host blogs with a full range of incendiary views including from very different perspectives (pro-Israel, pro-public-safety, etc.), or else people shouldn’t be surprised/outraged if some mathematicians want to start new organizations. You just can’t have it every which way at once.

109. Cihan Says:

Scott #65: Your comparisons in the second paragraph are false equivalences.

110. Scott Says:

Cihan #109: Oh, believe me that I fully understand that according to the woke worldview, thought experiments of that kind (“how would you feel about this if the races or sexes were reversed?”) are strictly, fanatically off-limits. To me, though, these sorts of questions are the core of morality, in fact the core of the reason for being anti-racist and anti-sexist in the first place. That’s a central reason why I reject wokeism in favor of the “old” liberal morality, the one (for example) of the civil rights movement and of President Obama.

111. Laurence Cox Says:

Scott,

Would you like to comment on the work of Chris Monroe’s group at the University of Maryland on quantum error correction: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-021-03928-y

It has also recently been reported on Quanta, which references the Nature paper.

112. William Says:

The subject of police violence is actually another area where certain math is taboo. The chance that an individual black person in the US is killed by the police while unarmed in a given year is approximately 1 in 2,000,000 or less, depending on your source. A significant portion of these people are evading the police, by the way. Meanwhile, three University of Chicago students have been killed just this year. But if you even try to do use basic statistics like this to suggest that there has been an overreaction to these police killings, you are branded a racist immediately. Professional organizations, including the AMS, are going along with the trend of using these killings to justify major changes, and you are simply barred from pointing out facts such as the above in a counterargument. Meanwhile, the crime rate is surging in the US, and ironically enough, this disproportionately affects Black communities.

113. GRickM Says:

As scientists, we observe and make conclusions by following the data. Here are some observations from the discussions on this thread.

Every regime based on Marxism has been a dictatorship that promised the masses benefits, but once installed benefited the political elites and ignored the plight of masses. You referred to President Trump as a “dictator” and “authoritarian.” I put it to you that President Trump adhered to the US constitution far more faithfully than either Obama or Biden’s regime. If you want to see dictators in action, look at covid policies in blue versus red states (and be happy you are in Texas). The US constitution charges the president with protecting the integrity of the country. Mr Trump adhered to this by working to secure the southern border. The current regime essentially ignored its constitutional duty by refusing to enforce existing immigration law, even inviting illegal entry into the US. Further, as the regime unconstitutionally mandated citizens to be vaccinated for covid, they shipped/are shipping illegal entrants into the US regardless of their covid situation. And now, with a tie in the senate and a majority of 5 in the house, the Democrats are rushing to enact legislation that based on approval polls the majority of US citizens don’t want. There clearly was no mandate for such legislation from the 2020 election.

So I ask, based on the data, which administration has more characteristics of dictatorship?

Speaking of the 2020 election, there is plenty of data available that raises questions about the legality of voting procedures followed in a number of states. If significant fraud is uncovered, the proper course of action would be for the affected state legislatures to decertify their election results. That would not mean replacing Biden with Trump, rather deciding through the legal process what to do to remedy the problem.

114. Barak A. Pearlmutter Says:

#35/#42, the Nazis made their intentions crystal clear by the mid to late 1930s.

HISTORIC RECORD

On 21 November 1938, Hitler met with the South African defense minister Oswald Pirow and told him that the Jews would be killed if war broke out. The same month, an official of Hitler’s chancellery told a British diplomat of German plans “to get rid of [German] Jews, either by emigration or if necessary by starving or killing them” […] He also said that Germany “intended to expel or kill off the Jews in Poland, Hungary and the Ukraine” after invading those countries. On 16 January 1939, Hitler met with István Csáky, the foreign minister of Hungary. Csáky recalled that “he was sure of only one thing, the Jews would have to disappear from Germany to the last man”.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hitler%27s_prophecy

NEWSPAPER STORIES

Endicott Daily Bulletin,
Saturday, November 12, 1938,
“Nazi Decree to Eradicate Jews”
(front page main story)
https://nyshistoricnewspapers.org/lccn/sn90066577/1938-11-12/ed-1/seq-1/

Los Angeles Examiner,
Nov 23, 1938,
“Nazis Warn World Jews Will Be Wiped Out Unless Evacuated by Democracies”
(front page main story)

115. Scott Says:

Barak Pearlmutter #114: My understanding is that Hitler genuinely believed the Jews secretly ruled the world. As such, he expected that for sure the Jews of Europe would be welcomed in the US and elsewhere as refugees (he said something like, “they can send them on luxury ships for all I care”) … or if not, that the threat of annihilating the Jews under his control would be a terrifying bargaining chip that would force the Allies to fold rather than fight him. When he did order the Holocaust, in his mind, it was something the “Jewish puppetmasters of the world” had brought on themselves, by not doing what he expected or wanted them to do. And he continued to believe in the existence of those “Jewish puppetmasters” until the day he and Eva Braun shot themselves in the bunker.

116. Scott Says:

Laurence Cox #111: Yes, that’s another exciting milestone for experimental QC! It’s become increasingly clear that the achievement of a fault-tolerant qubit won’t happen in a single dramatic announcement, but in a series of better and better steps like this one.

117. Barak A. Pearlmutter Says:

Scott #115: Maybe so. Maybe Hitler did believe that would happen. But regardless, (a) the Nazis made their intent to murder all the Jews in territories under their control crystal clear to the entire world, who presumably did not share any of Hitler’s delusions, and (b) nobody let them in, in fact the British took active measures to prevent their escape.

118. Scott Says:

Barak Pearlmutter #117: That, alas, is true as well.

119. Jr Says:

“what to do about Kyle Rittenhouse though?”

I assume they want a mostly peaceful lynching of him to succeed, when the original one failed.

120. fred Says:

Scott:
“I, too, see myself as 100% committed to the fight against racism, sexism, and homophobia, but I don’t cede to some doctrinaire faction the right to dictate what that means.”

I think this is why Sam Harris now only ever discussing those issues with a guest who is way less likely to get attacked than he is (i.e. a non white male) and agrees with his own views…
But in some sense this is a capitulation to the idea that expressing one’s opinion is now forbidden depending on which identity boxes you belong to.

PS: I’m amazed at your ability to keep two (mostly) orthogonal threads of discussion in superposition.

121. fred Says:

I will all be so much simpler once our AGI overlords take over and do all the hiring decisions and paper reviewing for us…

122. Anon93 Says:

RE the Holocaust discussion, as in the link they preferred to expel the Jews but said they would kill them if that’s not an option. It’s the exact same with the Hamas attitude toward Israeli Jews today. Once the war started, expulsion became impossible, and all Jews including civilians were defined as enemy combatants. So again the Final Solution wasn’t planned until the war started and is a consequence of the war. As Scott says there were other universes with no Holocaust. As Scott also says we need guardrails to prevent worst case outcomes. I agree completely with Scott. Hitler was evil of course but we need to actually know the history and not make him into a cartoonish devil.

123. fred Says:

“a billion times faster”…

See, that’s the difference between doing theoretical CS vs actually writing code.

For example, Scott often writes that P=NP would imply the ability to do “magic”, like proving any mathematical statement by just running some algorithm.

But, in practice, computations that are labelled as polynomial aren’t even slam dunks. Otherwise, how do you explain that we didn’t have computer graphics that were totally indistinguishable from reality in the 1960s? Because the constants do matter immensely when it comes to actually running the damn thing.
Also, for problems which complexity grows in 2^N in theory, the amount of possible instances grows way fast in 2^(N!)… so it becomes quickly impossible to even try and study what proportion of such instances are actually hard (or easy) in practice.

124. Scott Says:

fred #123: I’m obviously extremely well-aware of the importance of constant factors. In the case at hand, what’s happening is not that people just are implementing the same algorithm better and better and thereby saving a factor of a billion, but rather that they’re coming up with cleverer methods to do tensor contraction. Those methods, in turn, are able to get their leverage because the circuit depth, 20-24, in Google’s and USTC’s experiments was relatively small. And the circuit depth had to be small because the gate fidelity is “only” ~99.5% or something. That’s what puts the current device just on the border of the regime of clear quantum supremacy, rather than deep into it.

So, if you like concrete numbers, focus on these: 2-qubit gate fidelity more like like 99.9% → circuit depth more like 100 → evade tensor network methods → much clearer quantum supremacy.

