## A low-tech solution

Thanks so much to everyone who offered help and support as this blog’s comment section endured the weirdest, most motivated and sophisticated troll attack in its 17-year history. For a week, a parade of self-assured commenters showed up to demand that I explain and defend my personal hygiene, private thoughts, sexual preferences, and behavior around female students (and, absurdly, to cajole me into taking my family on a specific Disney cruise ship). In many cases, the troll or trolls appropriated the names and email addresses of real academics, imitating them so convincingly that those academics’ closest colleagues told me they were confident it was really them. And when some trolls finally “outed” themselves, I had no way to know whether that was just another chapter in the trolling campaign. It was enough to precipitate an epistemic crisis, where one actively doubts the authenticity of just about every piece of text.

The irony isn’t lost on me that I’ve endured this just as I’m starting my year-long gig at OpenAI, to think, among other things, about the potential avenues for misuse of Large Language Models like GPT-3, and what theoretical computer science could contribute to mitigating them. To say this episode has given me a more vivid understanding of the risks would be an understatement.

But why didn’t I just block and ignore the trolls immediately? Why did I bother engaging?

At least a hundred people asked some variant of this question, and the answer is this. For most of my professional life, this blog has been my forum, where anyone in the world could show up to raise any issue they wanted, as if we were tunic-wearing philosophers in the Athenian agora. I prided myself on my refusal to take the coward’s way out and ignore anything—even, especially, severe personal criticism. I’d witnessed how Jon Stewart, let’s say, would night after night completely eviscerate George W. Bush, his policies and worldview and way of speaking and justifications and lies, and then Bush would just continue the next day, totally oblivious, never deigning to rebut any of it. And it became a core part of my identity that I’d never be like that. If anyone on earth had a narrative of me where I was an arrogant bigot, a clueless idiot, etc., I’d confront that narrative head-on and refute it—or if I couldn’t, I’d reinvent my whole life. What I’d never do is suffer anyone’s monstrous caricature of me to strut around the Internet unchallenged, as if conceding that only my academic prestige or tenure or power, rather than a reasoned rebuttal, could protect me from the harsh truths that the caricature revealed.

Over the years, of course, I carved out some exceptions: P=NP provers and quantum mechanics deniers enraged that I’d dismissed their world-changing insights. Raving antisemites. Their caricatures of me had no legs in any community I cared about. But if an attack carried the implied backing of the whole modern social-justice movement, of thousands of angry grad students on Twitter, of Slate and Salon and New York Times writers and Wikipedia editors and university DEI offices, then the coward’s way out was closed. The monstrous caricature then loomed directly over me; I could either parry his attacks or die.

With this stance, you might say, the astounding part is not that this blog’s “agora” model eventually broke down, but rather that it survived for so long! I started blogging in October 2005. It took until July 2022 for me to endure a full-scale “social/emotional denial of service attack” (not counting the comment-171 affair). Now that I have, though, it’s obvious even to me that the old way is no longer tenable.

So what’s the solution? Some of you liked the idea of requiring registration with real email addresses—but alas, when I tried to implement that, I found that WordPress’s registration system is a mess and I couldn’t see how to make it work. Others liked the idea of moving to Substack, but others actively hated it, and in any case, even if I moved, I’d still have to figure out a comment policy! Still others liked the idea of an army of volunteer moderators. At least ten people volunteered themselves.

On reflection, the following strikes me as most directly addressing the actual problem. I’m hereby establishing the Shtetl-Optimized Committee of Guardians, or SOCG (same acronym as the computational geometry conference 🙂 ). If you’re interested in joining, shoot me an email, or leave a comment on this post with your (real!) email address. I’ll accept members only if I know them in real life, personally or by reputation, or if they have an honorable history on this blog.

For now, the SOCG’s only job is this: whenever I get a comment that gives me a feeling of unease—because, e.g., it seems trollish or nasty or insincere, it asks a too-personal question, or it challenges me to rebut a hostile caricature of myself—I’ll email the comment to the SOCG and ask what to do. I commit to respecting the verdict of those SOCG members who respond, whenever a clear verdict exists. The verdict could be, e.g., “this seems fine,” “if you won’t be able to resist responding then don’t let this appear,” or “email the commenter first to confirm their identity.” And if I simply need reassurance that the commenter’s view of me is false, I’ll seek it from the SOCG before I seek it from the whole world.

Here’s what SOCG members can expect in return: I continue pouring my heart into this subscription-free, ad-free blog, and I credit you for making it possible—publicly if you’re comfortable with your name being listed, privately if not. I buy you a fancy lunch or dinner if we’re ever in the same town.

Eventually, we might move to a model where the SOCG members can log in to WordPress and directly moderate comments themselves. But let’s try it this way first and see if it works.

### 117 Responses to “A low-tech solution”

1. Triceratops Says:

Each proposed solution had its pros and cons. This one seems like the easiest to implement without drastically changing the nature of the blog.

Guardians of the Shtetl, assemble!

2. David Karger Says:

Scott, I’m happy to volunteer,

However, I think your design is asking for trouble—literally. As you’ve seen, there are trolls out there who take pleasure in causing pain. In a design where you look at the posts first and forward the upsetting ones to the committee, you will still be facing that hurt and the trolls will continue to enjoy it. I’d recommend you have the committee look first (and yes, this does require figuring out WordPress moderation).

Also, now that it has begun with such success, I am sure that impersonation is going to continue to threaten your blog. This can be harmful not only to you but also to the person being impersonated, so I think there’s a strong reason to enforce some kind of identity verification. This feature is already available through wordpress plugins https://wpengine.com/resources/wordpress-age-verification/ .

3. Domotor Palvolgyi Says:

I am just so curious what GPT-3 would do when asked to comment/troll on this blog…

4. Qwerty Says:

I was hoping you’d not even allow yourself to see abusive comments. In other words, direct a trusted close friend or family member to do the 1st pass screen of every comment, even before you see it. They must make sure you never see abusive comments. They could save the abusive comments they keep from you, in case you ever need to use them for any reason.

This way, potential abusers would not even bother. They don’t get the thrill of being heard by you. Instead, they get read by an unknown screener.

5. Scott Says:

Thanks, David! You’d be extremely welcome to continue advocating your chosen policies and WordPress plugins as an SOCG member. 🙂 But:

(1) I had a quick look through these plugins, as well as the ones you sent me earlier, and I didn’t see any that were quite what I wanted. They all seem to impose an onerous system that would prevent me from commenting, if I had to navigate it on anyone else’s blog or website. The ideal would be a system that looks just like the one now, except that whenever a new email address is entered, a ping is sent to that address to confirm it. I can then manually delete the comment if the name and the email address don’t match.

(2) On reflection, I realized that I’d be unable to bear any solution where people were saying horrible things about me but I was prevented from seeing it “for my own good.” That’s not what I actually want. What I want is for other people—ideally, people who are ideologically diverse and not my close friends or family—to tell me that the horrible things are so obviously false that there’s no need for me to engage with them.

(3) For what it’s worth, it’s now looking likely that a huge fraction of this week’s trolling, if not all of it, was perpetrated by a single individual who was motivated more by his own pain and depression than by sadism.

6. Michael Says:

So you have selected a very academia solution, namely to form a committee to discuss the questionable comments and have them make recommendations. I suggest not making the names of the committee members too obvious. Otherwise the troll(s) will make some outrageous comments, and then send you spoofed emails pretending to be committee members telling you that the comment allegedly from an MIT professor saying you are a smelly sex offender must be real and justified.

7. Steven Vandal Says:

Scott, that example of George W. Bush’s reaction (or, namely, lack thereof) to Jon Stewart’s criticisms is an ideal model of how one *should* respond to trolls. Trolls don’t act in good faith and are not worthy of rebutting. The trolls keep coming after you because you so reliably get defensive and engage with them—that’s exactly what they’re hoping you do! The fact that they can predictably get a rise from you is what makes it fun for them! Half the stuff they say isn’t even what they believe, or care about—they only say it because what they’re optimizing for is “bait Scott into reacting”. If you didn’t let them get under your skin, they’d get bored and wander off.

8. Scott Says:

Steven Vandal #7: Isn’t it obvious that, if GWB had been troubled by people’s criticisms, he would’ve been a much better (or rather, less terrible) president?

9. Bryan Says:

You might be interested in the ‘SquadBox’ project out of MIT CSAIL in ~2018: https://web.archive.org/web/20220408023450/https://squadbox.org/ (live site maybe having problems so using an archive link). Here is the academic paper version (which I have not read): https://dl.acm.org/doi/10.1145/3173574.3174160

The TL;DR is that a trusted group of acquaintances pre-screens things like emails and DMs before being seen by the recipient, who is experiencing online harassment. I’m not sure if this system can be tweaked to follow the behavior you are looking for here (eg, you flag messages for advice, instead of being pre-screened).

10. Steven Vandal Says:

Scott #8: Do you think hateful bullying and trolling is the same thing as honest critiquing? That you have to listen to all the former or else you might miss one of the latter? Has any of the bullying you’ve received been worth it? What percentage of those hateful comments have actually improved your life in the way you think GWB’s conduct would have improved if he had listened to all of his trolls along with all of his critics?

11. Scott Says:

Steven Vandal #10: I mean, I think, at least most of the time, that I’m a pretty decent guy who has little to learn from SneerClubbers or anonymous blog-trolls attacking me. The trouble is, GWB presumably thought he was a decent guy who had little to learn from a vulgar comedian like Jon Stewart. Since I’m terrified of being wrong, I therefore adopt a norm of listening carefully to all criticism. This norm usually serves me extremely well—e.g., I think a large part of whatever scientific success I’ve been able to have is due to it—but the past week’s troll episode has illustrated with crystal clarity where it fails and needs to be worked around.

12. Boaz Barak Says:

Hi Scott,

Good luck with the new solution! It seems rather work-intensive for you – I hope you find a way to automate things. One more suggestion is to take an X months period of “vacation” where you ban all culture-war type comments, no matter on which side, how nicely written, and whether you agree with them or not. Maybe some of the trolls will find elsewhere to roam. It is also OK for you to once in a while not allow comments on certain posts.

One weakness with the new system is that at least some of the impersonating posts seemed actually quite reasonable (one was even technical) and would likely not have triggered a call to the SOCG. However, it’s still the case that people that comment here under their real name would not want their comments spoofed (I’d hate to get a reputation as someone that cares about Lemma 25 🙂 )

I don’t know if WordPress allows it, but at the very least having automatic confirmation emails might be nice. This way, if someone comments in my name and email, at least I will know about it. Even if WordPress doesn’t allow it, a technically adept person might help write a script for you that scrapes the WordPress admin panel, gets the emails from the admin panel and sends confirmation to them. (That is, implement your ideal solution.)

Boaz

13. Doug Says:

Togas in the agora? Egads. The toga wearing Romans had the forum, and were wholly inferior. The only reason to read any of their books is if the Greek they stole their idea from didn’t survive to posterity.

Anyway I’d be happy to volunteer, though maybe I’m flattering myself to think my comment history is sufficiently noticeable. It is long, at least!

14. HasH Says:

“Jeder nach seinen Fähigkeiten, jedem nach seinen Bedürfnissen”
I am volunteer! No need to buy me a dinner signed copy of your book more than enough. (Amazon price= 1/4 monthly minimum wage here 🙂 )

15. Steven Vandal Says:

Scott #11: I understand that, and think it is a bit admirable, though I don’t know how you put yourself through it. But if you’re going to listen to your trolls, I highly suggest not *publicly* reacting to them—or, at least, not making a big deal out of them and letting people know they made you upset/angry/etc. That’s what keeps the bad-faith ones coming. Watching people squirm and get upset after they get their buttons pushed is the entire reason trolls do what they do.

16. Scott Says:

Doug #13: Thanks so much!

