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Peter Turchin Responds to Scott Alexander
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Big Picture historical theorist Peter Turchin responds to Scott Alexander’s lengthy reviews of his books Secular Cycles and Ages of Discord:

Why Theory Is Important: Responding to two reviews by Scott Alexander
September 05, 2019

by Peter Turchin

Turchin concludes:

… Despite these disagreements, I want to emphasize that I quite appreciate the amount of time Scott Alexander invested in reading my work, especially because AoD, let me repeat, is not the easiest book to read.

Let me finish this post with a quote from Steve Sailer,

“I think Turchin doesn’t get much attention because his books are too reasonable to be easily debunked and too enormously detailed to be easily digested and too ambitious to be easily trusted.”

I am afraid I can’t argue against this assessment; the only thing I can do is to continue doing my work, to the best of my ability.

 
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  1. Kronos says:

    That’s quite the cop-out.

    • Disagree: Dan Hayes
  2. Dan Hayes says:

    Steve,

    That’s the most self-aggrandizing statement you’ve ever quoted. Congrats, it’s long overdue!

    • Agree: NickG
  3. The smart people love Sailer, too bad most are stupid.

  4. Congrats – even though I’m quite reluctant as far as Turchin’s insights are concerned.

    The sentence of yours quoted by Turchin is dense, has rhythm and is reasonable and clear = a formally (stylistically) perfect sentence.

  5. Lot says:

    I don’t see what is gained by Turchin’s work. We already knew there were rises and falls of many societies. If 300 years the best number to shoehorn the best documented cycles into, so what?

    It is also pretty questionable this would have any application to the period after the Industrial Revolution (beginning a large and permanent increase in productivity growth). Also ruining any current application of these cycles is sub-replacement fertility and nuclear weapons.

    Ancient Egypt’s civilizational cycles were longer than 300 years. The Middle Kingdom and the dark age that followed lasted about 470 years. The Old Kingdom+Dark Age cycle was about 550 years.

    Spain had a slow and then rapid rise and then very gradual decline without any collapse in the 500 years between 1450 and 1950.

  6. anonymous[374] • Disclaimer says:

    Why does Turchin find fear in his inability to argue against your assessment of his work? He agrees with you and he stands by his work doesn’t he?

    • Replies: @Steve Sailer
  7. @anonymous

    Dr. Turchin agrees with my assessment that his oeuvre is reasonable, detailed, and ambitious.

  8. @Lot

    I don’t see what is gained by Turchin’s work. We already knew there were rises and falls of many societies.

    By the same token, we didn’t need Newton to tell us about a law that apples fall from trees.

    Turchin doesn’t really have a theory, he has a hypothesis. It has holes, as you point out. It may never have practical application. Quite a bit more physics is known than is in use, and is referred to as “laboratory curiosities”. Some well established theories may never have a practical use. What good does astrophysics do us?

    For that matter, theory isn’t the pathway to riches that it is often described as. One example is the Hero’s steam engine [1], 1st century AD. Reconfigure it a little bit, so that the steam blows on a fan attached to a shaft, and you get a turbine. Reconfigure it a bit more, and you have steam pushing a cylinder, the basic “atmospheric engine”. None of that happened, and for reasons that are not clear.

    So: Turchin’s hypotheses are interesting in what they might lead to rather than for immediate application. They are early science (which can be thought of as methodical curiosity mixed with observation and mathematics, plausible rather than generally accepted) rather than early engineering. One possible cross-pollination would be to mix Turchin’s elite overproduction hypothesis with critical systems theory and see if elite overproduction really can serve as a trigger of failure along social fault lines. I’ve seen elite certification that can’t be applied asserted as a precursor to revolution, but haven’t seen anything more than assertion.

    Counterinsurgency

    1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aeolipile

    2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newcomen_atmospheric_engine
    These things were huge, but required only very sloppy tolerances — about an eighth of an inch between cylinder and piston. They were very inefficient, used to pump water out of coal mines at first, and were economical only because coal was cheap at the mining site.

    • Replies: @kanye's doppelganger
  9. Off topic, but what are we to make of the shameful statement of praise of the US embassy in Zimbabwe/Rhodesia to Mugabe‘s death? (Mugabe being arguably one of the most awful and destructive leaders of the twentieth century, in a very crowded field)

    The left is claiming this is due to Trump‘s love of authoritarians, but it could also be State Department officials who just love powerful African men and don’t want to criticize an „anti-colonialist.“ Killing white farmers and taking their land is not a crime apparently.

  10. Because cliodynamicists such as Turchin are attempting to put those cycles within a rigorous mathematical model, effectively turning history into a science as opposed to a list of events or a just so story.