125. Scott Says:

Anon93 #122: I mean, I’ll put my dislike of Mr. Hitler up against anyone on the planet’s; he was (after all) responsible for the deaths of most of my extended family. My wife’s grandmother survived Auschwitz.

But yes, one of the dangers of seeing the Holocaust as a cosmic inevitability, and refusing to think through the factors that made it more or less likely, is that we’re then numbed to the factors that make immense catastrophes more or less likely in our own time.

126. Qwerty Says:

I wish UATX well. Competition is good! I have been wondering for years when something like this would spring up.

I was excited to hear about their upcoming summer camp on “dangerous ideas”. We do need a place where important ideas will be debated in intellectual honesty.

I’m not surprised by the early hiccups. I hope they do really well, what they have set out to do.

127. Gil Kalai Says:

AMR member #85, #88 Scott #90. I don’t think we are in much disagreements. My comment #81 was largely meant to qualify my own comment #78; yes we spend time and effort on judgements in various forms (and more than before) but I (and many other mathematicians I know) try not to do it beyond the line of duty. I agree that human judgements is sometimes limited, biased, and even faulty. I dislike when politics is involved in science (with the exception that I believe that science can bring people together); I strongly disagree with anti-Israeli actions in scientific contexts (and other contexts); I support diversity as a value and as a tool to enhance science. (re #85) I am a nice guy, (and an Israeli). And (re #74) from time to time I pause my work on whatever prize committee I serve (or “just” pause my efforts to prove some lemmas, or pose some questions, or read some proofs, or write my blog, or play some computer-game) to make a comment in the social media.

128. amy Says:

Oh, re the cheap college:

I think they’ll find that unless they’re heavily subsidized by right-wing orgs (and I expect they will be, which will come with its own problems), they’re going to find the money end to be a problem, because we have a bifurcated system in this country:

1. Gargantuanly obscenely expensive schools for the ruling class and its technicians and advisors;

2. Crushingly expensive schools for everyone else.

The people in group (1) want prestige; the people in group (2) want something standardized and recognizable so that they can get jobs and pay off the loans afterwards. From here, UATX looks like neither, but unless subsidized it still won’t be cheap: it turns out that even if you don’t build STEM facilities, you really do have to charge a pretty penny to keep people salaried and around, keep buildings maintained, keep students housed and looked after, etc.

So I don’t know who this market is, given the volume required. It’s not even part of the much smaller Christian/Catholic-college market; it’s too atheism-friendly for that.

Yeah, it seems uncomfortably positioned, more like…oh, this is awful, but you know those dreadful cruise packages they sell at NYT and NYRB and so on, where they charge people a zillion dollars for the pleasure of intellectuals’ company plus the Mediterranean on a boat for two weeks? Sounds like that.

129. amy Says:

Scott #76: not true at all. Lot of opposition to taking the big lit/humanities prizes seriously; MacArthur in particular gets fights. But also NEA, Nobel, etc. For both reasons I’ve outlined elsewhere and much more particular, academic cultural-theory reasons.

You really have to care intensely about those prizes and public careers to go after them in those fields, be one of those climbing sort of academics and headline-grabbers. Otherwise you just do your work. I’ve certainly known non-decorated writers who were much better, more spectacularly gifted, than most who’ve won the major prizes. You also very quickly run into the fact that the prizes we pay attention to here are for work in English, which is a ludicrous way of thinking about “best”. And I don’t know anyone outside academia and fundraising who pays attention to what NEA does.

130. Cihan Says:

Scott #110: It is lazy analysis because the societal and historical context and reality of white and black people are not equivalent. Your thought experiment needs to assume an interchange of white and black people in these as well to be a useful tool in morality.

131. Garald Says:

Scott #115 Barak A. Pearlmutter #117: The debate between functionalism and intentionalism is perhaps best left to historians, at least once one gets to the difference between “reasonable functionalism” and “reasonable intentionalism” (which may be subtle or non-existent by now). I thought that matters were converging to “Nazis murdered their opponents throughout the 30s, Hitler declared his murderous intentions against “inferior peoples” towards the 30s to great acclaim by his followers, he had in mind to kill plenty of Jews, Slavs, etc., and humiliate them all, and said so openly, *and* the decision to kill _everybody_ classified as a Jew, quickly, was something initially made by subordinates who took him at his word, in the opening stages of Operation Barbarossa, filling a legal vacuum created by what in effect was a conscious decision by the leadership to make the occupied territories into a place where no notion of right applied; this practice of mass murder was then approved and made more efficient, in not completely consistent ways, and arguably with some elements of self-deception at first”. I’ll gladly be corrected – but, more to the point, I’m not sure that pinpointing the truth here with laser accuracy is that very relevant to any argument that people are having.

132. Garald Says:

I also don’t think one needs to go by “Good Lenin, Bad Stalin” to point out that “all Bolsheviks wanted to starve out Ukranians and kill, well, almost all Bolsheviks, themselves most likely included” is a basis both flimsy and unnecessary on which to base any sort of argument. One doesn’t need to make any doubtful assumptions to make the case that the Soviet Union was a good example of what happens when there is a competition in violent rhetoric (leading to violent deeds) to prove one’s authenticity to a cause that in general terms addresses some very real problems.

133. Scott Says:

amy #129: I’m glad to hear that, of the people who want to end any concept of “prestige based on accomplishment” in math and science, at least some of them are consistent, and want the same for other domains as well!

But I think we should carefully distinguish at least three different claims:

(1) Awards committees, hiring and tenure committees, conference program committees, etc. sometimes make terrible decisions. (Every single one of us believes this, and if we’re academics, we have a long list of examples.)

(2) Awards committees, etc. systematically make terrible decisions, ones that are completely uncorrelated or even anticorrelated with the actual merit of the work.

(3) There’s no such thing as “actual merit of the work” in the first place. (I’m skeptical that anyone genuinely believes this, although it’s become fashionable to claim to believe it.)

134. Scott Says:

amy #128:

From here, UATX looks like neither, but unless subsidized it still won’t be cheap: it turns out that even if you don’t build STEM facilities, you really do have to charge a pretty penny to keep people salaried and around, keep buildings maintained, keep students housed and looked after, etc.

I think the hope is that UATX will be subsidized, by tech billionaires. But even apart from that, your analysis hasn’t addressed the mystery of how college managed to be so much cheaper, per student and in real dollars, in past generations. I think Baumol’s cost disease is some but not all of it.

Yeah, it seems uncomfortably positioned, more like…oh, this is awful, but you know those dreadful cruise packages they sell at NYT and NYRB and so on, where they charge people a zillion dollars for the pleasure of intellectuals’ company plus the Mediterranean on a boat for two weeks? Sounds like that.

LOL, I’m still waiting to be invited on one of those cruises, as one of the intellectuals who gets paid for it rather than having to pay! That sounds pretty good. 😀

135. Raoul Ohio Says:

Amy #128:

HaHa. That is a funny and apt comparison!

136. amy Says:

Scott #134: Yeah, I thought it might be startup-type money. Funding by tech billionaires seems not to go so well in education, largely because there’s this inconvenient thing about finding staff and teachers, whom they also tend to treat badly, as though there’s some bottomless labor pool and everyone’s in it to maximize income, so obviously anyone willing to accept small money is telling you what they’re worth. There’s some such effort involving Montessori and online school, and the glassdoor reviews are scathing. Parents who came in with high hopes also walk away with a lot of “these people are nuts, avoid.”

If what they’re really after is a sort of Y-Combinator U…I mean this is a very niche market, and not promising as a U, where it’s important that people are genially hazy about what everyone else really does and believes in their own disciplines and subdisciplines, or at least have the ill-informed tantrums on their own time. You can’t make Tiny Circular Firing Squad U. On the student side, you’d have to not care whether or not your alma mater existed in 25 years, and…it’d be a lot like being a GOP staffer, you’d better really want to make your entire career in Republican politics.