And ok, I changed “togas” to “tunics.” Googling just now, apparently the ancient Greeks wore something similar to togas, but true togas have to come either from Rome or from the Champagne region of France? 🙂

17. Allan Says:

Scott, I’d be curious to hear your take on this. Imagine a hypothetical U.S. where, instead of far-left woke ideology, far-right ultra-patriotic/evangelical/racist ideology was ascendant in all the institutions (corporations, government, academia) and super-popular among young people. In that world, do you think the nerd-hating bullies would wrap their insults in the language of right-wing politics (e.g., calling you a “fagg*t” or a “pussy” or a “cuck” or a “beta male nerd” or “unamerican” or “unpatriotic” instead of a “misogynist” or a “sexist”). I’m trying to ascertain the degree to which the nerd-hating genuinely comes from left-wing ideology, or whether it’s just bullies opportunistically exploiting whatever ideology happens to be ascendant and popular.

18. Scott Says:

Boaz Barak #12: Thanks!! I just installed a WordPress plugin to do email verification. Let’s see if it actually works! Someone try it, and email me if it doesn’t. 🙂

19. Scott Says:

Allan #17:

I’m trying to ascertain the degree to which the nerd-hating genuinely comes from left-wing ideology, or whether it’s just bullies opportunistically exploiting whatever ideology happens to be ascendant and popular.

I think the latter. Certainly history furnishes many clear examples of right-wing nerd-hatred (Nazism, to take the most obvious).

But it’s important to add: in my experience, left-wing nerd-hatred cuts more deeply psychologically, precisely because I’m intellectually and culturally so much closer to the left than the right. A-priori, it seems like the goals of

(1) understanding the world as clearly as possible, and
(2) saving the world from rapaciousness and destruction

ought to go hand in hand. From this standpoint, the entire project of left-wing nerd-hatred could be seen as driving a wedge between the two goals—i.e., demanding that people endorse various popular illusions, before they’re allowed to join the team that’s trying to save the world.

20. Olivier Says:

How about using OpenAI to design an automated cognitive bias flagging system that auto-hides comments with a link to the corresponding wikipedia entry for that cognitive bias.

That could actually work.

21. Yonah Borns-Weil Says:

“If anyone on earth had a narrative of me where I was an arrogant bigot, a clueless idiot, etc., I’d confront that narrative head-on and refute it—or if I couldn’t, I’d reinvent my whole life.”

I respect this attitude in a vacuum, but I don’t think I can express how much it contributes to the problem of trolling here. I’ve seen you express in a couple of your posts that your blog seems to get attacked more than other blogs because your views are more controversial. That’s not inconceivable, but I want to put forth another hypothesis; every well-known blog gets troll comments at some point. Yours likely has more people flood to troll it because they know their comments will stay up here, whereas on Tim Gowers’s or Igor Pak’s blog they either immediately disappear or are buried, hidden, and ignored. (It’s not as if those guys have never said anything controversial.)

I grew up in Boston, where (before I was born, when my parents first moved there) graffiti on buildings was to be a huge problem. What the city realized was that the best way to fight the problem was _not_ to give extensive PSA’s imploring people not to graffiti, nor was it to restrict the sale of paint cans nor even to arrest people. What worked was just to consistently wash away or paint over what had been painted, so it was always gone within days. That strategy did not work immediately, but after a while people gave up.

Scott #7: “Isn’t it obvious that, if GWB had been troubled by people’s criticisms, he would’ve been a much better (or rather, less terrible) president?”

This seems like a straw man; Jon Stewart wasn’t trolling, he was offering substantive criticism. When comedians did truly troll him (making jokes about his speech gaffes, or his grown daughter’s behavior, say), I would posit that George Bush made the perfectly correct move in ignoring them. What would you say of Obama similarly ignoring Tea Party-era criticism? For that matter, Elizabeth Warren’s genetic test is a great example of what happens when a politician _does_ respond to a troll. Did that help her in any way, or was it a pointless distraction that dragged her down to Trump’s (i.e. the Troll’s) level?

22. Boaz Barak Says:

Thanks Scott! Trying now the email verification thingy…

23. Michel Says:

Just testing email verification. 😉
BTW, my website is verifyable by my email address.

And yes, it works straight away.

24. Tester Says:

25. JimV Says:

I wish I could help with the commenting, and will try if asked, but my health since two bouts of covid is not good and some days I don’t function well.

I know you don’t want to hear this, but it does seem to me that a lot of wasted time and effort could have been saved if you posted more stringent rules* and stuck to them, as for instance Dr. Sean Carroll did on his blog.

* no or very few off-topic comments allowed (personal requests should be emailed); no cursing; no insults; if you wouldn’t say it to your mother or a good friend, don’t say it here. You (the commenter) can disagree, but without being personal about it.

I’ve seen people say that’s not the way they talk or write and they can’t change, and I’ve seen them change when the rules are enforced.

Do not worry about being a George W. Bush!

26. Allan Says:

So on Nazism—was nerd hatred really part of Nazi ideology? It seems to me like German scientists played a really big role in the Nazi war machine, and were held in pretty high regard by the Nazi government. Certainly they killed or exiled many Jewish scientists—but that was because they were Jews, not because they were “nerds.” I don’t recall any Nazi rhetoric about “gross nerds”—on the contrary, the best (gentile) German scientists were held up as exemplars of the Aryan race. Not that I’m defending this hideous and genocidal ideology, of course—I just don’t see “nerd hatred” as a distinguished aspect of it, as separate from Jew hatred.

Also, on this:

>>For what it’s worth, it’s now looking likely that a huge fraction of this week’s trolling, if not all of it, was perpetrated by a single individual who was motivated more by his own pain and depression than by sadism.

Surely you should post an update to the original post to this effect (that you are reasonably sure who/what is behind the trolling).

27. fred Says:

Now that it’s all settled, I’m anxiously waiting for intense discussions about the Majorana experiments… finally!

28. Scott Says:

Allan #26: OK, I updated the other post!

As for the Nazis—I mean, haven’t you read Mein Kampf? 🙂 Jews are contemptible because they’re what we today could easily recognize as nerds (in the most pejorative sense). They’re sexually gross, creepy subhumans who substitute nerd values, like hollow intellectualism and hairsplitting legalism and manipulating flows of money, for Aryan values like physical strength and bravery and true feeling and rootedness in the land. Or as Scott Alexander put it in Untitled:

And this is why it’s distressing to see the same things people have always said about Jews get applied to nerds. They’re this weird separate group with their own culture who don’t join in the reindeer games of normal society. They dress weird and talk weird. They’re conventionally unattractive and have too much facial hair. But worst of all, they have the chutzpah to do all that and also be successful. Having been excluded from all of the popular jobs, they end up in the unpopular but lucrative jobs, for which they get called greedy parasites in the Jews’ case, and “the most useless and deficient individuals in society” in the case of the feminist article on nerds I referenced earlier.
29. Shmi Says:

Hope the team of Shtetl Optimizers will save the Scott Galaxy.

Like others, I think that fewer exceptions to the stated moderation policy of not publishing anything that is “ad-hominem attacks, hatred of groups of people, snide and patronizing tone, trollishness, disingenuousness, or presumptuousness” would be a good thing in general.

30. Scott Says:

fred #27:

Now that it’s all settled, I’m anxiously waiting for intense discussions about the Majorana experiments… finally!

That’s actually a great idea! I’m not sure I’ll do an additional post about it—it’s too far from what I know—but why don’t people discuss the experiments right here in this thread!

31. Topologist Guy Says:

The pogrom was long and bloody, but with the arrival of the Guardians, peace has finally returned to the Shtetl 🙂

1. SOCG sounds a bit lame…but the Guardians of the Shtetl sounds way, way cooler to me 🙂 Petition to call this group the Guardians of the Shtetl!

2. You’ve got to ensure that this Committee won’t be biased one way or the other politically. Obviously, comments attacking your personal hygiene / sex life / whatever else along those lines should be sent to the Guardians and promptly dismissed. But if I come here to tell you that the vaccines are dangerous, or that there’s so much evidence that Trump actually won the election (which is true imo), or that the January 6 protestors were heroes and patriots, no matter how much you might despise those ideas, I trust that, if I express them politely and without using ad hominem attacks, they won’t be censored 🙂

BTW, you never did get back to me about my vaccine comment…although that was in the midst of all this trolling, so I can see why it would be forgotten. Perhaps I can post it again at an opportune time when you and others will pay more attention to it?

32. Scott Says:

Topologist Guy #31: Sorry, I’m not going to choose a name that implicitly equates the protection of this blog from trolls with the kind of guarding that the actual shtetls needed.

I’m actually fine with a certain amount of 2020 election denial, anti-vaxxerism, etc. in this comment section, but only because it’s so risible and ridiculous, to me and to 90% of my readers, that I rarely feel emotionally compelled to engage it.

The one danger is if the volume becomes so great that (1) it crowds out the many topics that interest me more, and (2) people do to me as they do to Scott Alexander, and wrongly impute right-wing views to me because of the balance of comments on my blog.

33. Domenic Denicola Says:

Scott,

I just wanted to let you know that, with regrets, I’ll be unsubscribing from this blog after 16 years of following it (since my late high school days!). It’s really stopped being a blog about interesting things, and become a blog about people being mean to you on the internet. Ever since that “comment whatever” affair which you keep referencing, the focus has really been on your persecution, interspersed with what feel like half-hearted attempts at technical content. It’s gotten to the point where I actively dread seeing the little “1” besides my Shtetl-Optimized RSS entry, because I know there’s such a high chance I’m going to slog through more of this. And at that point, it’s clear the right action is to unsubscribe.

I wish you and your community the best. It appears there are plenty of supportive commenters who are here for this material, but it’s not for me, and I’ve given up waiting for the blog to return to its good old days.

34. Topologist Guy Says:

I don’t find it so offensive to play on the “Shtetl” part of your blog name…but it’s up to you of course.

So I’m not trying to troll by injecting anti-vaxxerism and “2020 election denial” into your comment section here…these are my genuine intellectual positions that I’ve arrived at by following reason and evidence. It feels unfair that you engage with every troll who attacks you from the left, but you don’t engage with people like me who contradict mainstream opinion on issues like vaccines and the election. I understand why—it just seems unfair. I put effort into my vaccine comment and I never got a response.

And for what it’s worth, I think my prediction that the vaccines would generate new variants has held up. Look at this new BA.5 variant. Or Omicron for that matter. These vaccine-resistant variants all started spreading after mass vaccination was introduced. It’s well-established that mass vaccination with leaky vaccines can generate more dangerous variant strains. In the same way that overusing antibiotics generates antibiotic resistance. You can find numerous articles about this phenomenon predating COVID (mass vaccination of farm animals witht non sterilizing vaccines breeds new variants). So we can thank these vaccines for Omicron and BA.5 and all these double infections and nastier long COVID symptoms.

The vaccines are obviously not working. If they were working, new COVID variants wouldn’t be a problem over a year fucking later. The vaccines suck. I know so many boosted people who are getting Omicron and have bad symptoms. The government and the pharma industry obviously lied about the safety and effectiveness of these vaccines, and covered up the dangers.

As for the election. I know credible people in cybersec who tell me that it would be quite easy for a handful of officials in the Democratic party to basically rig the ballot system. Maybe I will get back to you on the process there. So the opportunity is certainly there. Combine that with the mysterious trucks full of 4 AM ballots, combine that with that convenient “pipe explosion” in the Georgia vote counting center, and the Arizona sharpie gate, and these “2000 Mules.” It’s got to add up to something. The whole thing smells so fishy to me, and it’s smelled fishy since day one. There’s no way Biden, the most unpopular president in recent memory, got more votes than any other president in American history. You just can’t make me believe it. I know I’m being lied to.

The bottom line is, I’m too smart to just eat up these lies coming from TV and the government. Yes, I do question almost everything, every assumption. I refuse to be bound by ideology or popularity or convention.

As for January 6. I think what our country did to the January 6 heroes is disgusting and shameful. I’ve been in contact with one or two of them (out of curiosity, not to plan anything…don’t worry!) So many of them were held in brutal conditions in the DC jail. In a completely separate part of the jail than the rest of the prisoners. And they were treated far worse. Some of them were beaten. Denied medical treatment. You can read a horrifying summary of the conditions (Rep. Greene did a tour of the prison…I know you don’t agree with her politics, but she’s one of the few standing up for these heroes). It’s like a Russian gulag or some shit. Do you disavow the treatment of these prisoners, even if you don’t agree with what they did?