  11. @Steve Sailer

    Any thoughts on Peter Duchin?

    • Replies: @Lagertha
  12. Art Deco says:
    @Peter Akuleyev

    (Mugabe being arguably one of the most awful and destructive leaders of the twentieth century, in a very crowded field)

    He wasn’t. He was an incompetent kleptocrat who damaged his country economically. However, Zimbabwe was neither a charnel house nor a totalitarian dystopia. Just a badly governed country with an imploding agricultural sector and hyperinflation.

  13. Art Deco says:
    @Peter Akuleyev

    Off topic, but what are we to make of the shameful statement of praise of the US embassy in Zimbabwe/Rhodesia to Mugabe‘s death?

    That there’s a Foreign Service cookie-pusher assigned to Harare whose job includes issuing these form letters.

    • Agree: Dan Hayes
  14. bomag says:
    @Peter Akuleyev

    We join the world in reflecting on his legacy in securing Zimbabwe’s independence.

    No doubt they are reflecting on the negativity of it all.

  15. Phil says:

    I sort of get the impression the Scott’s review of Turchin, and Turchin’s counter review are talking past each other.

    Scott’s too polite to say it explicitly, but my take away on his review, is that he’s asking the question ‘why did Turchin pick the variable he picked? Is he cherry picking variables to fit the model?’

    Turchin doesn’t seem to appreciate that’s the critique. We get a lot of ‘why would I pick different variables? That doesn’t make sense, I’m just throwing hundreds of variables against the wall, and then cherry picking the ones that fit.’

    Ok, sure.

    But what would actually move the conversation forward is Turchin discussing the theory that led him to picking the variables he decided to look at.

  16. Barnard says:
    @Peter Akuleyev

    It is the State Department. I wonder if the Trump Administration was even consulted before it was issued.

  17. I am afraid I can’t argue against this assessment; the only thing I can do is to continue doing my work, to the best of my ability.

    Sure, the old “Under-promise and Over-deliver” ploy works every time… unless you’ve read the book.

    • Replies: @Anonymous
  18. @Art Deco

    Some people think everything is done better when done by an African, unless, of course, the African in question is someone like Ian Smith or P.W. Botha.

  19. Phil says:

    Edit: I missed a ‘not’ in there

    ‘why would I pick different variables? That doesn’t make sense, I’m ‘NOT’ just throwing hundreds of variables against the wall, and then cherry picking the ones that fit.’

  20. Is Peter Turchin and his theory of a 300-year cycle anything at all like the fictional Hari Seldon and his Psychohistory in Asimov’s Foundation series of novels? Novels that were in turn cribbed from Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire?

    Asimov’s notion, through his character Hari Seldon, is that social science will become a hard science when humankind expands to planets outside the Solar System and numbers in the trillions. At that point, the Law of Large Numbers in probabilistic statistics kicks in, and predictions of Dr. Turchin become a near certainty?

  21. bob sykes says:
    @Lot

    What is important about Turchin’s work is that he has developed a theory of rise and fall that is based on measurable economic and demographic variables and that has some predictive value. Merely saying civilizations rise and fall with some periodicities adds nothing to our historical knowledge.

    • Replies: @Anonymous
  22. @Phil

    No, he’s not throwing against the wall. He explicitly says the variables he chose follow from his theories. I think there is a legitimate question of why other variables shouldn’t be affected by his cycles though. But not having read his original books, I can’t say whether or not he might address this in them.

  23. @Phil

    What you describe is known as a “screen” among get-rich-quick investment schemes based on stock-picking. You collect gobs of financial variables (see iSteve’s other post on Michael Bloomberg’s wealth from supplying such variables from behind his pricey paywall of his “terminals”), and you pick the ones that correlate positively with financial gains. Next, you buy stocks that have high values of those variables and plan your retirement to a private Caribbean island.

    So you are saying Turchin “cherry picked” variables that predicted social collapse? That term is loaded in its connotations, frequently used by the defenders of whatever fashionable opinions held by the Elites to brush aside any disagreement. I don’t rightly know what it means, either, because commercial cherry growers use mechanical shakers to remove all the cherries without regard to size, quality or ripeness, which are caught below in nets. Does it mean the shopping habits of certain grocery store consumers, descended from some regions in the Pacific Rim, who handle every last cherry in an open produce display and then take only selected fruits after what appears to be an intense thought process?