As for why school used to cost less, it isn’t that complicated: the major reason’s that governments used to subsidize the hell out of state universities. When Reasonable Threadbare State U can actually be paid for with a summer job, you can’t have a landscape full of $80K/yr for luxe private ed. Not enough takers. Once that picture’s complicated by withdrawal of public support, high state-U COA with significant exit debt, and a complex fin-aid private-school game plus bifurcation of economic classes, there’s incentive for many more to try for the top end, also confusion, which universities now exploit skillfully. It also means RTSU now has to compete in a hopeless situation, taking on massive debt to spiff up campuses and try hard to turn them into luxury liners that can compete with my beautiful alma mater and all other such ivy-covered heaps, which pushes COA there higher as someone must pay off the bonds (and indeed the ratings are dependent on room to raise COA). The higher state-U COA goes, the more market permission there is for private-U COA to sail spaceward. Now and then RTSU will decide, in desperation, that the only way out is federal research grants, and then they go nuts making infrastructure promises and trawling for faculty. It’s long odds at the craps table, but no matter how it goes, those costs are also long-term, and someone will have to pay. Throw on top of that the fact that university is now essentially a requirement (don’t @ me with skills gap, people, I’m ready) and that the student population is vastly more diverse and frequently more needy than it was 50 years ago, and yeah, it’s a lot of money. So – you hear a lot of complaining about admin salaries and Title IX officers, but — dismissing the Title IX thing as your usual Fox hit — the admin salaries, while obscene, are pocket change next to the rest of the costs. During the first covid summer, I wondered why we were panicking about zoom school for out-of-staters, and did the math to see what the hit would be if we cut them a break on tuition. And then I put the calculator down because it just flashed DOOM. We’d crater within a few years. And then I wondered — well, what would it cost to set things right, to bring COA down to something reasonable nationwide, take care of deferred maintenance, pay down institutional debt, stabilize. And I figured we were looking at around$100B a year, nationally. It’d still be trouble for private universities and colleges, even the staggeringly endowed, because their models now depend on gaggingly obscene COA. If you put the cost of U of State and State U university down to, say, $8K/yr all-inclusive, you’ll now tank a lot of midrange privates. Realistically, they’d need help too, but I don’t know enough about their finances to have a sense of how much. So — yeah. And it only took about 25 years’ worth of really concerted, intentional greed to get there. Like I said, can be undone, but would cost. 137. Scott Says: amy #136: Lambda School, the online coding academy, was founded by startup types, and from what I hear it’s been a pretty amazing success at placing people with no previous coding experience into well-paid jobs (have others heard differently?). So I wouldn’t write off tech-backed ventures too quickly—especially as federal, state, and local governments become increasingly paralyzed and dysfunctional, and tech billionnaires are sadly forced to pick up more and more of the slack. (As one example close to my experience, a good fraction of what was once handled by the NSF is now handled by the Simons Foundation.) The decrease in state funding for universities can only explain part of the wild cost increases over the past 30-40 years. The increases have been at private universities as well as public ones, in expenditures as well as in tuition. They pretty clearly have something to do with the vast armies of non-teaching, non-research employees who are somehow now needed where previously universities managed without them. 138. Al Says: Somehow I don’t think the fact that the founding members of the Association for Mathematical Research standing up against the self-certain ideologues of every side are (to a significant degree) either Russian or Jewish is a coincidence. 139. Anon93 Says: We should clone John von Neumann. I think it’s doable. 140. Indanon Says: #Fred 56 “For thousands of years the way of life in India was such that the death and birth rates were in balance, leading to a stable population. But when the Brits took over, they brought along huge improvements in healthcare without any adjustments of the local lifestyle, and the resulting drop in infant mortality created a sudden imbalance quickly creating a massive overpopulation (over a few generations).” I am breaking a 11 year self-imposed ban on commenting on blog posts or any social media to say that this is beyond wildly inaccurate. The British, or rather the privately owned British East India Company, took over a significant part of India (Bengal) in 1757 and proceeded to destroy free trade in the region. By 1800 life expectancy in India (after a series of famines in Bengal) was 25. In 1860 (by which time the British State controlled most of India) life expectancy was 25. By 1910 (before the First World War) after 50 years of direct British Rule life expectancy fell to about 22. In 1920, post the influenza pandemic, it fell to 21. Between 1920 and 1940, at a time of rising nationalism and a small amount of local self-government it rose, finally to about 31. Among Gandhi’s early crusades was one for better sanitation in Indian cities following outbreaks of plague in the early 20th century. It is not clear that the British could get much credit for even this belated improvement 60 years after they took over. The British conquest of India was tremendously disruptive so the notion that changes happened “without any adjustments of the local lifestyle” is also absurd to a high degree. Between 1920 and 1940 India’s population rose by only about 20%. Between 1800 and 1910 British life expectancy rose from 39 to 52, and thence to 62 in 1940. After independence (1947), India’s life expectancy rose from 34 in 1950 to 46, 57 and 65 in 1970, 1990 and 2010. The population rose from 376 million to 555 million, 875 million and 1.25 billion in those years. The notion that the British improved health care in India is part of the White-Man’s-Burden boilerplate apologia for colonialism. The fact that it still has traction after having been extensively debunked a hundred years ago, tells you that wokeism is perhaps not the pressing issue of the day – reactionary ideology continues to be far more harmful. 141. fred Says: Indanon #140 To clarify, this wasn’t my personal opinion/conclusion. Again, I heard it from Louis Malle in his 1969 documentary “L’Inde fantôme: Reflexions sur un voyage” “If India is overpopulated, who’s to blame? Indians answer: “the British. They exploited our country, squeezed our peasants, raped our economy, and at the same time they brought medicine. In other words they lowered infant mortality, suppressed epidemics, i.e. disrupted demographic balance without ever developing the country economy in a way that allowed it to support the excess population.”” Of course, maybe the Indians he heard it from were themselves mistaken, etc. But, knowing the work of Louis Malle, I seriously doubt he was pushing some “reactionary ideology” or “apologizing for colonialism”… The bit where the comment is made: https://youtu.be/xsGmgqyzfL8?t=972 (I recommend watching all the 7 parts, it’s really super interesting, I learned a lot). Of course the documentary is now 50 years old, so it reflects some of the ideas of the time (especially there hasn’t been much disillusion yet with the Chinese cultural revolution, which was just getting started). Louis Malle himself constantly questions his own approach in the documentary. According to the wiki: “Concentrating on real India, its rituals and festivities, Malle fell afoul of the Indian government, which disliked his portrayal of the country, in its fascination with the pre-modern, and consequently banned the BBC from filming in India for several years. Malle later claimed his documentary on India was his favorite film” 142. fred Says: One last thing: “The notion that the British improved health care in India is part of the White-Man’s-Burden boilerplate apologia for colonialism.” Of course the woke always make sure to sure to be ultra-selective and associate colonialism/imperialism as a purely “white” sin (remember, folks: it’s all about your skin color!) onto innocent non-white populations (remember, folks: if not for the white, all brown people would all live in perfect harmony!). But those things are obviously universal. They’ve existed in Asia (are Korea, Tibet, Japan, merely historical “remote provinces” of the greater Chinese empire?), Africa, America (study the dynamics between the Incas, Mayas, Aztec, etc) without any help from the “white man”. As North-Western European, maybe I should start going around trashing modern Italians for Julius Caesar’s genocide of the Gauls, my ancestors (over two million deaths and the disappearance of our original culture). 143. Indanon Says: fred #142 It really doesn’t matter whether it is Louis Malle who said it or someone else. It is false and does not, therefore, bear repetition (presumably by someone who believed it). I don’t know what Malle’s politics is/was (indeed, I recall seeing one film of his and know that he was married to Murphy Brown (:-)), but that’s all I really know about him) but plenty of so-called liberal politicians in the West were not particularly enlightened when it came to the colonies. Malle’s statement strikes me as reasonably reactionary for 1969. There are lots of easily verifiable data available at the click of a mouse that obviously falsifies the hypothesis. The very specific hypothesis that the British were chiefly responsible for the drop in Indian mortality rates and the attendant population increase in India. Moreover, much of this was known before Malle’s documentary in 1969. Twenty-two years of Indian independence produced better Indian health outcomes than 90 (or 190 if you count from 1757) years of British colonialism (and, of course, better economic and political outcomes). The interesting question to me is why this is often not more widely known in the Occident (to you, for example), or why historians like Niall Ferguson are still so invested in minimising the horrors of colonialism. The standard “brown people were mean to each other” is hardly a justification for a foreign invasion by a somewhat nastier regime. If you don’t think Europeans alive today should be held responsible for past colonialism (for the most part – there are still many Europeans alive today who were active participants in horrible human rights violations in the colonies) why are so many of them so vested in denying that it was evil (off-hand see Boris Johnson, Marine Le Pen etc.)? The phrase “White Man’s Burden” was coined by Rudyard Kipling, an avid fan of British imperialism. Not by the woke, or by me (not just woke, but fully caffeinated). 144. fred Says: … and of course, I almost forgot: millennia of “brown on brown” “systemic” racism in India, with the absolutely abhorrent Caste system, still going strong today! 145. fred Says: Indanon #143 “It really doesn’t matter whether it is Louis Malle who said it or someone else. It is false and does not, therefore, bear repetition (presumably by someone who believed it)” “why historians like Niall Ferguson are still so invested in minimising the horrors of colonialism.” So it’s supposed to be some sort of relief (a sign of self-empowerment!) that Indians are the only ones who should “take credit” for their horrible overpopulation problem, not the evils of British colonialism (like the dissemination of modern medical science)? Yet another example of woke logic swallowing its own tail… 146. fred Says: When I grew up, in the 70s and 80s, we weren’t woke, but we sure as hell knew how to celebrate a color blind society 147. Indanon Says: fred #145 You made an assertion about Indian population growth and the British which was simply wrong. It is also the kind of assertion that many reactionary politicians from Macaulay to Churchill to Boris Johnson have been fond of making. The British had some medical science – they were just not interested in disseminating it very much in the colonies. The generally exploitative nature of colonialism has been well understood in the West by writers as diverse as Adam Smith and Karl Marx. Why today’s Northwestern European should bother to deny this is beyond me. Of course, the failure to initially slow India’s explosive population growth is largely the fault of post-independence governments. They could have done better, especially when it came to education. There are also some structural issues dating back to the colonial period, but I do not believe them to be particularly important now. It does not cause me any embarrassment to say this, because it is true. Why you think this is some delicious irony baffles me completely. It is possible to hold two thoughts at once: 1. British colonialism was racist, exploitative, murderous etc. etc. It is at the root of some of India’s problems. 2. India’s problems with overpopulation are largely a post-independence phenomenon, driven by improvements in healthcare (especially vaccination). Anyway, this thread grows even more unproductive than it was to start with, so feel free to have the last post (or three). 148. amy Says: Scott #137: A coding academy’s a trade school; if they’re good at it, then that makes sense. I’d argue that Embry-Riddle’s a similar story. But UATX is a liberal arts school, so you need to show up with either institutional heft of the usual sort or a denomination backing you. Re armies of non-teaching, non-research — already covered in #136. If you fire the tuition-rise starting gun by pulling away the “public” in public U, there’s a massive freakout and scramble to compete. So you need a substantial marketing and communications operation that you never needed before, because you’re competing now nationwide and hoping to net as many out-of-staters as possible, not to mention international. You need much more grants infrastructure (my department struggled along for a hundred years without a writer, but, not at all coincidentally, round about 2010 they realized they actually had to compete for grant money and haul some in, which meant being intelligible). You also need hella concierge service to compete with the privates, so student advising becomes a different operation altogether. You need your cruise ship staff, the residence life and student life people. You need dorms that aren’t crumbling barracks and nice gyms and cafeterias and “technology centers” and so on, and you need people to build and maintain and staff all those things. Layer on top of that things that go with serving most of the population and not just comfortably-well-off young mostly-male bachelor students, like disability services and family services. And someone has to pay for all this. If it’s not the public through taxes, it’s the students themselves, now or later. So up go the state-U tuitions — indeed the legislatures back then told them to put them up and charge those young freeloaders — and in lockstep, up go the privates. You wind up with rather neat COA tiers that way: (a) public in-state; (b) public out-of-state, public international, religious/small-college threadbare private; (c) ritzy private, with about a$55K COA spread across them, now. A seriously irritating, and troublesome, side effect is that you wind up with a chunk at the top, socioeconomically, persuaded that their kids will die in the gutter and shame the family if they don’t get into the most expensive rank of schools, so you get these elaborate and expensive admissions games that pollute nearly the whole range of college applications. We’ve also now got a whole layer of young adults whose training has been entirely in gaming the system and being as insincere as necessary in what they care about, know, and are. And they show up for work with one item in mind, which is to keep on advancing while hiding at all costs the fact that they’re not very good at what they do. Makes them dangerous and expensive, not to mention wildly unhappy.