35. Allan Says:

On Nazis: You make an interesting point. There certainly is a big component of anti-intellectualism in Nazi anti-semitism, and an emphasis on physical rootedness in the Earth in Nazi ideology (e.g., lebensraum). But I’m still curious if you can square this with the Nazi emphasis on developing science and technology, and all the high-level German scientists of the age.

On Update: I saw your update, but I was thinking something more along the lines of “Update: It’s looking likely now that actually one guy who was really sad/depressed…” etc. The only reason is, when I look back on this bizarre adventure, I want to see slapped at the top of the blog post some kind of conclusion to it.

36. Topologist Guy Says:

Domenic,

All due respect, but you’re full of shit here. Scott’s most recent technical post was just last week (posting his article presented at CCC). Surveying his recent posts, the vast majority are on some technical/CS related topic. A small number are about the persecution he’s received from the left, which he is totally justified in complaining about. And the fact that you would speak this way about the Comment 171 affair says a lot about your character. The major trend I’ve noticed since he took the OpenAI job has been fewer postings about complexity theory and more on AI/Machine learning.

37. Scott Says:

I almost let the comment of Domenic Denicola #33 be the first-ever submitted for arbitration to the SOCG, though I ultimately decided to handle it myself.

Domenic: If you want to stop reading, fine, though it’s hard to understand what’s additionally gained by depressing me.

I’ve been planning a big post about AdS/CFT, fully homomorphic encryption, brain uploading, and the Quantum Extended Church-Turing Thesis. I thought it would go up this week. It got preempted by posts about people being mean to me on the Internet. Not because the latter topic is more interesting than solving problems outside BQP by homomorphically encrypting your own brain (sorry you’ll miss that!). Rather, because the meanness reached a point where it was obvious that I had to find a solution before I could continue. I hope I’ve now found that solution.

It’s not easy. If you think it is, you try writing a blog for 17 years with this level of open, vulnerable engagement with the commenters, then come back and tell me how!

38. Karen Morenz Korol Says:

@topologist guy

A couple thoughts:

1) I think people don’t want to engage with this type of stuff here because it has nothing to do with the topics at hand. Lots of people love to debate politics but your entire comment comes out of left field and is unrelated to the post so no wonder not a lot of people are looking for such a debate in this venue.

2) I would just point out that *even* Jordan Peterson (just bringing him in because he sorta goes with the territory of your other claims) thinks the election steal theory is bs – his argument is that in order to believe the election was stolen you also have to believe that a variety of American courts at varying levels which looked at the election results are also irredeemably corrupt. As a conspiracy theory, it’s not very plausible because there’s just too many people who would have to be in on it and none of them turned traitor. Plus the theory presupposes that the Republican Party is so useless that not only were they unable to prevent such a catastrophic level of election meddling but they didn’t even credibly publicize it. I mean, you might reasonably think the Republican Party is pretty useless, but not that useless surely??

Anyways like most readers apparently, I’m not really here for a political debate so I’ll just leave it at that.

39. Michael M Says:

I think the e-mail verification is great! I thought initially it would be linked publicly. I also look forward to the future posts about brain uploading & homomorphic cryptography.

What’s interesting about this whole affair is it feels like something out of a Stephen King story, where you have enemies who can get inside your head and twist your worst fears and insecurities against you. (Minus the actual hallucinated reality.) I doubt I’d last long against them. Or maybe it’s even like Eliezer’s AI in a box. If they’re manipulative enough, their post will get out! To that end, maybe it sometimes is better to not even see the message!

Then again, clearly these trolls are far from superintelligent.

40. feminist liberal arts type Says:

Scott #11

May I ask why you are “terrified of being wrong”? I honestly do not understand this emotional situation. Yet I’ve read many people, both nerd and non-nerd, describe the essence of nerddom as precisely this: “fear of being wrong”. I’ve never been able to understand why one would look at truth this way.

I can understand fear of being wrong on a small set of personally or politically salient topics (truth claim: “Conservatives are more happy than liberals because they are conservative”). But, aside from really not wanting to get derailed into that conversation, it’s simply a fact that it’s only a tiny subset of things one might potentially be wrong about. On the other 95% of issues, which would seem to include (for instance) the entire fields of physics, literature and geography, I can’t see any reason why uncovering errors would be scary.

I think of the pursuit of knowledge as a pleasure. I enjoy learning and developing my mind. I consider it inevitable that I’m wrong about all sorts of things, simply because I am ignorant of the overwhelming majority (it would seem to be an infinity) of potential things to know about. I probably couldn’t name every country in the world. I know only a fragment of Chinese culture. I only vaguely grasp the implications of quantum physics. This does not fill me with fear, nor does the reality that many people, including yourself most likely, have a better understanding of some of these things than I do. In fact, I usually take more pleasure in conversations where someone does show me I’m wrong. Because, per Epicurus, that’s where I actually profit.

And, ultimately, what, if I die wrong about everything, is something going to happen? Is Truth gonna smite me? God’s going to give me an F? Am I damned to the special hell? I mean, one reason I like being more right is because it does help me stay alive and make my life a bit nicer. But, usually, it’s simply that I enjoy learning stuff. I begin with 0 knowledge, and enjoy each increase above 0. The point is not to get the highest or a perfect score. I don’t begin with an external standard of 100% truth, and feel I must live up with it. Why would it involve some sort of obligation or judgment?

Has not something gone terribly astray, if one associates education with fear?

41. Michael Says:

TopologistGuy #34: Assuming you’re not a troll… both Omicron and BA.5 originated in southern Africa, a part of the world with a low vaccination rate and a high natural immunity rate. It’s not a coincidence they originated there; they have a lot of immunocompromised people in that region due to the high-prevalence of HIV there. Vaccination didn’t create these variants.

The virus mutated too fast for the vaccines to be that effective in preventing infection for the later variants, but they’re still pretty effective in preventing death and severe disease. We don’t have the technology to prevent infection overall unfortunately. But vaccines don’t increase the number of new variants. More cases usually means more variants due to the increased number of chances for mutation. A larger number of severe cases has a similar effect.

42. Dan Staley Says:

Topologist Guy #34: What do you think would have happened if those “heroes” had gotten their hands on Nancy Pelosi or Mike Pence on January 6th? (I’ll remind you that they brought a gallows.)

43. ppnl Says:

Scott,

Why do you use blog software rather than forum software? I would think forum software would give you far more options than blog software. After all email checking and registering are pretty much standard on forums. You could set it so that only you or a mod could post an OP and it would effectively be a blog but with the power of a forum.

It would also offer us vastly more power. We could sort in thread order, search threads for key words, search the entire forum for key words or phrases or even locate every post we had ever made. Blog software has always seemed so stilted to me.

You would probably need help setting it up, administering it and moderating it but I cannot imagine that you would have trouble finding that help. A downside may be that it would allow participation to grow to such an extent that it would be an impossible mind suck for you. I have always been amazed that you participate as much as you do.

44. Richard Gill Says:

I’d be delighted to be a member of SOCG.

45. Ungrateful_Person Says:

You are a way better person than most Scott (me included) both academically and otherwise. Your willingness to engage with a diverse set of people: QC Skeptics, QC over-hypers, and now trolls makes me want to improve myself as a human being. While I would request you to never give in, I would also request you to shield yourself from easily avoidable pain by blocking these trolls who cannot hold a torch to you.

46. manorba Says:

oh nice, i like the choice except that i would prefer mods prescreening until you learn not to be triggered, that is ;).

i know i have no history in your distinguished blog rather than being a regular reader, but if you need someone for the europe/africa timezone…
i have no references but i have been dealing with these things since the bbs-fidonet era.

47. Daniel Reeves Says:

I volunteer for SOCG!

48. Scott Says:

Thanks so much to everyone who’s volunteered for SOCG! We now have 12 members.

49. Scott Says:

Allan #35:

But I’m still curious if you can square this with the Nazi emphasis on developing science and technology, and all the high-level German scientists of the age.

I mean, there’s a selection effect here: if they hadn’t emphasized technology, they would’ve been unable to start WWII and been a historical footnote. The Nazis loved science and technology as long as it was “Aryan” and “practical,” rather than “abstract and theoretical” like (say) relativity or quantum mechanics—the latter, infamously, was denigrated as “Jewish physics.” Heisenberg led the German nuclear effort, but never got anywhere near the support he needed largely because he was considered too close to Jewish physics.

50. manorba Says:

Scott #49:

“Heisenberg led the German nuclear effort, but never got anywhere near the support he needed largely because he was considered too close to Jewish physics.”

two questions:

1) I’ve heard many times about a silent boycott by Heisenberg himself of the nazi atomic project. I think he stated it sometime after the war. Can this be the reason why they weren’t able to get the bomb before the yankees?

2) Or was it just the deuterium from norway snatched by the allies as hollywood is so keen to remind us?

51. HasH Says:

Domenic Denicola Says:
Comment #33
“I’ll be unsubscribing from this blog after 16 years of following it (since my late high school days!).”
Hey brother, I was in 9th grade, first time i heard “democracy” with explanation from a teacher. He changed my life in future, when I have decided drop ghetto and gang life style and graduated from Political Science. Kicked out from 4 university because we fought against; fascism, assimilation, racism etc.
I visited that teacher almost every summer. Kissed his hands (not ring) and told him how his dedication teaching us real life changed my life. He was a physic teacher. But he always used last 15-20 mins to talk about politics, moral philosophy etc.
You followed Scoott 16 yrs and he explained why he is resisting against trolls but you still leaving him? Even with my primitive English, let me try tell you something about street (tru ghetto) culture. No one will trust you there, if you don’t stand with your guy, when he is fighting with low life trash people.

ppnl Says:
Comment #43

“Why do you use blog software rather than forum software? I would think forum software would give you far more options than blog software.”

+1

52. fred Says:

feminist liberal arts type #40

“May I ask why you are “terrified of being wrong”? […]I can’t see any reason why uncovering errors would be scary.[…] I think of the pursuit of knowledge as a pleasure.”

When a loved one is afflicted with a serious health problem like cancer or even a “benign” brain tumor, you will be dealing with specialists that will give you entirely opposite recommendations, which are often life altering and irreversible. And the choice is entirely on you, no one else will do it for you. The responsibility is massive and the cost of being wrong is totally petrifying. And having to research the topic on your own is certainly not a pleasure.

When you work on a massive technical project involving huge amounts of money, thousands of people, with tight schedules. You often have to make design choices upfront with minimal information, and then live with those choices. This can be terrifying as well.

53. Scott Says:

manorba #50: The deuterium snatched from Norway was certainly a huge setback to the German effort. But in retrospect, it was probably overdetermined that Germany wouldn’t build the bomb before the US—what the Allies learned after occupying Germany (though they’d had no idea beforehand) was that the Germans hadn’t gotten anywhere close. It was never a top priority, and there was never a Nazi General Groves.

54. Scott Says:

HasH #51:

Even with my primitive English, let me try tell you something about street (tru ghetto) culture. No one will trust you there, if you don’t stand with your guy, when he is fighting with low life trash people.

Ah, maybe that’s the frame I should’ve taken. In the shtetl just like in the ghetto, you gotta stand with your homeys. 😀

55. LK2 Says:

Even after all your lengthy explanations this whole story remains impossible to understand for me. I would have thrashed the troll’s comments and carried on. They were so meaningless, unfounded and stupid that I would not have spent more than the time to read them and laugh at human stupidity.
I really hope your blog will have long life and remain free as it is. You do a great job, Scott.

56. ppnl Says:

manorba #50:

Heisenberg was a pretty horrible person. It is true that he was not a nazi. But he was a hard line German nationalist. It is true that he didn’t like Hitler. But he did support Hitler’s war and simply believed that the nazis would be replaced by quality people after the war. He believed that the nazis could be tamed in about 50 years. Good luck with that. It is true that he was not particularly anti Jewish. But he believed that revolutions were inherently messy and the harm done to the Jewish population was an acceptable side effect of a political movement that would put Germany in it’s rightful place on the world stage. It is True that Heisenberg steered Germany away from the Bomb. But it was his honest assessment that the massive resources needed to develop the bomb would distract from the war effort and was very unlikely to produce results before the end of the war. He was probably correct.

Watch this:

57. Scott Says:

Oh right, it should be added that there’s a whole rightly-acclaimed play about the question manorba is asking, Heisenberg’s degree of complicity in Nazism.