    Cherry picking implies a kind of scientific or scholarly dishonesty, but in the manner of certain food shoppers, Korolev “cherry picked” electronics parts to launch his Sputniks as did Cray to build his early “super computer.” Early generation semiconductors were hit-and-miss in their quality, but you could test a large quantity to pick our a few that met rigorous specs — this is like going through a huge bin of fruit wrecked by pests and selecting the ones that the bugs missed. It might be disgusting that someone felt up every piece of fruit in the gin, but this kind of cherry picking got the Sputniks into orbit and the early super computers to work.

    Are you saying that Turchin selected variables with strong correlation coefficients against years-until-the-sack-of-Rome or whatever metric of collapse? This is like financial “short sellers” who develop “screens” of financial variables to predict the next Enron? This is not “cherry picking”, whatever that means, this is just plain application of statistics in science these days. Of course you get into the correlation-without-causation problem, and real Statisticians, whom most scientists regard as nagging scolds, will tell you that this process can rapidly “over fit” your data, and the resulting model is useless unless you show its predictive power on a new data set.

    Does Turchin do the right thing of training his model on randomly selected test cases of civilizational collapse and then testing it on the remaining historical cases? Or are there not enough civilizations in history to do this?

    • Replies: @Phil
  24. Dear Mr. Peter Turchin:

    Steve Sailer described you as a “big picture” theorist.

    “Big picture” is nice, but “satellite view” brings up baby boomer songstress Rickie Lee Jones and her breezy little pop song Satellite, and it also allows for larger unanswerable questions about infinity and God and space and spiritual realms beyond our mere mortal comprehension. “Satellite view” brings to mind a set orbit at a set elevation using various means to gather information, and this is more humble than BIG PICTURE BABY!

    Mr. Turchin, thank you for inflating Steve Sailer’s pumpkin head to extremely unmanageable proportions by favorably mentioning one of Mr. Sailer’s all too true noticing nuggets.

    Mr. Turchin, might I suggest you task Sailer with reading David Hackett Fischer’s book about price revolutions and the rhythm of history? Throw out some obscure bit about what you might have heard about Fischer’s book and then very publicly make a big deal about wondering what Steve Sailer would make of that. That’ll be enough of a surface lure to get Sailer to bite like a farm pond bass and get his mind on it.

    Mr. Turchin, now that you have got Steve Sailers’s confidence all puffed up like the late Franco Columbo’s muscles, I wonder if you would kindly tell Mr. Sailer to moderate my comments the Hell on through!

    Thank You,

    Charles Pewitt

    Saturday morning comment for sure!

    • Replies: @Inquiring Mind
  25. Pericles says:
    @Art Deco

    You seem to forget Mugabe killed whitey, killed Matabeland, confiscated his agricultural sector (white) and gave it to his pals (“veterans”) etc etc. In the end, he had kicked himself in his basic bitch afro-strongman nuts in most ways possible and could only watch while Zim reverted to bush. But he still always had the money to go shopping in various international locations and I’m sure he had a plummy accent.

  26. @Art Deco

    Yeah, he sticks out a bit because he had a pretty good country to wreck. He was probably no worse than dozens of crappy blokes who took over already crappy countries.

    • Agree: Alden
  27. Kronos says:
    @Art Deco

    I think they used images of rocks to help make the inflation go down.

    This used to be worth a few US pennies.

    • Replies: @res
  28. Kronos says:
    @Phil

    “But what would actually move the conversation forward is Turchin discussing the theory that led him to picking the variables he decided to look at.”

    There’s a scientific movement to allow the publication of source code to allow viewers to see that happen. To help avoid those statistical forks in the road.

  29. @Art Deco

    Madness. Shelving his treatment of whites, which differing people can have justifiably different views on, he imported North Koreans to augment his own paramilitaries in the ethnic cleansing of Matabeleland. The gukurahundi prefigured the major ethnic strife of eg Rwanda because-among other things-African despots saw that it was tolerated to engage in ethnic cleansing.
    Muggers was NOT a Black Patriot, but a Shona Patriot. This is in no way disputable.

  30. Gordo says:
    @Peter Akuleyev

    We join the world in reflecting on his legacy in securing Zimbabwe’s independence.

    That’s pretty ambiguous, and in foreign service speak that is pretty much the equivalent of calling him a c*nt.

    • Replies: @Alden
  31. Alden says:
    @Peter Akuleyev

    What else should the official department of state statement say? If DOS wants to denounce Mugabe one of their tame professors will publish an editorial in a NYTimes WA Post Sunday edition listing all of Mugabe’s faults. Officially, state dept should be neutral

    He’s best forgotten unless Israel wants its American colony to declare war on Zimbabwe for some reason. Then expect to read hysterical denunciations of Mugabe all over the “ quality press” And some hastily produced documentaries featuring massacres and the usual starving African women and babies.