Meanwhile, the publics, with few exceptions, really can’t compete with the well-funded private schools — haven’t got the money and can’t get it with tuition — but have to go on making a charade of it, putting on a brave and deeply cynical front and waving flagship programs while hollowing themselves out and chopping off limbs here and there. Which means that students coming in who actually need and can use real educations, but don’t have money and aren’t spectacular scorers (often, again, because they don’t have money and so won’t get the hothousing better-off students will) will slide through four or five or six years of rather expensive education without being able to get much of what they were after, because the courses aren’t being offered anymore and they aren’t savvy enough to know how else to work the large-public-U system.

Like I said — if we’d just been willing to look at all this 25 years ago and say well obviously, we the adults of the republic want and will increasingly need a well-educated population, public university needs to stay rock-bottom and ugly but staffed competently on the instruction/research end, fine we’ll have a daycare and disability services but for the rest you’re on your own, and everyone’s pay will remain modest because this is public service, none of this would’ve started.

It’s many years now since I last heard state-U faculty talking about themselves in ordinary conversation as public servants, much less the administrators. The annual-review software at my institution asks me every year what I’ve done that’s super in customer service, and every year I say that I don’t have customers; I am engaged in a matter of public trust, and am entrusted with the education of this country’s next generations. It does not matter. After all these years of being shouted at to behave like a business, the institution now tries to look the part.

When I’m done here, which I hope is soon, I will just advertise at immigrants and the children of immigrants and offer free writing instruction.

149. amy Says:

fred #146: Yep, all that No Parking on the Dance Floor and the Soul Train afternoons for little white children were underwritten by some mighty woke US public policy. If it hadn’t existed (let some government-graphics 1976 stars shoot across your mind’s field of vision), that scene from Fame would never have been filmed; we’d still have been on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). That public policy got mugged and fitted with cement overshoes starting in 1980, which is why you and I grew up during peak integration, even though my kid’s generation is the first majority minority generation we’ve got.

150. fred Says:

amy #149

I think it’s reasonable to yearn for a true “color blind society” (i.e. skin color doesn’t limit opportunities, through every stage of life), the question is what’s the best way to get there.

Wokeism is a take down of meritocracy. Who’s in charge shouldn’t be based on one’s capabilities, but based on how well one will promote wokeism. Ultimately it’s not about skin color or gender, because you can always question meritocracy simply because life itself is always unfair… in a homogeneous society like China or Russia, it’s still the case that a minority of people will win “the lottery of life” and are born more beautiful, smarter, faster, … and since that’s unfair (by definition, how can “luck” be fair?) and the perfect excuse to make sure those people shouldn’t be allowed to use their advantage to get any kind of edge on their fellow “common” citizens. When the USSR was a thing, their tennis players were making as much as a plumber. And in China we now see the take down of successful “self-made” private citizens (Jack Ma, Fan Bingbing, etc), the CCP just doesn’t want them to become role models, individuality is a poison (which btw is a core contradiction in wokeism, you can’t both do identity politics and then take down people based on their individual skills).

151. amy Says:

Where to start.

First, it’s not and never has been about “color-blindness.” Certainly the NYC of Fame wasn’t. That was about cosmopolitanism: you see color, nation, religion, all of it, and you know a lot about what they mean. You know the language, the food, what someone’s mother will say, you know better than to try to speak their language like it’s yours unless you’re flawless. You know what matters and why in their house. And you know that you’re no more a person than they are, and the city is no more yours than theirs — that indeed your city requires all of you — even if you hate their guts. Didn’t you notice what the struggle between the dancer and the English teacher was about? Did you think the other kids didn’t know that Doris and Montgomery were white? The city and the school — my, how we keep going back to Fiorello — bled that whiteness of a lot of its privilege, but nobody was colorblind.

As for meritocracy, the most thoughtful writing I’ve seen on it has been Sennett’s. (I’ve always thought the idea that we had such a thing laughable.) But to go back to Scott’s talk about prizes and such: what are you measuring? To what are you according merit? A broad societal ranking requires a near-universally-respected yardstick. You mention Ma; maybe you think a lot of Jack Ma. I’m not really interested in him; I don’t think what he’s done is that great. I wouldn’t encourage young people to emulate him. I wouldn’t discourage them, either, if that’s the sort of thing they were after, but I wouldn’t accord it special merit. On the other hand, I could name a lot of people I find quite impressive, but you’ve likely never heard of them.