58. fred Says:

That play has also been adapted to the screen, Daniel Craig played Heisenberg.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copenhagen_(2002_film)

59. manorba Says:

Looks like i opened a can of worms 😉

yeah i always liked the schroedinger picture more (of life, i mean, even if he had not been totally free of dealing with nazism).

60. Scott Says:

feminist liberal arts type #40

“May I ask why you are “terrified of being wrong”? […]I can’t see any reason why uncovering errors would be scary.[…] I think of the pursuit of knowledge as a pleasure.”

While everything fred #52 says is true, it’s also true that I’ve never worked in medicine, aeronautical engineering, or any other field where mistakes have obvious deadly consequences. (My new AI safety gig might be the first exception, although the path from unaligned text and image models to anyone dying thankfully seems rather long right now…)

The real answer is that the mistakes that are terrifying, are precisely the ones that seem to reflect poorly on you as a human being—by showing, for example, that you’re careless or deluded or unqualified for your job or racist or misogynist. In such cases, there seem to be only two intellectually honest responses: either change your whole life to acknowledge the truth of the negative implication about you (even by, e.g., resigning your job if necessary), or else show why the implication is false. What’s the third option?

61. Ashley Lopez Says:

Scott #11,

About “Since I’m terrified of being wrong..”: You meticulously went through and redacted (I’m sure) everything that could possibly reveal BA’s identity from the previous two posts’ comments. As a manager of a software development team I could not help wonder how awesome a software engineer you could have been if you would have somehow taken up that career instead.

62. feminist STEM type Says:

Hi Scott,

I’m a long-time reader of the blog and a member of the TCS and ML research communities. This is my first time commenting, so please forgive any formatting issues. I think my comment got caught in the spam filters, so I’m trying to repost — sorry for any inconvenience!

I wanted to reply to the following previous message:

Scott #60
“The real answer is that the mistakes that are terrifying, are precisely the ones that seem to reflect poorly on you as a human being… In such cases, there seem to be only two intellectually honest responses: either change your whole life to acknowledge the truth of the negative implication about you (even by, e.g., resigning your job if necessary), or else show why the implication is false. What’s the third option?”

The third option is to recognize that

* The world is not so binary, and often more context, specificity, and subtlety are needed to understand mistakes (it’s not only “change my whole life” or “prove implication is false”, for instance one could “understand how in a certain context an action hurt someone, and correct for that in the future after acknowledging the harm and not taking the person’s hurt personally”).

* It is actions that are good or bad, not people. People who have the best of intentions can make mistakes, and making a well-intentioned mistake doesn’t eternally reflect poorly on you as a human being.

As an addendum, in response to “to acknowledge the truth of the negative implication about you”: It doesn’t seem to me that the reason to change one’s actions should be because of what other people might think — it should instead be because you want to reduce harm caused to others and help others.

If you’re at a place where you have the emotional bandwidth to engage, I’d highly recommend “The Wake Up” by Michelle MiJung Kim. It was super helpful for me for understanding how to handle making unintentional mistakes.

I’d like to close with a relevant quote from one of my favorite authors, Brandon Sanderson:
“Sometimes a hypocrite is nothing more than a man in the process of changing.” — it’s not intellectually dishonest to not have all the answers and a precise completely consistent position as you continue to learn and change!

63. ppnl Says:

Topologist Guy, #31

>” You’ve got to ensure that this Committee won’t be biased one way or the other politically. ”

Yeah, the problem with that is I cannot read one of your posts without strongly suspecting a Poe. Maybe you are serious but either way I don’t think I could have a meaningful conversation with you any more than I could have a meaningful conversation with David Mabus. So what are the chances that we could agree on what is or isn’t political bias?

Beyond that this is Scott’s blog. He has a right to his political bias and maybe even a moral duty to it in his eyes. If Scott is ok with the political agenda of his mods then we have no say in it. And we shouldn’t.

And beyond even that I think it is clear that Scott isn’t interested in using the blog to silence any particular political agenda. But that is his choice.

64. Doug Says:

FST #60:
I think these are completely compatible accounts though, because change can hurt. One can be committed to process, to becoming, to learning, to improving, and recognize that the self is not a complete fluid. One is open to the work, willing to engage in the work, that follows from the listening, and yet, it is work. One must break with the past self. There’s more scar tissue to contend with than wakefulness.

For example, do I regard high school Doug as charmingly naive, or utterly cringe? Eh, I would rather not get into it. Perhaps charming. Grad school Doug though…

>>> It doesn’t seem to me that the reason to change one’s actions should be because of what other people might think — it should instead be because you want to reduce harm caused to others and help others.

Actually I think we’re much better off if we base our notion of harm in other people’s accountings of harm done to them. Using your own definitions of harm and help can cover an awful lot of sin.
But this is also why I accept the more adversarial goadings, and don’t tone police folks to try to make the case for justice more gently or with more accommodation. I’ve personally only found the jarring approach to work.

65. 1Zer0 Says:

Hey Scott, I am glad you figured out a way to bury the zombies / troll armies and I am very much looking forward to your post on “AdS/CFT, fully homomorphic encryption, brain uploading, and the Quantum Extended Church-Turing Thesis” ^.^
I am curious to see if and how your thoughts on those topics have been updated in the meantime – maybe you can even revisit some of the paradoxes of brain uploading mentioned in your “the ghost in the quantum tm” paper and how you evaluate or interpret them now.

66. Alex Says:

Scott,

I think I know why it upsets you that much. The philosophy behind most so-called social justice topics today is postmodernism. The latter is an irrationalist philosophy, and epistemologically it dennies that truth exists. Furthermore, with the defeat of right wing collectivism at the end of WW2 (Nazis, fascism), the left wing side of collectivism won their internal battle. The interesting thing is that both embraced irrationalist philosophies (Heidegger and the Nazis etc.) Of course, the left was more on the Marxist side. But when it became clear that the soviet union under Stalin was as atrocious as the Nazis, their long hope for showing the supposed moral superiority of marxism over capitalism and individualism à la Enlightenment received a fatal blow. Even more, capitalism and western societies were thriving. So, in an act of desperation, they simply gave up to any type of rationality (of the little that was left, anyway). The tactic now is focussing on the discourse, on language games, on shame games. They only want to win, and will use every language tactic they can, even if it amounts to perversion in the sense of acussing people of having inconfesable thoughts that they know is not the case. And so, a rational, sensible guy like you, who actually supports many progressive causes by true conviction (I do too, I fully support abortion rights, for instance), feels particularly shocked when attacked in that way. That’s normal, since it’s designed to work in that way. Contrary to what many said, I don’t think your personality is the problem, postmodern perverse discursive tactics are. And I’m not talking about trolls here, this has been developed since the early 80s at the top US social sciences universities (Rorty, Buttler), and in continental Europe (mainly France, with Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard), and before that, Germany (the so called “critical theory” of the Frankfurt school, with people like Adorno and Marcuse). And, of course, it goes back to the Nazi Heidegger, the proto Nazi Nietszche, the delusional and impenetrable Hegel, and it started with the radical empirical skeptics Hume and Kant (often seen as champions of science, but in their skeptical epistemology they actually laid the egg of the irrationalist future of philosophy).

So, as you can see, you are really battling with a very old tradition, with a long history. Unfortunately, today, in the hands of the postmodernists, it has become a caricature of philosophy, with violent discursive methods used as the main tool. This is worrying, since, with those bullying methods, they are intimidating people in the editorial boards of core scientific publications like Science and Nature (I had to unfollow them on facebook since most of the time they are just posting opinion pieces on social justice topics, but which are just mediocre essays on the usual postmodern chiclés, and, of course, with little science backing anything of what they say). So, I think you should keep fighting for your principles. But, do always keep in mind the history and tactics from which all of this is coming from. I think we, Enlightenment supporters, will ultimately win, since this type of irrationality only tends to bring darkness. Note that the collectivist right is also gaining power and using similar tactics than the collectivist left. Both are failed and immoral systems, not because I say so, but because history says so, they were both defeated in the XXth century (first the right, with the fall of the Nazis, and then the left with the atrocities of Stalin and Mao). But that was a long time ago, new generations want to believe they are on the “good” side, and the collectivist left offers an easy to get fast food set of friends, enemies, and methods, so you can think you are actually starting to do something real in favor of your principles. The result? The collectivist right crushes you with their abortion victory on the court. So, the problem is that those methods are not even good for achieving the causes they supposedly believe in. Too much time they have invested in discourse and language games and too little in actual rational persuasion. It’s up to us now.

67. I Says:

Glad to see you’re changing your policy for comments. It is years overdue. But you should set up some kind of red flag system for comments which lets you ignore them without consideration, as your time is valuable and you shouldn’t waste it on comments which aren’t in good faith. There’s better ways to become less wrong. In expectation you’d learn more by e.g. searching for credible people who have wildly different views to your own and reading their works over someone calling you a “cuck” or “incel” or whatever.

But couldn’t you have chosen a more shtetl-optimized name than “Committee of Guardians”? There’s nothing wrong with the idea of a committee per se, but the name just doesn’t work. Maybe ask the other Scott for some suggestions?

Oh, by the way, what’s your policy for people asking to interview you?

68. Scott Says:

Alex #66: I certainly agree that one can draw a line from modern social-media cancel culture back to postmodernism and other irrationalist philosophies of the past 50 years. I’m more surprised by the claim that one can draw a line all the way back to Hume and Kant! Or rather: it seems to me that many, many modern philosophies and movements could do just the same (empiricism, deontology, conservatism, secular humanism…).

I’m reminded of Ayn Rand’s insistence that Kant is at the root of all modern collectivist evil. It’s funny because it’s so arbitrary: one could imagine a parallel-universe Rand who loved Kant and hated cigarettes, and whose views were otherwise pretty much the same. To her, though, it was all an integrated package, to the point where if you reject any piece of it, you’re dead to her.

69. Scott Says:

I #67: If anyone wants to suggest a better name than SOCG, they’re welcome to do so! I was mildly amused by it also being the acronym of a major CS theory conference.

I agree to a good fraction of interview requests and a smaller fraction of podcast requests, as time allows. When the volume becomes too high, I often suggest colleagues who could be interviewed about a given topic instead, who are at least as knowledgeable as me about it or often much more so, but who don’t have blogs.

70. Psy-Kosh Says:

Scott #69: I’ve got it, the best possible name, the obviously correct one: “The Post Selectors” or “The Post Selection Committee” or anything in that spirit. 🙂

Shtetl: Optimized with postselection.

71. OhMyGoodness Says:

Michael#41

Based on NHS data from January 1st-May 31st a total of 1,400 unvaccinated in England died of Covid and 13,700 vaccinated. Normalizing just for vaccination rates (about 95% at least one shot) this might cut your Covid population mortality risk from .0005 to .0003 so a question of definition if pretty effective applies.

72. Bertie Says:

Good luck, Scott, and may your blog continue to prosper under the new policy🙏

FWIW I’m a part of your audience that respects your openness but still wishes you’d nuke everything that wasnt on topic, as the comments section just gets too tedious sometimes.

Best wishes

73. feminist liberal arts type Says:

Fred #52 and Scot #60-

Thank you both very kindly. This is immensely useful and most greatly appreciated. It makes a lot of sense, and fills in real knowledge gaps. I deeply appreciate the quality of conversation in this space.

And, Scott, while I suspect we have foundational differences, I want to say I have increasing admiration for your mind. You’re the fricking real thing.

Scott #60-

“The real answer is that the mistakes that are terrifying, are precisely the ones that seem to reflect poorly on you as a human being…. In such cases, there seem to be only two intellectually honest responses: either change your whole life to acknowledge the truth of the negative implication about you (even by, e.g., resigning your job if necessary), or else show why the implication is false. What’s the third option?”

I think feminist STEM type is totally on the right track. The question I see is why you associate (1) living in truth and (2) your moral worth as perceived by others. I understand the first flows from intellectual integrity (assuming you say your integrity out loud). But the second is a different psychological process, verifiably detachable.