  32. Peter Turchin says Edsall’s article on Trump and his voters is interesting.

    I’d elaborate, but I’m eating cheese crackers.

  33. Alden says:
    @Gordo

    Right “ reflect on his legacy” is just a diplomatic way of saying just another blood soaked African dictator.

  34. @Counterinsurgency

    The most well-known example of a case for elite overproduction is one that seems to match this one (I haven’t read the books, just the synopses, so I may be wrong here)-the French Revolution.

    “Overproduction of Elites” then and now has a pretty fair correlation if you expand “elite” to include not just the the moneyed and powerful, but an arriviste overproduction of the verbose seeking an audience, the “change agents”, the media/pamphleteer class, resentful petit bourgeois artists (the film Danton skews this perfectly in its characterization of David), the committee chatterer, the “whole world is watching” (again the film Danton) showboaters. In other words, the wannabees- those legions of humanities grads who have not reached their desired station.

    The 18th century in France saw a tremendous movement to the cities an an expansion of a middle class that was now literate, yet lived outside of the prestige of the nobility or the stability/groundedness of landed commoners-the urban/rural, cosmo vs countrypolitan dichotomy in full swing here.

    The French Revolution, like most revolutions, was a revolt of the aspiring middle classes and the lower nobility that lead them- the proletariat comes in later either as the storm troopers of the terror, or as reactionary deplorable. As Machiavelli so pointed out, every man needs to have an outlet to vent his ambition- the alternative is, well…..

    The best introduction to understanding the dangers of a frustrated aspiring elite are the works of Tocqueville and Stendhal.

    • Replies: @Counterinsurgency
  35. @Anatoly Karlin

    There’s an epistemological difference between numbers and history.

    Btw. – the reverse version of this insight is something, which some people here at Unz.com esp. don’t seem to get: There is no way to de-potentialize existing histories (= accepted and widely shared stories /experiences / angles of view on the past) by proving, that there are facts, which contradict at least one aspect of these (established) narratives. This way to argue works in algebra etc. – in all kinds of strictly formal systems, but not in history.

    Wrong methods of looking at any kind of human accomplishments can bring interesting results though. Goethe dug this: The nature of productive mistakes – Philosopher Ernst Bloch too.

    Goethe even stressed the importance of mistakes for the progress of the (hard) sciences, such as geology (cf. his quite interesting essay About Granite from January 1784, where he explicitly mentions mistakes as a feature of science, not a bug, since the idea of a science without mistakes is itself misleading and counterproductive, so the always inspiring JWvG).

    • Replies: @Counterinsurgency
  36. nymom says:
    @Art Deco

    In retrospect these formerly colonies especially in Africa, but some in Central America and the Caribbean as well might demonstrate the wisdom of slowly disengaging from the mother country as opposed to rapidly handing over power and just walking away.

    Clearly the current governing class could not handle well governing…

    • Replies: @Johann Ricke
  37. @Anatoly Karlin

    ‘Because cliodynamicists such as Turchin are attempting to put those cycles within a rigorous mathematical model, effectively turning history into a science as opposed to a list of events or a just so story.’

    What if that’s a misconceived undertaking?

    You’re creating an artificial choice: either we have to force history into an intellectual straitjacket by defining it with a mathematical model, or we have to content ourself with simple chronicles.

    What if history is best understood as something else — like, say, history? It may be susceptible to dissection and analysis — just not in the same way that physics is.

    • Agree: utu
    • Replies: @Counterinsurgency
  38. @Lot

    I don’t see what is gained by Turchin’s work. We already knew there were rises and falls of many societies. If 300 years the best number to shoehorn the best documented cycles into, so what?

    It is also pretty questionable this would have any application to the period after the Industrial Revolution (beginning a large and permanent increase in productivity growth). Also ruining any current application of these cycles is sub-replacement fertility and nuclear weapons.

    Agree.

    I haven’t read Turchin so i’m speaking without a firm handle on what he’s saying. But generally there seems to be a particular (aspie?) personality tic of “must find cycles”.

    Obviously there are repeated society-rises-peaks-falls patterns. (That’s essentially a tautology.) And there are even some particular “gets-fat-and-happy-and-lazy” patterns/causes you can see within the larger pattern. Great. Study it.

    But the idea that these cycles are at all “regular” is bogus. What happens in history depends on “events”.

    Take a simple example: For several thousand years, people regularly rode out of the steppe on horseback, killed and raped and looted settled peoples. (Steppe people had huge advantage in mobility, war experience and fierceness.) And then they–often–established themselves as the new rulers of settled lands. (Sometimes intermarrying with existing elite, sometimes just killing them, sometimes with a huge genetic footprint, sometimes not.)