More beautiful, smarter, faster — a thing I’m enjoying very much about this generation is how serious they are, and far they are, in taking such ideas of merit apart, and in the end how they manage to be both deeply practical and good at listening for and hearing everyone in the room, and asking why others aren’t there, whether it’s a problem with the room itself. After a couple of decades’ worth of insistence that everyone and everything is beautiful, they seem to have dispensed with the importance of beauty, shrugged and said, “it’s to your taste, isn’t it, and what’s it got to do with anything anyhow”, and stopped at “everybody is.” Smarter: okay, but what’s it for, and what kind of smarts are you valuing in particular, and why? Show results that people care about — not just you and your friends, but broad agreement — and they’ll consider being impressed. I’m not sure they’d see any reason why a tennis player should make more than a plumber, or indeed what the point is of comparing the two and attempting to set up a competition.

But there’s reams and reams of writing on these things out there already, and it doesn’t sound as though you’ve done much exploring, so I’d recommend you try it with an open mind and without looking for a fight, try to understand what they’re talking about. It seems to me that the way they’re working makes eminent sense on a remarkably quickly crowded, crisis-ridden planet on which people have just — all of a sudden — been able to see and hear each other easily, and that much in 20th-c. heroic thinking fails in that environment. Adaptation is necessary. Less lionizing of the individual is necessary. Fluidity is necessary. The new will keep washing in very quickly for a while. Of course, I don’t really have to argue the case, since the kids are just getting on with it, and it’s already becoming their show to run.

152. STEM Caveman Says:

@amy 151

sanguine philosophizing on the March Of Time is at odds with what these “kids” (who are often in their 30s and 40s, with children of their own) actually and incessantly post. It is remarkably toxic, ressentiment laden, and overtly antiwhite. Certainly anti white male, which means that sooner or later they will come for Jews and Jewish women as well. BDS is the first foretaste of the bitter cup. Brandishing ally credentials from the olden times won’t cut it when it’s all identity all the time.

153. amy Says:

STEM-C #152 – The kids I refer to are in fact kids. Which is why I call them kids. Under 25, most under 20. But hey, thanks for deciding I meant something else and then scolding me about it. And of course the kids don’t do anything that harmonizes with philosophizing about the March of Time: they’re kids, not old enough.

As for the rest, come back when “Jewish man” and “Jewish woman” are both subsets of “Jew” for you, and maybe we’ll talk.

154. Voloplasy Shershevnichny Says:

Re: Amy 151

I admire people who are flexible, who try to enlarge the space to include the excluded and who are focused on what works. I’m frightened by people who are rigid, who exclude people while pretending to be inclusive and are guided by confirmation bias. You mention that there are reams of literature, but somehow I wasn’t able to find answers to the most important question: what works? Not in a beautiful theory in my head, but in the real world? (I’d be super grateful for any references).

Take this question, for example: what social interventions make people less biased (racist, sexist, homophobic, etc.)? There seem to be very few large careful studies (and the replication crisis has taught us that we need many good studies by different teams and methodologies before we can confidently say something). But what studies we have suggest that the things we are doing – like diversity training – don’t seem to work and may in fact make people more biased! (see e.g. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25314368/, https://hbr.org/2016/07/why-diversity-programs-fail and references therein). Isn’t this a huge deal, that we’re doing things that are likely harmful, but pretend that they are helpful?

155. STEM Caveman Says:

@amy 153: the younger, the more extreme. The March goes always Left. “Philosophizing” refers to your rhapsodizing about the wisdom of the kids, not an activity that they do.

The slackers where you teach may be more Zen, but the leaders getting results, such as hounding 4 people off the board of the new math society (the “racist math society” as they are calling it), are the worst full of passionate intensity, and at a higher IQ point. Princeton 30something math PhD calling for the heads, and vacated chairs, of white men, with bolshier 25ish grad students behind her threatening Scott et al, and God knows what more incoming the current 20 year olds when they are the grad students.

I assume the point about Jewesses was obvious to everyone else: that the woke kiddos always begin the targeting from straight Christian white males and move outward from ground zero in reverse order of “intersectionality”; which (if memory serves) means they are also coming for you, sooner or sooner.

156. JKnecht Says:

Scott #137: There is some evidence that Lambda School have not been completely honest about their placement rates (see reporting: https://www.businessinsider.com/lambda-school-promised-lucrative-tech-coding-career-low-job-placement-2021-10 and discussion: https://www.strangeloopcanon.com/p/how-much-should-you-lie). This sort of exaggeration of one’s performance seems characteristic of (certain kinds of) startup types; compare your own warnings about over-hype in the QC startup space. This is not to assert that mainstream education is better, just that I would take tech claims to be revolutionizing education with a pinch of salt.

157. Wes Hansen Says:

Voloplasy Shershevnichny Comment #154

There is considerable data supporting the efficacy of Mindfulness Training in K through 12 schools; surprisingsly, it seems most effective when administered to the teachers! Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, is a pioneer in this area, although his focus has been on students. The CREATE Center at the University of Virginia was, I believe, one of the first institutions to focus on teachers with their Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Education Program. In addition to that, and probably most relevant to this thread, Arizona State has their Center for Mindfulness, Compassion, and Resilience, which promotes “equitable mindfulness” in culturally specific ways but specifically geared towards enabling teachers to identify and address their own internal biases. These programs use highly secularized practices, but most are based on techniques perfected over thousands of years in the Sramana and Bramana traditions of the broader Himilayan region. So of course, this is all being challenged in the courts by the Christians and the atheists, doing the grunt work for the pharmaceutical companies making a fortune off of ADHD meds.

I practice Buddhism, the Tantric version even, and it’s really rather difficult to think of it as a religion. But at any rate, much of what Davidson does is based on Tonglen meditation and there are several such meditations designed to cultivate the four immeasurables: infinite compassion; infinite loving kindness; infinite empathetic joy; infinite equanimity. It’s that last which seems difficult for most folks, myself included; that is, experiencing as much compassion, love, and empathy for the drunk/drug addled panhandler as you do for, say, your own child. Okay, even more radical, experiencing as much compassion, love, and empathy for the perpertrators of the Holocaust as you do for your own child. But according to Buddhism, and both nueroscience and cognitive science supports it, that is what is ultimately necessary for lasting happiness.

It’s quite interesting, what is happening in society today, past sins coming to haunt. It makes me think a bit of the Rabbi’s email exchange with Steven Weinberg. It also makes me think of the anti-substantialist thought of Gilbert Simondon; it was Simondon’s claim that substantialist thinking alienates us from our potential, which would seem a tautology. Some on here may appreciate Alex Hinton’s recent book, It Can Happen Here: White Power and the Rising Threat of Genocide in the U.
S.
; unfortunately, he’s an expert on the subject.

158. Rich Peterson Says:

William #112: you said

“The subject of police violence is actually another area where certain math is taboo. The chance that an individual black person in the US is killed by the police while unarmed in a given year is approximately 1 in 2,000,000 or less, depending on your source. A significant portion of these people are evading the
police, by the way. Meanwhile, three University of
Chicago students have been killed just this year.”

Your sources may be fine, what are they?

I suppose Black and African-American are approximately the same population in the United States. Without the condition of being unarmed, and considering only males, Edwards, Lee and Esposito in 2019(National Academy of Sciences) said

“Among all groups, black men and boys face the highest lifetime risk of being killed by police. Our models predict that about 1 in 1,000 black men and boys will be killed by police over the life course (96 [77, 120] per 100,000). We predict that between 36 and 81 American Indian/Alaska Native men and boys per 100,000 will be killed by police over the life course. Latino men and boys have an estimated risk of being killed by police of about 53 per 100,000 [41, 67]. Asian/Pacific Islander men and boys face a lifetime risk of between 9 and 23 per 100,000, while white men and boys face a lifetime risk of about 39 [31, 48] per 100,000.”

159. amy Says:

Voloplasy Shershevnichny #154: What works? I’d say look around you and talk to young people, who look at the world very differently than we did 30, 40, 50 years ago. So much of the anger you hear about attacks on white men and Bolshevik whatnot and leftist storm troopers is really just freakout at the withdrawal, over the last 20 years or so, of public approval of bigotries and thoughtlessness about who gets what kind of life and why. It’s read as an attack: you don’t approve me, so you must hate me and want to kill me. Rather than, say: you don’t approve me, full stop.

On the other hand, there’s an acronym that didn’t really exist 40 years ago: AITA. The point of AITA is not, as it would’ve been back then, to get your drunk friends to agree that you’re solid gold and that whoever didn’t like you is garbage. The point is to find out whether in fact you’ve been the asshole, because someone else thinks so, and it’s possible, but it’s not clicking for you. And often those threads involve some stranger patiently explaining in rather complex terms how it is that you’ve in fact been the asshole. The response to that is often genuine thanks for the new bit of understanding, the new point of view that makes it make sense. Behavioral changes come from those moments. But it takes being willing to say yes, IATA, and to ask a roomful of strangers about it earnestly.