Perhaps it would help to say that, as a queer woman, my life experience has been that the more I am true to myself, the more people look down on me morally. I would think that nerds could relate to this. Also Jewish people. As you have rightly pointed out, a common theme in Jewish history has been being hated because of self-actualisation. I grant that enjoying praise and disliking censure is close enough to a given for the human condition, but that’s different from attaching one’s fundamental self-worth to it. I mean, I love coffee, but I’m not going to hate myself if climate change drives coffee prices out of reach. The same principle applies to other people appreciating me.

To answer your question with a question, if you had to make a stark binary choice between integrity and moral approval in the eyes of your entire world, which would you choose?

~

On another matter, may I ask if you named your moderation team after the guardians of the Republic? I’ve wondered if you’re some variant of Platonist. Your poem referenced “the world of appearances”, and I get the feeling you’d take seriously the full implications contained within that phrase. But, then again, it was poetry. Do you think abstract objects, or some metaphysically transcendent notion of reality or value, are things?

74. Scott Says:

feminist liberal arts type #73:

To answer your question with a question, if you had to make a stark binary choice between integrity and moral approval in the eyes of your entire world, which would you choose?

I certainly hope I’d choose integrity! But there’s an inherent difficulty with your question: if I knew for a fact that my entire world would disapprove of something forever, then on what grounds could I ever trust myself that it was the morally correct choice? It would seem like the height of arrogance, like setting myself above the rest of the world morally. I mean, even the “righteous Gentiles” who rescued Jews during the Holocaust, defying their entire society’s moral order to do so, probably hoped to themselves that after the war, the world would vindicate their decision and immortalize their heroism … and they would’ve been correct to hope that, and I wouldn’t begrudge them for it in the slightest.

The height of virtue might be to do the right thing, despite being certain that you’ll burn in hell for it for eternity—like Huck Finn does when he decides to help the escaped slave Jim, in one of the greatest scenes in all literature. But I wouldn’t know whether that height has ever been attained outside of fiction.

As you know, I’ve sometimes staked out unpopular positions on this blog. In every case, though, it wasn’t because I wanted to wallow in lonely rightness, but rather because I wanted to convince the world, to make the positions popular.

On another matter, may I ask if you named your moderation team after the guardians of the Republic?

No, I wasn’t even thinking about that.

I’ve wondered if you’re some variant of Platonist. Your poem referenced “the world of appearances”, and I get the feeling you’d take seriously the full implications contained within that phrase. But, then again, it was poetry. Do you think abstract objects, or some metaphysically transcendent notion of reality or value, are things?

That’s a hard question for me. I definitely predict that if we ever encounter an alien civilization, then once we learn to communicate, we’ll find that they’ve discovered a lot of the same math that we have (e.g., primes, complex numbers, Turing-computability), and even a lot of the same moral concepts (e.g., keeping promises, the Golden Rule). Some people might say that makes me a Platonist, at least about those mathematical and moral ideas that I think are truly universal. But maybe it just makes me an “anti-anti-Platonist”! I.e., the point is not that these ideas float around in some Platonic World of Forms of which our world is just a crude copy, but simply that they’re deep and universal enough that they inevitably would’ve been discovered. Even if we had tentacles and lived on Planet Zork. Even if we lived in a 17-dimensional universe with totally different laws of physics.

75. JimV Says:

OMG at #71: At this point most of the unvaccinated in the UK have had covid (possibly twice as I did, once before vaccinations were widely available and again six months after vaccination but before getting a scheduled booster shot) and either died (hence not part of your sample) or developed their natural immune responses; your calculations based on virgin populations do not apply. See actual peer-reviewed studies for better data.

(Neither 71 nor this comment would be allowed under my rules, unless the post was about covid. I believe this would have been a positive gain to most blog readers. Certainly to my peace of mind–I too have difficulty not responding and need saving from myself.)

76. Open AI Says:

Maybe the whole trolling affair is a psyop or marketing ploy by Open AI. 😉

77. Nilima Nigam Says:

Holy Toledo – I’d taken a couple of weeks off from online-y things, and am just catching up! Scott, I’m so very sorry that you and your family were subjected to this gross trolling. I’m very grateful for all it is possible to learn from this blog, and also to you for hosting it. It is appalling that your willingness to engage with your readers has lead to this place, and hopefully the new moderation approach(es) will work.

Maybe this was already suggested in the other (300+!?) comments on the previous post somewhere, but would it be worth reaching out to the wonderful people who run the arXiV for how they do it? I think (could be wrong) that their automated moderation system flags ‘off topic’ content, and then a human looks at it.

78. Why does it sound familiar? Says:

Thank you for your interest in Shtetl Optimized. The Shtetl-Optimized Committee of Guardians has concluded their review of comments for this blog post. There were a number of strong trolls applying to get their comment published, and after much deliberation, we regret to inform you that your application is no longer under consideration.

79. OhMyGoodness Says:

JimV#75

I realize that many here want to participate in congratulatory self referential rhetoric concerning their ideas bereft of any discussion of reality. A place like Plato’s cave but without consideration of the shadows. I have tried to reasonably suggest that beliefs are sometimes contraindicated by some statement of fact that should be considered. My statement concerning the NHS statistics is a statement of verifiable fact. Your response is not a consideration of this fact but a suggestion I should leave the cave and stop talking about the shadows. I think the shadows are important but the consensus seems to be here that we prefer forming beautiful ideas in the darkness and so will allow you to return to your creations without any intrusive reference to the factual world outside the cave.

80. Scott Says:

OhMyGoodness #79: Any further comments trying to settle a factual dispute by lengthily comparing yourself to the prisoner in Plato’s Cave, or the like, will be met with a ban from this blog, appealable only to the SOCG.

81. gentzen Says:

Allan #35:

On Nazis: You make an interesting point. There certainly is a big component of anti-intellectualism in Nazi anti-semitism, and an emphasis on physical rootedness in the Earth in Nazi ideology (e.g., lebensraum). But I’m still curious if you can square this with the Nazi emphasis on developing science and technology, and all the high-level German scientists of the age.

Quite simple, the science and technology were there before the Nazis came to power. The Nazis drove that science and technology out of Germany, and reduced the effectiveness of the theoretical scientist that didn’t leave. How? They made people like the outstanding theoretician (and philosopher) Heisenberg work on actual experiments, and coordinate practical work. And the outstanding mathematician (and logician) Gentzen had to work for the V-2 project. What a waste of talent!

But it is indeed an interesting question why Germany played such an important role in catalysing modern physics in the form of quantum and relativity theory. Why did so many of the farthers of theoretical physics like Max Planck, David Hilbert, Arnold Sommerfeld, or Max Born came from Germany? At least for Göttingen, the impact of Carl Friedrich Gauß, Bernhard Riemann, and Felix Klein can be seen very clearly, if you dig a bit into the details. Also, the impact of the attitude expressed by David Hilbert’s riposte “Meine Herren, dies ist keine Badeanstalt” (1915) could have contributed (not sure whether it was 1917 or 1918 when Lise Meitner was appointed the head of her own physics section).

82. OhMyGoodness Says:

Please ban me-seal the cave to my intrusion. I will not appeal.

83. mls Says:

Dr. Aaronson #68, Alex #66

The comment in Alex #66 is extremely common among those who would defend realist paradigms of truth with the objective of promoting rationalism.

Without question, the modern account for a defense of skepticism lies with Hume. What is far more arguable is whether or not Kant’s concession of the soundness of Hume’s argument justifies calling Kant’s work “sceptical epistemology.” Kant had attempted to recover a framework for “objective knowledge” after conceding that “absolute knowledge” is not possible in the face of Hume’s argument.

Ask yourself if the theory of evolution is among our best science? That reductionism can provide partial explanations for biological systems of a mechanistc nature does not change the fact that whatever may comprise the sum of human knowledge is the product of biological organisms who interact with a material reality through sensation. All that Kant had attempted to do was to establish the relationship between what we can know about material reality to how we interact as individuals with that material reality.

As we can now affirm because of the eventual progression of mathematical thought is that the price to be paid is the realist paradigm for truth. The problem is not that there is no truth associated with material reality. Rather, what can truthfully said about material reality is always epistemically limited.

It is because of this epistemic limitation that mathematics and science must be silent about certain questions concerning material reality. Rhetorical arguments invoking expressions like “postmoderism” often — if not universally — presuppose that its audience will not question the authority of mathematics and science on the basis of epistemic limitation.

Relative to modern mathematics, one of the most significant passages in “Critiqe of Pure Reason” is where Kant relgates the principle of the identity of indiscernibles to logic and numerical difference to mathematics. Admittedly, this seems to ignore how Leibniz also referred to the principle with geometric analogies. But, when Leibniz did so, he also attached these analogies to the expression “metaphysical.” That, too, is a loaded expression when evaluating the defense of rationalism.

The significance of this passage is to be found in Brouwer’s introduction of intuitionism in response to the paradoxes which logicism introduced into mathematics. In particular, intuitionism leads to the notion of apartness (numerical difference). In turn, equality statements are no longer decidable. By contrast, realist paradigms of truth as defended by rationalists invariably treat reflexive equality statements as necessarily true.

Markov had acknowledged how intuitionism would be problematic for his constructive mathematics. In response, he introduced his “strengthened implication” to recover a bivalent notion of truth. But, strengthened implication relies upon “givenness.”

In Chapter 19 of Russell’s “Principles of Mathematics” you will find “givenness” discussed for his “relative view of quantity.” Since he can prove the truth of reflexive equality statements from his axioms, he does not give it too much consideration.

But, Russell had been a philosopher committed to rationalism in defense of science. In the same book, he states that he is formulating his mathematics to exclude philosophies compatible with religious belief.

When you see the expression “postmodernism,” start asking about mathematics. As Mozart asked in the movie “Amadeus,” which notes shall we throw out?

84. fred Says:

Scott #68

“I’m reminded of Ayn Rand’s insistence that Kant is at the root of all modern collectivist evil.”

That’s funny, after reading Alex’s comment, I was gonna bring up Atlas Shrugged.
It’s definitely naive in many ways (it’s a parable after all), but I do think that with the current irrational move into irrationality as the corner stone of society, shit will be hitting the fan very soon, e.g. as we’re already starting to see basic infrastructures (that everyone takes for granted) crumble down, leading to the realization that it takes “down to earth” engineers to get things done and keep things in working order, and this requires objective talent, i.e. a meritocracy structure.
If each new generation doesn’t improve on knowledge and the infrastructures, we have a monotonic decreasing sequence, and we all know what it converges to.

I just saw an example of this today, with a discussion on the energy crisis/doom in Europe and France in particular – as a consequence of inflation, the Ukraine war, and ramping climate disruptions… and all French politicians have now made a 180 degree turn on nuclear energy, but no-one realizes that after the technology has been de-emphasized for 20 years, the necessary know-how has simply been lost (i.e. there’s a gap of an entire generation of engineers).
The irony is that the French helped China built their first EPR reactors (third generation) starting in 2009, which have now been operational since 2018. In the meantime, the French have been struggling to get their own EPR reactor finished (still not activated after 15 years of construction), but they also want to start building more of them, and that will require getting some expertise from China.

And of course the same goes for the semi-conductor industry (crucial to power a big push into AI), which all moved to Asia.

85. Raoul Ohio Says:

Scott #8:

The standards for being a terrible president have dramatically shifted.

86. Ryan Says:

Scott #74:

The height of virtue might be to do the right thing, despite being certain that you’ll burn in hell for it for eternity—like Huck Finn does when he decides to help the escaped slave Jim, in one of the greatest scenes in all literature. But I wouldn’t know whether that height has ever been attained outside of fiction.

This is another example from fiction, but your comment reminded me of Jorge Luis Borges’s excellent short story “Three Versions of Judas”. I’d recommend reading it in full, although the summary on its Wikipedia page conveys the main ideas. In short, a fictional writer suggests that Judas makes exactly this kind of sacrifice when he betrays Jesus.

On the broader topic of this thread, I’m very happy to hear that you’ve found a comment policy that you think will work moving forwards, and I think it’s the best of the options you were considering. I enjoy reading your blog regularly, and it’s sad when trolls succeed in derailing discussion and hurting you.

87. Verdant Says:

I find all this strangely encouraging. One might be tempted to look at the vitriolic comments posted here recently as further ground lost to the radical views that seem to stampede across the internet these days, but as you say Scott, this blog has persisted since 2005 without major incident.

So often when things like this happen, a resource is lost as the generally reasonable person enabling it becomes fed up being compared to a random choice of histories most genocidal maniacs for the 805th time. It’s good to see that it didn’t happen here and that things are (more or less) remaining the same.

88. Shtetl-Optimized » Blog Archive » More AI debate between me and Steven Pinker! Says:

[…] The Blog of Scott Aaronson If you take nothing else from this blog: quantum computers won't solve hard problems instantly by just trying all solutions in parallel. Also, next pandemic, let's approve the vaccines faster! « A low-tech solution […]

89. gentzen Says:

It looks like the email verification feature interacts in an unfortunate way with the edit feature. When I tried to edit a comment I just submitted to fix a missing “/” in an end-tag, the comment still formated wrong after I pressed save, and when I pressed on the link in the email to confirm my email address, I got a message that my comment could not be confirmed. (Hence I will now resubmit my comment, with the end-tag already fixed…)

90. gentzen Says:

manorba #50:

1) I’ve heard many times about a silent boycott by Heisenberg himself of the nazi atomic project. I think he stated it sometime after the war. Can this be the reason why they weren’t able to get the bomb before the yankees?

No, this is bullshit, and not even Heisenberg himself publicly defended such a version of events. Maybe he privately told such a story before he worked out a more robust defense. His more robust defense was that he realized early on (less than a year into the project) that Germany would be unable to spend the resources necessary to develop an atomic bomb during the war. So he was in no moral dilema at all, and could truthfully report his honest opinion to his superiors, and still try to work out the physics and practicalities of civil and military applications of nuclear power.

2) Or was it just the deuterium from norway snatched by the allies as hollywood is so keen to remind us?

They didn’t even manage to go the first step that Fermi achieved in 1942. Both had computed that graphite would be a nice moderator for an atomic pile. During practical tests, both observed that their theoretical computations were not confirmed. Fermi’s group correctly suspected that this failure was caused by phosphorus in the industrially produced graphite, checked back with the manufacturer whether this was true, and whether he could produce graphite without such parasitic phosphorus. Heisenberg’s group just accepted the result of the experiment, and started looking for other moderators.

91. gentzen Says:

ppnl #56:

manorba #50:

Heisenberg was a pretty horrible person. It is true that he was not a nazi. But he was a hard line German nationalist. It is true that he didn’t like Hitler. But he did support Hitler’s war … But he believed that revolutions were inherently messy and the harm done to the Jewish population was an acceptable side effect of a political movement that would put Germany in it’s rightful place on the world stage. It is True that Heisenberg steered Germany away from the Bomb. But it was his honest assessment that the massive resources needed to develop the bomb would distract from the war effort and was very unlikely to produce results before the end of the war. He was probably correct.

Watch this:

Whether “Heisenberg was a pretty horrible person” is hard to assess, because Konrad Adenauer had forced Heisenberg, von Weizsäcker, and other German physicists into becoming “political actors” by his plans of atomic armament of the German military forces in 1957. We can safely assume that Heisenberg’s and von Weizsäcker’s version from 1957 of what happened in Copenhagen is completetly fabricated. But due to the circumstances, this does not allow us to draw any conclusions about whether they were pretty horrible persons or not.

Most of your other assessments seem defensible, but the video you linked under “Watch this:” is “probably indefensible, once one starts to dig into details”. For example, at 27:15

… When the Allies found his papers, only partially burnt, they “let out a yell at the same moment,” the papers were not in code and even included the address and phone number of Heisenberg’s secret location! By May 3rd, the Allies used this information to pick him up (because they wanted to keep him out of the hands of the Russians) and they placed him as well as his friend Weizsäcker, and …

This contradicts Heisenberg’s own account of events, according to which the Allies picked him up at home in Urfeld where he had joint his familly. So I spent quite some amount of time trying to verify this version of events, because it would indeed show that Heisenberg was much more sinister and lied much more than I previously expected. But so far, I failed, and it seems that Heisenberg’s version is even confirmed by the reports of the Allies.

I know that I spend much too much of my time studying history, because it is so interesting. It probably would be quite enjoyable for me to get in touch with “Kathy Loves Physics & History,” because she too seems to enjoy studying history. Maybe she has indeed a source confirming her version of things. However, this was not the only place in her video that surprised me, and where I spend some time trying to confirm her version without success.

92. feminist liberal arts type Says:

Scott #74:

Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts! <3 And my apologies for taking a while to get back.

"I definitely predict that if we ever encounter an alien civilization…. Some people might say that makes me a Platonist, at least about those mathematical and moral ideas that I think are truly universal."

Nopers, don't think that's Platonism. 🙂 That's generic Enlightenment rationality, with mathematics as a special case of truths which will be derivable from and applicable to anything in this universe, and maybe any possible universe (do forgive me I don't understand many worlds stuff). I pretty much totally agree with all of this, except a possible shadow of normativity in the word "deep". On ethics I totally agree that any possible minded being will, given sufficient development, converge on common principles inherent in the practice of cooperation and friendship between minded beings. But I also don't look at ethics like the point is to get the right answers in the back of the book. I find it very strange when people seem to think it axiomatic that the point of life is to be "good". Why would one think that?

It does make me wonder about something tho. If you believe, as I do, that humans and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri are eventually going to get to the same rationality regardless of contingencies, shouldn't the difference between nerds and normie humans be ridiculously trivial? This is the heart of where I think nerd culture has made a serious mismeasure: it's drifting hard towards the extremely dangerous conclusion that there are different types of minds. There's no such thing as "nerd science" or "autistic physics", and I would say the same thing for the kind of underrated rationality embodied in teh dreaded social skillz. As well as a lot of other things (art, sexuality, anything 'feminine', politics, rhetoric, fashion, sportsball) which nerd culture often seems to dump into a bin marked "alien, irrational, and terrifying normie emotion stuff to be avoided or controlled". That part is extremely reminiscent of Plato.

Oh, and just to place a bookmark, we use the word “virtue” differently.

“I mean, even the “righteous Gentiles” who rescued Jews during the Holocaust, defying their entire society’s moral order to do so, probably hoped to themselves that after the war, the world would vindicate their decision and immortalize their heroism.”

Okay, my main Holocaust reference is Timothy Snyder. And he paints a picture where the (extremely rare) rescuers tended to be semi-outsiders who had already learned the lesson that your whole society can turn on you. Either that or people like diplomats who were specially empowered and untouchable due to kinks in the rules. They might have hoped for eventual vindication. I don’t know? Maybe? Probably most of them at least a tiny little bit? But Snyder paints them as socially disconnected people motivated by something extremely internal like conscience, but even more by something they couldn’t explain even to themselves. A desire for others’ approval was definitely not a major theme. I mean, Arendt, Klemperer, and Milton Mayer are all pretty much on the same page about where the people driven by status ended up.

I get to know a fair number of people, and the ones who want to be “immortalized” are all weird. Status is definitely a very normal human thing, but most people seem to be fine with basic respect from society and a bit of appreciation from family and friends and work and stuff. I really don’t think people need to be gods.

93. Scott Says:

feminist liberal arts type #92: Thanks for the reply!

I come back, once again, to the “Greta problem,” which I’ve increasingly come to feel is at the heart of all of this.

Greta Thunberg could also be described as an autistic nerd who hopes to be immortalized as the savior of humanity. Of course she doesn’t put it exactly like that, but then, would-be saviors essentially never do. Certainly her entire existence is a rebuke to the vast majority of humanity, the normies who care more about fashion, partying, and sportsball than about saving the world from the climate catastrophe.

So then: should Greta, too, visit a psychotherapist, to help her settle for what you call “basic respect from society and a bit of appreciation from family and friends and work and stuff”?

It seems to me that, if you answer yes, you’ve forsaken one of the central planks of modern progressivism (one that I share, incidentally). The climate crisis can’t then be that big a deal after all.

If, on the other hand, you answer no, you’ve conceded that you have no problem of principle with autistic nerds forsaking the normie world to try to save or advance humanity: it all just comes down, at most, to a factual disagreement about how humanity is to be saved or advanced!

94. M2 Says:

I’m happy to be on the committee if you want me to, but you can probably do much better.

95. feminist liberal arts type Says:

I could be wrong, but my impression is that Greta Thunberg isn’t motivated by status or ‘immortalization’. I think she just cares. She sees a problem no one’s doing anything serious about, so she takes a whack at it, and good for her. I highly suspect she’d be overjoyed if climate change was fixed and she got zero of the credit.

I mean, who wouldn’t be? From what I can figure out from surveys, the way we don’t talk about climate change isn’t covering for true ignorance any longer. Everybody knows. It makes the Black Death and every genocide of history put together look like a smudgy detail. Just as the U.S. public actually does know about fascism by now, and everyone’s quietly placing their nasty little bets. Staring directly into the sun just hurts too much.

I’m not a fan of Thunberg when she reduces her politics to being autistic. I think she should own her choices.

Once again, I think the way the Rationalist-adjacent community claims to speak for all autistic/nerdy people is presumptuous and disrespectful. Especially considering all the oodles of highly visible autistic progressives on social media (most of them women or nonbinary) who are among that community’s harshest critics.

I’m not cool with narratives about forsaking the world, but its not because I disapprove of you getting too much of anything, or that I think you should “settle”, or I object in the slightest to your career choices. I have no objections to you enjoying life. What I object to is (1) mixing it all up with an extreme craving for others’ high approval, which has predictable massive bad side effects to self and others, and (2) actively reinforcing essentially premodern moral narratives which have a horrifying record of inspiring repression and persecution for thousands of years, including hurting me personally.

If you sneer down at people into sportsball, fashion, parties, etc., can you not imagine why others might see you as the bully and bad guy? I mean, if you needlessly trash talk people, why shouldn’t they just trash talk you right back? I don’t see why we need to start ranking anyone either way, but if you start that fight, you really shouldn’t be surprised if a more socially skilled majority finishes it in their favour.

~

I think the core value of the Left is equality, not martyrdom.

You seem to be claiming that you have a right to special honour and prestige in due recognition of natural superiority used in dutiful service to humanity. The word for this concept is ‘nobility’. It’s a claim to privilege and entitlement, not in the metaphorical usage of 21st century social justice warriors, but in the literal usage of late 18th century social justice warriors. We talk about white privilege and male privilege now, but these fights are all descended from the original struggle to cancel aristocrat privilege. It’s literally in the U.S. Constitution, in Article I, higher priority than the entire Bill of Rights.

Democratic culture can’t survive without social norms of rejection against aristocratic honour… which suddenly makes a lot of sense out of why Silicon Valley autistic IQ fetishists are on the only non-idiots on the same side as the racists and theocrats. I get it. If you think “who you are” is a natural aristocrat the same way LGBT people need to be who they are, then you’ll experience democratic manners and their social justice expansions as an attack on your very self.

96. Scott Says:

feminist liberal arts type #95: I appreciate that you don’t begrudge me my career or my wife and kids! 🙂 (And I fully believe you’re sincere about that.)

But in your comment, if you meant “you” in the sense of me personally, as opposed to some sort of generic Silicon Valley bogey-nerd, then you’ve ascribed to me a whole armada of views that I don’t hold and have never advocated, and many of which I’d forcefully denounce.

To focus just on the most important example: I’m a lifelong, passionate opponent of returning the world to “premodern moral narratives.” Why do you think I’m constantly banging the drum about the Enlightenment, as the best thing that ever happened in our species’ sorry history??

Granted, it’s true that I think we have more to learn from our premodern past than many of my social-justice friends seem to think we do. Here’s an analogy: it’s 1785. The American revolutionaries have gloriously overthrown British rule. Then some of them say: “oh crap! we’re actually in charge now! we’re gonna need criminal courts, a currency, a tax system, a foreign policy. How was all this handled before? Can’t we take any of that and modify it to suit our needs?” Would the people who said such things necessarily be secret monarchist sympathizers? Even if their names were Washington or Hamilton or Jefferson?

My view, in one sentence, is that the sexual revolution is in the same situation now as the American revolution was then. Among educated modern Westerners (though not of course, in much of the rest of the world), the sexual revolutionaries have completely overthrown the old regime. They’re in charge now. That, however, gives them the burden of solving the everyday problems that the old regime used to solve.