That’s a transformation. It took a long time and involved millions of people having billions of conversations, developing common language for talking about these things and also developing new norms for gauging one’s own behavior. Consider that against what you’re looking for, which is a sort of 90-minute intervention and controlled studies of such interventions. I’m not surprising you’re not finding magic like that.

As for rigidity: there are always going to be enthusiasts and people who fling themselves at movements hoping to be saved. Because I work with people in their 20s who are just developing independence, often after coming from very rigid religious families, I see this routinely. They try to do ten years of becoming themselves in one, strain to make up for lost time, mostly with activists for “family”, and of course it can’t work. What they need is time and acceptance and, often, sleep. They’ll calm down. In the meantime, though, the only hold they have on a new and fragile sense of who and what they’re allowed to be, and of doing it right so they don’t just become nothing, is something doctrinaire. It takes time to wear it in and trust that there is an entire person and a life in there.

That’s not most of of the young people I see turning these ideas over, though. They’re just taking apart the world they’ve been handed, which obviously has serious problems, and looking at it more questioningly than young people have in quite a while — and they’ve been doing it since they were little, meaning that by the time they’re 20 many are well-practiced. They’re extremely quick to brush aside authority and privilege, and if you can’t explain why your way of going about things is sensible without those, they have no time for you and will assume you’re just trying to defend privilege. They’re doing more work in remaking a society that desperately needs it than I’ve seen any other generation do with my own eyes, and it’s heavy lifting, and they know that; they also know that time’s not on their side. And they don’t have the life experience to bring more than reading to this idea or that as possible alternatives. My experience is that in general they’re very cleareyed and modest about this: they know they know little, so this will have to do until they know more. It’d be different as, if the kids have been saying for some years now, the adults weren’t leaving major problems for children to solve, but as we have done, that’s how they’ll play it. I can’t say I find the take unreasonable, and just really hope they get the important parts right.

It helps immensely to see the people rather than the rhetoric, and be interested in them. I recognize that this can be extremely difficult for people who are either not very good at noticing people or just fear or are uninterested in people generally. If you can see the people, though, it’s quite a remarkable drama we’re living through.

160. amy Says:

Wes #157: it should also be noted that such programs can be used to avoid dealing with real problems within departments and companies by shifting responsibility to victims — you know, you meditate and calm yourself and all will be well. A group that ran such a program, funded by an NSF program that funds me, turned out to have a department so rife with dysfunction and abuse that of course the students were anxious and distraught, which came to light when one of them killed himself and was quite articulate about why. So — calm is good, but also make sure you protect the students and have the courage to deal with abusive faculty.

161. Sniffnoy Says:

Fred #150, amy #151:

OK, this argument — such as it is — really needs some definition of terms, or really, splitting of terms. I’ve noticed that “meritocracy” is one of those words that gets used differently by different groups; the people who oppose “meritocracy” and the people who support “meritocracy”, as best I can tell, simply mean different things by these words. This is not to somehow suggest that, if they defined their terms carefully, they’d find they agree, or anything like that… just that it would go some way towards them being able to have an actual argument.

Like, Amy — the idea of “meritocracy” you discuss isn’t merely distinct from the thing that those of us who say we support “meritocracy” are talking about, but going by your description would seem to include elements that are directly opposed to it. You’re never going to have a productive argument that way!

I could write a whole essay about these two different ideas and the differences between them, but, um, that would be a whole essay, and I don’t want to take the time to do that right now. I guess the short version is, that those who oppose something they call “meritocracy” seem to use the term to mean something like “there should be an overall societal ranking based on some measure of ‘merit’, and distribution of resources should be similarly based”, whereas those who support something they call “meritocracy” mean something that can be mostly summed up as “when you have to select a person to do a thing, you should select the person who would be best at the thing, rather than selecting based on social criteria”. (This recent essay does a decent job of summing up the position, although I don’t think it really addresses head-on the position of “meritocracy”‘s opponents… that’s just something I’ll have to write someday.)

I’ll call these positions “ranking meritocracy” and “selection meritocracy”, in the hopes of providing more clarification. So, to be more concrete, selection meritocracy has absolutely nothing to do with how much a tennis player gets paid relative to a plumber! Only to do with how one goes about selecting plumbers, and to do with ensuring tennis competitions are fairly judged. Similarly, making selections based on beauty (except in cases where it’s directly relevant) is exactly the sort of social consideration that selection meritoracy is meant to oppose!

Of course I say the sort of clarification I discuss would go some of the way towards being able to have an actual agument, because, like… basically most people are just really bad at arguing across differing sets of basic assumptions. Because what you have to do is, first off, notice that this is happening, and then second off, forget about the specific point you were trying to argue over (such an argument will go nowhere) and go argue over the fundamental differing assumptions instead. You have to do something like the double-crux if you want to have a productive argument. (You don’t have to do that in particular. But you do have to go back to basics somehow.) Meanwhile most people don’t seem to really grasp the idea that other people might be working from different assumptions from them in the first place, let alone get good at noticing when such an argument is happening.

But yeah, if you’re arguing against ranking meritocracy, you’re simply arguing against something different than what supporters of selection meritocracy support. (Of course, those who say they oppose “meritocracy” seem to frequently oppose both, or to support measures that attack both, but they don’t realize there’s a distinction and only seem to argue against the former.)

162. Wes Hansen Says:

Amy #160

The University of Virginia link in my previous comment is broken, or so it seems to me, taking me to Shtetl-Optimized whenever I click on it. I’m not promoting any for-profit programs here, rather, these are research programs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of Virginia, and Arizona State University. In particular, I find the University of Virginia research program the most insightful, primarily due to its focus on TEACHERS. The program is lead by Patricia Jennings. She was the first to receive a grant from the Department of Education specifically to study the effectiveness of mindfulness training administered to teachers; this was for her Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Education study, which was conducted in New York City’s public elementary schools. Currently, she is leading the Project Catalyze, a follow-up study conducted in Chicago’s public elementary schools and also funded by the Department of Education. Comment #154 was asking for DATA and I attempted to lead him to the portal; unfortunately, one of the most important links is broken! I’ll check this time before the edit timer runs down!

163. Voloplasy Shershevnichny Says:

Wes Hansen: thank you so much for the links. I will look into it.

Amy: I am sorry, I did not understand what the phrase “a sort of 90-minute intervention and controlled studies of such intervention” was referring to (english isn’t my first language). Did you mean some specific controlled studies about people asking AITA from strangers compared to people who don’t, or the frequency of this happening? I couldn’t find any. Although, of course humility and willingness to change is something i value and admire a lot. It’s great that you see more of that in the kids now.

I hope it all works out for them and for my young kids who are to follow them. I am concerned though about things Haidt and others write about our parenting style setting them up for a failure and responsible for the rising levels of depression. I think it’s important to try to figure out what’s going on without either antagonism or wishful thinking. (See e.g. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jan/10/by-mollycoddling-our-children-were-fuelling-mental-illness-in-teenagers).

Sniffnoy: this is an excellent point.

164. amy Says:

Sniffnoy #161: When you say,

===
I guess the short version is, that those who oppose something they call “meritocracy” seem to use the term to mean something like “there should be an overall societal ranking based on some measure of ‘merit’, and distribution of resources should be similarly based”, whereas those who support something they call “meritocracy” mean something that can be mostly summed up as “when you have to select a person to do a thing, you should select the person who would be best at the thing, rather than selecting based on social criteria”.
===

the problem lies in the presumption that there’s some ability to have a definition of “best at the thing” that is not itself deeply informed by social criteria. Which, in the end, are all we have. Humanities precedes and to a considerable degree defines the sciences, and in a more concrete manner, the reason so many people reading this blog have buildings to work in and work to do and professional societies that develop prizes and the like is that the larger society has, largely without knowing really what you do, deemed the work in some general sense to be worthwhile, rather than something viewed as obscene. For that matter, zoom in, and the definition of “best at the thing” developed by the professional societies is informed deeply by the profession’s own folkways, developed by people who showed up some time ago, and notions of what’s important that appeal to those in the profession’s inner circles.

I’ll give you an example — let’s go back to tennis.