One of those problems is policing selfish male sexual misbehavior—what used to be called “caddishness,” and is now covered by a range of concepts from assholeness to sexual assault. After a brief libertine interlude in the 60s and 70s, the sexual revolutionaries finally understood that they’d need to police this stuff—and to say they accepted the job with gusto would be an understatement. We’ve gone from Woodstock and free love to Robespierre and the guillotine, and that’s not entirely bad! A good fraction of the men now being socially and professionally guillotined really do deserve it.

But a second problem that the old regime solved was to take the large fraction of young men and women who desperately wanted to be matched but who lacked the social abilities to seek out partners for themselves, and steer them into matches, via networks of families and friends. And here the new order is completely asleep at the wheel. To the extent it notices the problem at all, it mostly just ridicules the male half of the problem as bitter incels, losers, and creeps. It answers the question of what they should do only with more and more lists of what they shouldn’t do. Just look at the statistics: the percentage of American 25-to-34-year-olds in long-term relationships has collapsed in recent decades, with many of those who’d once have been married now living with their parents. By failing to take the problem seriously, the new order helps to prepare the ground for a horrific counterrevolutionary backlash. It might be of interest that I fretted about the likelihood of such a backlash, on this blog, back in 2014—when the idea of a Trump candidacy let alone presidency still sounded like a sick joke. (Well, I guess it still does.)

Anyway, that’s the nuanced version of what I think, about a single example of the ideas you seem to have ascribed to me. You can see how it might translate poorly to Twitter!

To move on to Greta. Yes, she really believes in the need to save the world from the climate emergency (and justifiably so). From the outside, though, it’s difficult verging on impossible to distinguish the urge to save the world, from the urge to be the world’s savior. In practice, the main distinguishing criterion seems to be how seriously people take the threat.

Take Eliezer Yudkowsky, for example: does he not really believe in the need to save the world from extremely powerful AI? Why, then, should Greta be lionized as a selfless heroine, while Eliezer is ridiculed as a nerd with a Messiah complex? As far as I can tell, simply because the people doing the lionizing and the ridiculing take seriously the threat of climate change, and do not take seriously the threat of AGI. This is my point: that it really does all come down to that factual dispute.

For my part, I certainly take seriously the climate emergency—it’s been a terrifying part of my reality since I was a child in the 1980s. On the other hand, if you take the breakthroughs of the past decade and extrapolate them forward 80 years, it now seems clear that the 21st century will be defined by AI as much as by rising seas, droughts, hurricanes, and famines. Maybe it will be the century wherein our species uses AI to help tackle the climate emergency. In any case, both topics are exceedingly worth thinking about! Simply because I’m a computer scientist rather than an earth scientist, I’ve now decided to spend some of my effort thinking about powerful AI.

97. feminist liberal arts type Says:

Scott #96-

I fear that we’re not going to learn from each other on sexuality. A feminist liberal arts type probably doesn’t have any relevant expertise anyway.

98. Christopher Says:

Question: this is kind of tangential, but why the term “precommit” instead of just “commit”? (Or if you want to take the Quaker approach, just say “I will”.)

I know it originated from rationalism (I think?), but I never understood what the “pre” in “precommit” was doing.

99. Scott Says:

feminist liberal arts type #97: I feel like I was having a decent tennis match against a worthy opponent who suddenly dropped the ball for no reason! 🙂

You personally might not have any relevant expertise on sexuality, but the feminist movement more broadly has been, for more than half a century now, the sole legitimate authority on sexual ethics among secular, liberal educated Westerners. So it shouldn’t be at all surprising if various constituencies within the secular, liberal educated Western umbrella (e.g., shy heterosexual male nerds) look to the only sexual authority around to address their problems as well, and complain if it refuses to do so!

100. Scott Says:

Christopher #98: As I couldn’t come up with any good answer to your question, I changed it to “commit” … and I commit to doing likewise in the future whenever I remember. 😀

101. Roger D. Says:

>> To the extent it notices the problem at all, it mostly just ridicules the male half of the problem as bitter incels, losers, and creeps.

I mean, this isn’t entirely wrong? By your own admission, Scott, this movement of disaffected young men is leading a “horrific counterrevolutionary backlash,” and many of them do support Trump or other fascist movements—so doesn’t this make them, in fact, “bitter incels,” or more precisely dangerous, violent, maladjusted people? If they truly are supporting a “horrific counterfevolutionary backlash,” doesn’t this explain why women aren’t attracted to their personalities?

Let me be more specific. Having read these (crazy) threads, it appears that the person who’s been trolling you and insulting your wife is, in fact, one of these angry, disaffected incels. I’m not just insulting him—that’s the way he described himself here. So, having been attacked personally by one of these incels, having seen your blog trolled and disrupted by an incel, having seen your wife insulted by this incel—why are you still so keen to defend and empathize with young men like him?

102. Scott Says:

Roger D. #101:

So, having been attacked personally by one of these incels, having seen your blog trolled and disrupted by an incel, having seen your wife insulted by this incel—why are you still so keen to defend and empathize with young men like him?

Good question! Let’s see…

(1) Because I’m unwilling to consign, I dunno, 50 million young men to the ash heap because one of them acted like an asshole and insulted my wife. (Would you be?)

(2) Because even if I were willing, I understand that for our side to be seen that way is politically suicidal—a gigantic gift to the Trumpist authoritarians with a bow on top.

(3) Because I know that it’s only by the grace of God that I avoided this fate.

(4) Because if—God forbid—some bitter incel who trolls this blog is later on the news for some violent rampage, I wouldn’t want it to be said that I could’ve tried to help and chose not to.

(5) Because, if almost no other “reputable” person on the planet is going to show empathy to the countless young men suffering in this particular way, then by default the job falls to me, as distasteful as I might sometimes find it.

103. Roger D. Says:

>>(3) Because I know that it’s only by the grace of God that I avoided this fate.

You’re not giving yourself enough credit here Scott. You’re a nice person. I doubt you would have ever turned bitter and become an angry, misanthropic incel who delights in hurting people. You don’t have that sadism. You really think that would have been a possibility for you? Seriously?

>>(2) (2) Because even if I were willing, I understand that for our side to be seen that way is politically suicidal—a gigantic gift to the Trumpist authoritarians with a bow on top.

So even though the incels are disgusting, violent and antisocial, we should still tolerate them, just because otherwise they threaten to destroy our democracy? Isn’t this akin to “giving in to the terrorists”? Or to Chamerlain’s appeasement before World War II?

104. Scott Says:

Roger D. #103:

(1) Yes, I’d like to believe that, not only would I have never hurt anyone physically, I’d never have even caused online distress for lulz the way this troll did. But that probably just means that I would’ve turned the violence inward. I’ve written before about how I came extremely close to suicide on multiple occasions.

(2) Somehow, all the nuance that smart, educated liberal people have learned to bring to discussions of terrorism and war, goes out the window when the subject changes to incels. It’s like, yes, fight the Nazi war machine with everything you’ve got, the sooner the better. But then don’t do to the defeated Germans as they did to the Jews. Don’t even saddle them with punitive reparations, of the sort that created an essential precondition for WWII in the first place. Instead, try to rebuild Germany into the sort of country that would never do this again. Likewise, smash Islamist terrorism, take out bin Laden and all his lieutenants, but don’t declare war against the entire Muslim world. Don’t say that, if some subset of Muslims cheered on 9/11, it means that no Muslim grievances against the West or Israel or whatever can possibly be justified.

Given this, what on earth makes it so hard to say the same about incels? Condemn Elliot Rodger with the full rhetorical firepower of the civilized world. Take out the next Elliot Rodger with snipers if you can. But declare that, because of Rodger, maybe 50 million sad, lonely young guys deserved to be ridiculed and shunned and to die alone? Is that either moral or strategically wise? What am I missing?

105. Roger D. Says:

Scott:

Islam is an ancient global religion, one that preaches peace and tolerance, and the vast majority of its adherents are politically moderate, aside from a tiny minority of terrorists. In the Western world, Muslims are a disadvantaged minority that face racism and intolerance. Incels, on the other hand, are a very new movement **defined explicitly** by bitterness, resentment, hatred of women, and rejection of mainstream society. Yes, while a minority of them actually commit violence, the entire group more or less supports said violence, even if “ironically.” And they come from a priviledged race/group (white men in western countries) that receive every advantage imaginable from institutions and society. They really have no right to complain—they just need to develop social skills and learn how to fit in. I blame the phenomenon primarily on the increasing entitledness of young white men and their rage that now they have to earn some advantages that once were handed to them on a silver platter (by actually learning social skills, for example). I do feel sorry that, for some of them at least, their parents obviously failed in raising them. But to compare Islam to Incels is not only offensive but pretty daft IMO.

To be honest, considering the damage this incel troll has caused not only to you but to the reputations of other academics, if I were you, I would “name and shame” him so he feels the consequences of his actions. But that’s just my opinion.

BYW, do you think there’s any relevance to the fact that all the supposed “woke” trolls attacking you here were actually an Incel masquerading as such? Perhaps the real wokes aren’t so bad?

106. Scott Says:

Roger D. #105: I don’t know the identity of the incel troll, so I couldn’t name and shame him even if I wanted to.

More importantly: thousands of wokes attacked me in the comment-171 affair eight years ago, on Twitter and Reddit and blogs and every other online forum, and even Salon and RawStory and other major national magazines. For weeks, I walked around like a zombie, or a death-row inmate, knowing that every time I returned to the computer, there’d be more vilification of me by people who’d never met me than I could answer or probably even read. It was as if this monster of the bullies’ and the popular kids’ hatred, the monster that I’d been running from ever since I left high school at age 15, that I thought I’d finally put some distance from, what with the fancy professorship and the awards and the wife and daughter … the monster was back, as strong as it ever was. It was an ordeal almost impossible to describe to anyone who’s never undergone something like it.

Tell me, were these all right-wing trolls yanking my chain? If so, that would be quite a relief!

You use the word “incel” in a strategically ambiguous way. Does it mean all the millions of young guys, more every year, who are now looking at lives of misery and loneliness and celibacy, because of “learned helplessness” in the face of a modern social environment that fundamentally has no use for them, an environment that preaches universal compassion even while loudly calling them creeps who deserve to die? Or does it mean the minuscule subset of those guys who actually give in, and go online to express hatred or violent rage? You’ll say the latter if challenged, and yet by pointedly failing to distinguish the two concepts, you strongly imply that you mean the former. Believe me that these guys pick up on that. They’ve been spending their whole lives picking up on it.

And yet we don’t actually have to choose between calling a large fraction of all young women shallow whores and bitches and Stacys and so forth, and calling a large fraction of all young men disgusting losers and creeps and neckbeards who are sexual offenders even if they never commit a sexual offense. We can have compassion for both. We can try to understand the problem and solve it. If nothing else, we can talk about it openly. That’s exactly what I’ve tried to do here, on the half-dozen or so occasions when I’ve unwisely stood in the line of fire. Welcome, and I hope you’ll join us. 🙂

107. Roger D. Says:

On the troll:

Surely the police could help you to track him down. The comment he posted here scares me—it sounds like he might be on the brink of a violent rampage. I imagine that a short stint in prison would be a wake-up call to this charming Incel that his behavior is unacceptable and future transgressions will have consequences. It will also teach hum that he has much to be thankful for.

I was perfectly clear in my post, that when I refer to “incels,” I specifically mean disaffected *white* males—i.e., who already have priviledge in our society. Beyond that, I’m not sure I need to make much of a distinction between those two camps. If you’re a priviledged able white male and you struggle with dating in our overwhelmingly sexually liberal culture that affords you every advantage and priviledge, there’s clearly something wrong with you, to be frank. Whether that’s a social skills deficit, or an entitledness that repulses women. Having known some of these “lonely” guys, a huge fraction if not almost all of them are angry at women or society. So I can’t disentangle those two groups (I don’t call you an Incel, Scott, because you’re Jewish and therefore not priviledged, and so I imagine that most of your social struggles were the fault of anti-semitism and not of entitledness or poor social skills).

I mean, obviously this is a big problem we should address, but not by giving in to the incels’ demands. I think a mandatory government education program would make sense, to correct their bad attitudes, antisocial behavior and misogyny. If we send them to basically boarding schools for a year or two under the care of government counselors who are trained at deprogramming terrorist ideologies, I think we could cure them of Incelism and teach them how to integrate into society.