When I was a kid, my grandpa decided I had major tennis talent, which was…generous of him. So I had a racquet. There were also public courts nearby, and lessons, which he paid for, but I never did understand the whole scoring business and didn’t much care about it, and decided a more interesting game was the Guinness Book approach, meaning “keep the ball going back and forth as long as you possibly can, and try to beat the record.” I had a couple of friends who also liked that game better, and we played it with great enthusiasm all summer long. While we developed no skill whatsoever in anything that had “opponent” as a basic concept, we were genius at resurrecting “dead balls” and keeping a “volley” (unrecognizable to any fan) alive. Great game.

Now. Who says this is not “tennis”? Official tennis associations, that’s who. And anyone who goes by their rules and interests. But what do I care for these self-appointed definers of tennis? Not much, and I don’t see why they’re so anxious to be definitive anyway, seems a bit greedy. So imagine from this the whole world of “you’re not really playing ______,” and you see how quickly “best at the thing” falls apart.

Well, let’s say you say fine, each variety of tennis gets to choose its own “best at” and award its own prizes, so you can make a dream team should you need one. I can only imagine the consternation this would have caused among me and my friends, because (a) “best at” wasn’t the point in the first place, and any argument for “best” would quickly have unraveled into matters of taste and perception or been evanescent.

Come to think of it, I had this conversation with a grad student maybe a year ago, working on a paper. I’d arranged a series of student project presentations which faculty ranked by, among other things, “coolness”. Is the project cool, that’s the question. The grad student lost his mind: what do I mean, cool? What is cool? I said, You never say ‘That’s cool’? — Well! It turned out no, he did not. What do you say? I asked, and after thinking about it, he said, “….Neat?”

“Neat-o?”

“No, just neat.”

I was perturbed — that seemed awfully buttoned-down, and surely I shouldn’t be having more fun than someone in their 20s — but okay! And it’s only my idea of fun anyway. It’s important to me that a project be *cool*, but he likes something that’s *neat*. (Apologies here to non-native English-speakers.) These are somewhat different things. Is one better than the other? Why should it be? Bring your neat to my cool party and let’s see what we get.

The problem with “best” is that you need to have a group of people who are firmly committed to ranking and find this so important that they’re going to devote themselves to metric-making and the resulting fights over what constitutes “best”. That by itself attracts a particular kind of person, who isn’t going to be satisfied with some loose association of coolness, neatness, practicality, whatever people are interested in: they want, by god, the best, which will be defined by the people who remain to fight over it after others have said “this is ridiculous” and gone back to their work. Everyone else is satisfied with “hey, that’s pretty good” and “that was lousy”, both of which are still open to argument.

If I’m going to select someone to do a thing, I start with the presupposition that the thing itself is going to change in response to whatever the people on the team doing the thing do, whoever they are. Then I’m looking for people who *want to* to do the thing, find the project exciting, and are willing to commit the time. Then the question is “do you have some hope of doing this at least reasonably well,” and I assume that this person will throw me surprises with their hidden talents, so as long as there’s baseline competence and some glimmer of being good at something relevant, I go in trusting we can probably get something pretty good. Then I’m looking for people who won’t be so miserable to everyone else that they skunk the whole project, and aren’t likely to be people who do fine on their own but will fight unproductively or unhappily when they have to work together. Then, unfortunately, I also have to find people who will simply trust me without understanding the whole project till later, because I have a bad habit of working like Klaus Kinski in Fitzcarraldo even when I try not to, for which I am apologetic. I explain this up front and people who need something more organized and less of an adventure generally understand that they probably won’t be happy — but a remarkable number of these people remain game. And all of this is still controlled by who shows up, which has to do with a lot of external things I have no control over.

It’s remarkable how often that approach leads to something memorably good that people think of warmly for years afterwards, something that’s generative for years afterwards, not least of friendships and other collaborations. Now and then it leads to something /mega/. Does it lead to something best? I don’t understand the question.

None of this gets to questions of equity, though. That has to do with how people get noticed in the first place, and also with the understanding that as a decider and giver of opportunity, you are responsible for understanding that (a) the world can change under your feet with no notice; (b) it’s your job to understand what you’re looking at when someone shows up and doesn’t look, to you, like an obvious winner, or even anything you’re accustomed to; and (c) your status as decider and giver of opportunities is largely accidental and problematic at best. More and more, actually, I’m inclined to step back from that position, because my sensibilities belong to the last century, and those values are to a fair degree in conflict with what happens now. If the young people say, no, we’d like you to choose, then all right. But they know more easily and more intimately than I, I think, what the moment requires.

Sennett really did say the smartest things I’ve read about all this, btw. More thoughtful than mine. But then he still thinks of himself as a classical musician.

amy

165. STEM Caveman Says:

@amy,

ranking in academic hiring and funding, which is what the woke “kids” are talking about in this context, comes from an imbalance of supply and demand. There is a competition for scarce goods and assignment by lottery is very far from optimal in most of these situations, so taking whoever meets a basic threshold and hoping for the best (which seems to be the algorithm you described) is not on the menu. Ergo ranking. Aspergery obsession with performance metrics is neither necessary nor particularly relevant to the current situation.

The status quo in these selections is that it is, on balance, very much to one’s advantage to be an underrepresented minority, and in the areas of STEM related to this blog, also advantageous to be female. Whatever racism and sexism might work in the opposite direction are, at least at the point of selection, more than cancelled (sic) by that.

The woke kiddos are demanding to change the status quo to an explicit redistribution scheme based on race, and to a lesser extent other factors in the intersectionality stack. “Meritocracy” here is a synonym “keep the status quo”, though some people want to eliminate all consideration of group membership. This is a very practical and specific discussion about things such as (to take one current issue) the claim by the wokesters that white professors can and should step down, and that their contributions will be easily replaced by minorities installed in their place. It is not a matter of airy fairy philosophy about personnel selection in low stakes workplace projects, but part of a larger push to reorganize society along South African lines, apparently permanently, as a wealth and status redistribution system backed by institutional and legal power. It may not be OK To Be White in the near future, and we all know who they will come for after that.

166. Voloplasy Shershevnichny Says:

@Amy 164: But it’s not all tennis.

When a parent runs into the hospital with a bleeding child she wants the best surgeon. But what do you mean by the best, you ask her, our society decided to place a lot of value on preservation of life, but that is somewhat arbitrary. Other societies have come to accept death as a natural part of life; there are many important social criteria to be considered when choosing a surgeon and your daughter surviving is just one of them.

Most STEM professions are closer to this situation than one might think. Yes, it may be difficult to decide who will make the best surgeon, we may be blinded by biases, and may not have the best system in place to educate and foster them, etc, etc. But the complexity of the question doesn’t mean there is no answer. There is: you want the kid to live. Our host may have to write a gazillion blog posts on whether quantum supremacy was achieved or not, but in the end it happens or doesn’t happen and there are teams of researchers that make it happen (or don’t). The education system either has teachers and curricula that produces people that make it happen or it doesn’t. Because most of the work is so distributed and develops on a large time scale it’s easy to forget the connection to reality. But the complexity of this connection doesn’t mean we can pretend it’s all arbitrary.

167. amy Says:

I’m not going to address Who’s Next paranoias, but I will address the presumptions about who I’m talking about and the question of what work is “low-stakes projects”.

First, the kids I’m talking about — the ones I brought up several comments ago — aren’t for the most part talking about academia. Their horizon’s a little broader than that, and even those in grad school will mostly not become academics; most aren’t interested.

Second, I don’t know what could be airy-fairy about this much of hiring, in academia or out:

1. Whatever you’re hiring for will be modded powerfully by the interests/abilities/ambitions of the person doing the thing. A successful academic candidate will read the room, see what powerful hiring factions are interested in, and show them that, but you can say goodbye to any control over that once they arrive and set up, especially once they get tenure. If you’re not flexible here, you’re going to spend a lot of time furious at what you take for betrayals.

2. You need someone who actually wants to do the job. Not “thinks they’re supposed to want to do the job”, not “likes the idea of the job”, not “wants the title,” not “will feel like a colossal failure if they don’t go after this thing they’ve been trained to and have the cv for,” not “sees it as a useful stepping stone to the job they actually want,” not “their mother wants them to have the job title,” not “doesn’t see what else they’d do at this point.” Wants to do the job. As it happens, not a lot of people genuinely want to do research professor work. Parts of it, yes, especially for more money. All or even most of it, no.

3. You need someone who shows signs of being able to do the job well. That’s all you get to see in the average academic hiring interview process, which is part of why departments have to give themselves the out of spending five years or so testing and hazing people post-hire before granting tenure. Indeed part of the carnival of academia is people successfully pawning their duds off on other people, then laughing, laughing, laughing.

4. You need people who won’t be so miserable to everyone else that they skunk the whole project, and aren’t likely to be people who do fine on their own but will fight unproductively or unhappily when they have to work together. This is crucial in academic hiring, where two or three bad hires in this direction can hobble a department for decades.

Or I don’t know — maybe you figure academic hiring is part of that broad category, “low stakes workplace projects.”

To tell you the truth, I don’t think academic hiring’s that tremendously high-stakes apart from lecturer hiring. Most of the work that gets done in any academic department’s going to die there, even when you start collecting Nobelists. Of the work that makes it out the door, a tiny fraction becomes consequential; very little of it was meant to be consequential outside academia anyway. Mostly what you’re doing that’s of consequence, to my mind, is training people who’re going to leave and do other things. But it’s not really the main thing you hire for. Yes, people do have to show some evidence of being able to teach now, and student evaluations, for better or worse, become part of tenure decisions. But on the whole you’re looking for people who’ll go get money (for supporting yet more work that, again, beyond training people, will mostly die within the walls of the department) and the academic prestige. To most of the people who’ll have anything to do with a university — not to mention most who won’t — these things don’t register. In that sense the profs are playing weird tennis.

We do keep coming back around to social definitions of merit, don’t we. Look, why not talk about food. Everybody needs food, that’s an easier target. I’d suggest vaccine-making but you’re only going to wind up at that immigrant lady who got stuck as a soft-money lab assistant forever and a day.

168. Sniffnoy Says:

Amy #164:

OK, I guess I need to get deeper into things! And revise what I said somewhat.

I think your objections largely fall into a few categories:

1. Criticisms of imperfections in meritocracy’s implementation, the best remedy for which is to implement it better. Attempts to determine who’s best at a thing are still influenced by arbitrary social conventions? That’s a defect to be addressed! Gotta meritocracy harder! 😛
2. An overall sort of fallacy of gray — well, it’s all socially influenced, so the difference doesn’t matter, does it? No, it does! “Socially influenced” isn’t binary, something can be more so or less so; there is a very obvious difference between using a test that maybe has some cultural bias on the one hand, and just handing out government positions to your family on the other hand. Yes, there are a lot of complications and edge cases — hell, I can think of a bunch more you didn’t mention; I didn’t bring them up myself because I was just summarizing. But the existence of edge cases has no bearing on the evaluation of the obvious cases! We can still say what’s more meritocratic or less so, even if nothing is entirely so.
3. Nitpicking exact wording (or possibly injecting things I didn’t say?) — sorry, that’s kind of my fault, I am the one who phrased things the way I did. But, well, as I said, I wasn’t getting too deep into things; my descriptions were short summaries, not complete definitions. But like, no, you do not need to literally find the best person to do any given thing, there are diminishing returns to search there obviously. (Not to mention, if you need to pay them, price may be a factor.) The point is not to obtain the single optimum result, but rather to care primarily about the goodness of the result in the first place; and as such to pick people based on relevant criteria, not ethnicity or family connections or what have you. Similarly, you talk about a hell of a lot of things as being excluded from selection meritocracy that… I would include and see no reason to exclude? So many of the factors you exclude I see no reason to exclude, because they do indeed seem relevant, and that’s why you mentioned them? I’m actually kind of confused where you got this from, I’m not sure that’s so much nitpicking my exact wording anymore as just… assuming things I didn’t actually say, because I don’t think I said anything that implied such narrowness.

Anyway, I guess you’ve forced me to clarify my positions, and try to get the idea closer on the nose. I don’t see that any of your arguments get at the essential point, so let me try to bring things closer to that.

I would say — and these are still summaries rather than definitions, but I think these are much closer to the mark than my last attempt — that the “pro-meritocracy” faction is basically concerned with getting things done, or perhaps doing things well or doing things properly. By contrast, the “anti-meritocracy” faction is basically concerned with distributing spoils while maintaining plausible deniability. (Of course, I’ve complicated things somewhat here by now discussing the people with these ideas, rather than the ideas themselve, which means now I’m dragging in all sorts of related-but-logically-independent ideas. But, well, that’s easier here, so it’s what I’ll do.)

I don’t know that I have time to go into a full elaboration on that right now, but let me see if I can state the essentials quickly.

The “pro-meritocracy” faction would say that: Doing things well matters; making things, inventing things, etc, all this is how people’s lives become better, with the benefits primarily accruing to the users of these new ideas and technologies (but, y’know, also to the producers who are paid for them). Doing things poorly has a seriously detrimental effect on other people’s lives! And people are not interchangeable, so who you pick to do a thing can matter a lot. If this results in, say, income inequality, why is that a problem? Nearly everyone’s lives are getting better; hardly anyone is being made worse off. When you see an improvement like that, you take it! Even granting that negative effects do result from such inequality, they’re dominated by the overall improvement in quality of life.

The “anti-meritocracy” faction, by contrast, sees everything as zero-sum, or something like it (“limited good” may be more accurate). Everyone’s lives are getting better? Fundamentally impossible. If one person is profiting, it must be at others’ expense, and therefore illegitimate; there’s no such thing as a mutually beneficial exchange. The only important thing about jobs is that people get money from them — not that they actually create anything or do anything useful. As such, it doesn’t particularly matter whether you hire someone good or someone unqualified; that doesn’t affect anything that really matters, because what really matters is who that income stream is going to, and whether it’s going to your family or faction. What really matters is distributing the spoils.

Now, I say that what it’s really about is distributing the spoils while maintaining plausible deniability. Why is that second part so important? Well, because it’s not about openly demanding direct payments! It’s about getting payments by being placed in positions that “deserve” those payments, so as to maintain plausible deniability. This is important, because it’s exactly this need to maintain plausible deniability that makes the whole thing so destructive! They can’t openly demand payments because people wouldn’t go for that; but if such payments were to happen, it would actually be better (if we ignore the incentives that that would create). Like the Mafia demanding you hire them to build your building — if they just directly extorted you, you’d merely be out money; but now, you’re out the money and you’ve got a lower-quality building. Direct redistribution is not as destructive as redistribution with plausible deniability.

(All this has come up here before, really — Sarah Constantin wrote a good essay on it that got guest-posted here. TBH maybe I should have linked that first, because honestly that essay was a good part of what helped me crystallize these ideas in the first place; I’m pretty sure I took the “spoils” language from her, for one. I didn’t link it first because, um, I think I forgot how much it had influenced me until reskimming it just now.)

So I hope that clarifies the distinction I’m making. The pro-meritocracy faction doesn’t think much about ranking meritocracy because they think of it as mostly irrelevant to anything that matters; some may consider it an unfortunate side-effect, but either they consider it a side-effect that can be remedied, or just as one that doesn’t go anywhere near shifting things into net negative The anti-meritocracy faction doesn’t think about selection meritocracy much because they think of that as mostly irrelevant to anything that matters; they consider it basically as just the mechanism by which selection meritocracy is generated, and don’t see much downside to throwing it out.

169. Sniffnoy Says:

(I should note — I say “the” anti-meritocracy faction, as if it were one thing, but I would say that it’s not one faction but multiple; they agree on the points above, they just disagree on who should get the spoils! Here in the US I’d say there are two such factions. But, yeah, thought I should correct that.)

170. Sniffnoy Says:

Sorry, one further comment —

I think I should expand on that “:P” because, like — whenever one makes a claim of the form “We need to do even more X!”, one can expect a response along the lines of “Oh, and real Communism has never been tried, is that it?” Nobody’s actually said that yet, but, I think this is worth pre-empting.

So, first off, like Scott, I dispute the idea that real Communism would actually be a good idea. 😛 But that’s clearly not the main point here, so let’s grant that it would be.

The problem here is, essentially, monotonicity vs unimodularity. That is to say: Did meritocracy create or otherwise increase these problems that I am saying would be solved with more meritocracy? Or has it instead already decreased them, and I am only saying that applying it more would decrease them even further? I would say it is the latter of these. That’s what makes it different from “real Communism has never been tried” — in those cases, the rhetorical Communist is claiming that real Communism would solve the problems that actually-implemented Communism has created or increased. I’m merely claiming that increasing meritocracy would further solve the problems that actually-implemented meritocracy has already done a lot to reduce.

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