108. Scott Says:

Roger D. #107: The troll was good at using proxy IP addresses. He’d probably be hell to track down. Having said that, I did actually send a report to the Title IX office of the university of the female student he impersonated, with the IP address he used for that. They’re welcome to investigate if they want to.

But I’ll note that this troll, as nasty as he was, did not actually make any violent threats. (I did once have to contact the police about graphic death threats on this blog, but they were because I refused to publicize someone’s P=NP proof. For real.)

Anyway, it’s almost a relief, somehow, to learn that your beliefs about this subject are even more idiosyncratic than mine! You can tell whether a guy is a bitter incel deserving of scorn, or whether he might actually deserve some sympathy, entirely from his skin color? Without needing to know anything more about his life and upbringing, his social anxieties or neurodivergent traits, the bullying or humiliation or exclusion he might’ve endured as a child, none of that? Really?

More pointedly: was Elliot Rodger himself not an incel, because he was half-Malaysian? Or what about the many Asian and Hispanic and Black guys who emailed me after the comment-171 affair because my words had resonated with them, and who used language pretty much indistinguishable from that of the white guys? Isn’t something deeply wrong with them too? Shouldn’t they join the white guys at your 1-2 year mandatory reeducation camps?

I suppose I ought to be grateful for the “dispensation” you’ve given me on account of being Jewish! Surely you’re aware, though, that the vast majority of wokes give me zero points for that in their intersectional hierarchy—that for them, Jews are just another kind of privileged white person, indeed under extra suspicion for potential Zionism?

Ironically, I’m more inclined to side with the wokes on this one, in the following sense: what I suffered growing up had only a very tenuous connection to antisemitism. It’s true that, from the earliest ages I remember, I had absorbed the idea, from the staggering realities of the Holocaust and the 2000 years preceding it, that the world was full of people who would hate and resent me for having been born, and that that was just how it was.

To be sure, anyone I met could overcome that prior by showing me the slightest bit of human kindness. But if they didn’t, then my mental templates for understanding them ranged from “passive bystander as the Jews are herded into ghettos” to “extra-sadistic Einsatzgruppen officer.”

On the other hand, it’s also true that some of the people who were cruelest to me were themselves Jews. And I knew plenty of Jews who were confident and socially adept and didn’t suffer from this sort of problem at all, and I knew plenty of Gentiles who did suffer from it.

In the end, then, I reject your effort to impose a racial litmus test for the human suffering that’s worthy of sympathy, for the same reasons as I reject the other side’s efforts to do the same. What do the wokes say in this sort of situation … “Do Better”? 😀

109. feminist liberal arts type Says:

Scott #99-

“I feel like I was having a decent tennis match against a worthy opponent who suddenly dropped the ball for no reason.”

Then I politely request some rules of engagement.

1) Please do not sneer down the divided line. I have the utmost respect for scientific achievement, but there is no cause for disrespecting others to secure respect for oneself. Please don’t put down the fashionistas and party girls and sportsball people. Please don’t treat art as a domain of unthinking emotion. Please do not disparage the humanities as unscholarly, or toss poor Walt Whitman over a cliff(!). One place where I will defend the Grey Tribe against the Sneer Club types is I really don’t like their classist contempt for autodidacts. I mean, Socrates and Jesus were just working class guys. It’s not a professional-managerial race. We don’t have to grade each other. There is no “higher” or “lower”, but thinking makes it so.

We all know that what begins in thoughtless prejudice can end in barbed wire. That’s what I was referring to with “essentially premodern moral narratives”. This idol-vandalising imagephobic nastiness has been around Western culture since the Torah and Plato, and it has victims. Like other prejudices, it immediately resurfaces in any period of decline from rationality, such as our own. I think that if you look at the social landscape of every progressive period in Western history, you will find that literally all of your causes do better when you don’t make Team Image your Enemy.

2) Please don’t treat evolutionary psychology as a given foundation. I’ve lurked around chat rooms full of biologists, psychologists, and anthropologists and mostly seen howling contempt for that movement. I’ve read a number of accessible exponents such as Pinker, Haidt, Baron-Cohen, and Kanazawa, and what I see is gratingly bad scholarship, arbitrary moral framing, inconsistent theory-building, unreconstructed bigotry, and all sorts of unimaginative philosophical assumptions. At a bare minimum, no strong version of evopsych is consensus science. Personally, I tried on these ideas for a few years once, thinking it was time to upgrade my thinking to “scientific”, and the result was the worst full-spectrum disaster of any intellectual adventure I’ve ever tried. It hurt, exactly the same way as internalised homophobia, and degraded my ability to do everything.

I don’t think people or sexuality (have to) work this way, and frankly I find empirical science to be the wrong tool for the job. Some problems are better handled by the arts, non-Analytic philosophy, or just ordinary life experience and intersubjective empathy. I don’t ask here that you agree with me, but I need to know you’re open to taking other magisteria seriously.

3) You’ll like this one. “Tell the truth, and nothing but the truth”. For instance, I promise I won’t drop another Straussian landmine such as “a feminist liberal arts type probably doesn’t have any relevant expertise anyway”.

~

Are these terms agreeable to you? Because I do think I might be able to help. You might find that those whom you seem to consider ‘politics of eternity’ Schmittian enemies could be your friends and allies with just a few updated priors. For instance, I totally reject everything you say about brutes, jocks, and cads, because I have more respect for male sexuality that that. Or because there’s barely such a thing as “male sexuality”, because biology is relevant to sexuality only in the sense that a physical medium is relevant to sculpture. I think you work with a mind-body duality which I believe to be a counterproductive construct. My view is that if you care about these troubled young men, you should cease reinforcing mind-body antagonism with Sorelian myths of Nerd Identity, and instead teach them how to translate intellectual ability into social and sexual strength. Not top-down like evolutionary psychology, but bottom-up like drama class.

I’m not sure if anyone in my life has ever suggested I might be a legitimate moral authority. I plead Socratic ignorance on all that, because I think they’re the wrong questions. In my opinion, the sexual problems of STEM nerds are not the inevitable consequence of autism, but more specifically the consequence of autistic hardware running an Abrahamic-patterned operating system with atypically rigourous integration. One thing the PUAs and incels have right is that being a “nice guy” rarely works. It’s not supposed to work! The reason other guys do better is they compartmentalise enough to contain the damage of Abrahamic morality and then use a differently wrong bro script for sex. Which has plenty of problems, but erotically speaking it’s better than failing on principle.

So if I have to make up rules, I’m gonna take after the Childlike Empress from The Neverending Story and pick just one—do as you wish. You have to start there. I didn’t say it ends there, and nerdy Bastian spends half the novel learning the hard way just how wrong it can go. But the Empress is still right that you have to step outside the box and push your parents out of your head before you can learn how you do you. Eroticism is made out of confidence and doesn’t work with self-conscious second-guessing. Straight guys are in some ways the last people to come out of the closet. Go on a road trip. Write poetry. Drop some acid. Find yourself.

Shame and guilt do not educate. If you feed my advice into your desire to be good, right, or rules-abiding, that is an interpretation you are placing on it. To my mind, using those kind of tools implies you’ve given up on someone as a person. They’re weapons of control, the kind of stuff you throw at Supreme Court justices and Vladimir Putin, not at children, students, or friends. Or yourself. The only rule I have to give is: “don’t put your rules in first principles”.

110. 1Zer0 Says:

There is the curious case of the Irukandji Jellyfish.
it’s the most deadly jellyfish known. Survivors go through extreme pain recovering from its poison. The curiosity though is that this jellyfish has no brain. Yet it has eyes and reacts to visual impulses.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irukandji_jellyfish

http://bioweb.uwlax.edu/bio203/s2013/lyons_kels/structure.htm

I have no further comment yet find this animal quite remarkable and I believe this fits here.

111. Scott Says:

1Zer0 #110: No brain, yet capable of causing immense pain to its victims? Does this jellyfish spend much time on social media?

112. SR Says:

Scott, I’d like to suggest the possibility that Roger D. himself is a troll trying to make you more upset with the unreasonableness of parts of modern progressivism.

Roger D, if you are not a troll, then I apologize, but I’d like to offer 2 points for your consideration:

Firstly, that the kind of rhetoric you use is in my belief *precisely* what drives many moderately feminist, sympathetic guys into becoming incels. Now, I don’t think this is a *reasonable* reaction to your rhetoric, or that it is at all morally justifiable to do so. But I think if you actually care factually about decreasing the number of angry incels in society, you are going about things entirely the wrong way. You need to meet these people halfway– show them some compassion, an alternate life path, and not attack them (or ship them off to be reprogrammed) based largely on immutable characteristics like race which at best correlate weakly with any measure of social privilege.

For a good example of how this can be done, I would point to the example of the comedian Bill Burr– he’s broadly left-of-center politically, thinks the incel movement is stupid, and is happily married to his wife of a different race. However, he also eschews political correctness, gives men (and also some women) sound advice on things ranging from career to dating, and models how to live an honorable life as an “average Joe” (the schtick of his podcast, although you can tell he’s actually incredibly perceptive and intelligent). Yes, this does come along with some misogyny, some invocation of stereotypes, and buying into some conspiracy theories. But if it means that his audience relates to him and takes him more seriously, and if even 5% of his 100k+ listeners in the process go from ‘incel reactionary’ to ‘political moderate with internalized misogyny’, I think that’s an enormous success.

Secondly, I believe the focus on white males is unhelpful and unjustified. I am an ethnically Indian male who was born and brought up in the US. I have had friends of many ethnicities: White American, Hispanic, African-American, African, Jewish, Chinese, Russian, Ukrainian, etc. And frankly there was no difference at all that I could perceive between any of these people on the average. Some were arrogant and entitled, some weren’t. The one thing I can say for sure is that it had nothing to do with race.

Most immigrants are culturally more conservative than the average American would think, even if they vote democratic due at least partly to fears of the xenophobia of a segment of the GOP. When some progressives tout non-white people as model progressives while disparaging white males in their messaging, it (1) alienates white people on the fence between the two parties, (2) alienates immigrants who are not super progressive, who feel they are being used as political pawns, (3) causes the GOP to become *more* xenophobic as they feel vindicated in their suspicions that immigrants will uniformly vote Democrat and discriminate against white people. Meanwhile, the people who complain most fervently about white males are themselves often white males who do not see these consequences of their rhetoric.

Anyways, I do not mean to argue with you in particular– it is just that I have seen this strand of debate elsewhere as well, and it annoys me to no end. I would personally be largely okay with a return to the early 2000’s conceptions of race and racism.

113. Scott Says:

SR #112: Yes, I just learned that Roger D. is the same incel troll, back to his old tricks. I’m completely sick of it, to be honest.

114. Scott Says:

feminist liberal arts type #109: Why on earth would you impose demeaning “rules of engagement” on me, when those rules have nothing to do with anything I said in this thread? I reread it. I don’t see that I ever mentioned evolutionary psychology here. Nor do I see where I ever sneered at athletes or musicians or anyone else. So why do you write as if I did?

I was so happy to meet a social-justice feminist who I could have an actual conversation with, that it would seem I didn’t exercise appropriate caution. On reflection, you’re probably right that there’s little we can learn from each other.

115. SR Says:

Scott #113: Didn’t the original incel troll admit their guilt and say they were willing to settle things with you? Was that a ruse as well? If even those messages can’t be trusted, then the troll may not even be an incel after all. Although I would think it’s still likely.

I feel a little upset about having even spent the time to write out my comment above, now that I know it was addressed to a troll, so I can only imagine how you feel. But maybe someone who actually holds similar ideas to the ones the troll is mocking will come across the discussion and reevaluate their position, and it won’t have completely been in vain after all.

116. feminist liberal arts type Says:

Scott #114-

As you wish. Goodbye.

I really had no intention to be demeaning, or to impose anything. But if that’s what I communicated, it’s my fault and responsibility, and I apologise.

117. Mystery Says:

Scott keeps banning my comments, but once again I’m asking that at least he make it known that I informed him of the new trolling, just because I felt sorry, and that I only started trolling him again because he brushed me off and was mean to me and didn’t forgive me at all for what I did.

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