    Then about 500 years ago the development of gunpowder weapons ended the threat. Organized settled peoples, could be armed with gunpowder weapons and cut down the guys on horseback. Suddenly because of this technological change this long, long pattern of history … vanished.

    Had absolutely nothing to do with “cycles” or “elite overproduction” or anything else. Simply a new technological capability utterly smashed up a standard “pattern of history” that was obvious to any historian.

    ~~

    I’d argue that this *should* be the golden age of the West. Look at the technological developments of the last 100-200 years. Which, btw, did not suddenly quit–nuclear power, jet travel, lots of vaccines, space flight, huge advances in surgical capability, the Internet, cell phones, DNA sequencing, etc. While politically Europeans finally figured out they should stop slaughtering one another and are basking in an era of peace. And then Cold War ended and reduced tension and military requirements. And we’ve figured out how to produce pretty cleanly and have an increasingly clean environment. Should be “Golden Age”.

    But the West is in decline because of the imposition of this cancerous ideology of minoritarianism.

    That wasn’t forced by some long/deep historical “cycle”. We’re in a very specific (and weird) death spiral, caused by a specific ideology, that arrived via a specific route and was propagated successfuly for specific historical reasons, especially with specific, very effective, historically new media.

    That can all be analyzed, but it isn’t some long cycle of history but a very specific and contingent history that managed to turn day, into night.

    • Replies: @houston 1992
  39. Phil says:
    @Inquiring Mind

    I missed a ‘not’ in my original comment.

    I’m agnostic as to whether Turchin is cherry picking.

    I think Scott wants assurances that he’s not.

    Turchin says he’s not,

    It seems impolite to wonder if he’s a liar.

    But the guy you’re wondering if maybe he’s a liar, telling you that he’s not,

    is not the sort of assurance you’re looking for.

  40. @nymom

    In retrospect these formerly colonies especially in Africa, but some in Central America and the Caribbean as well might demonstrate the wisdom of slowly disengaging from the mother country as opposed to rapidly handing over power and just walking away.

    Clearly the current governing class could not handle well governing…

    The question is how many servicemen you want to lose to rebels whose leaders want to be king *today*. The European powers had two choices, both of which would involve minimal casualties and financial costs – (1) wipe out the rebels along with the populations that fed and sheltered them, which wasn’t really a choice for 20th century Western leaders and (2) leave in a big hurry, which was the only option that made political sense for Western leaders who needed to deal with election cycles and were hesitant to throw good money (and men) after bad.

    • Replies: @Counterinsurgency
  41. There seem to be two lines of criticism of Turchin in these comments.

    One is that he cherry picks his variables so that he gets the results he wants.

    The other is that his results are so obvious that he shouldn’t even have bothered generating them.

    I’m not sure I can see how both these criticisms are likely to be right.

  42. @Charles Pewitt

    Yeah, yeah David Hackett Fischer, Price Revolutions, and yet more yeah.

    I actually went out and bought that book — this was in the ancient days pre Internet when I got information by reading such books.

    OK, so Fischer historically documents how prices are stable — virtually zero inflation — for long periods of time, and then at the end of those periods, you have Price Revolutions, i.e. vigorous inflation and debasing of currency and all of that. He also attributes Price Revolutions to some kind of trigger such as bad harvests or wars or some such things.

    All fine and scholarly footnoted and great stuff. But then at the end of the book, he starts on how we in the here-and-now are in a Price Revolution, and yes, I concur, even if inflation was set back by Paul Volcker, it is still with us. DHF’s prescription for inflation is (wait for it, drum roll), government controls over wages and prices?

    Oh. Come. On. This is totally lame. You don’t need to be an Ayn Rand “Libertarian” or “Objectivist” or whatever, price controls by edict never, ever work. OK, someone, tell me, there was a place and time in history where they worked?

    • Replies: @Counterinsurgency
  43. @Peter Akuleyev

    Realpolitik. To insult Mugabe in his passing only strengthens China’s considerably strong hand in Sub-Saharan Africa. Other African strongmen generally admired Mugabe and they would also notice if the United States insulted him in death.

  44. @res

    Ya kinda wish they used a name other than “dollar”. The folks in Joachimsthal should have trademarked it.

  45. @AnotherDad

    Another Dad: 100% agree.
    When people embrace the cyclical model they sometimes become fatalistic whereas decisions matter e.g. Luther.

    Many events in history are “a close run thing.” eg D-Day Thatcher’s rise to Tory leadership, her 1979 victory whereas she would have lost in Oct 1978 back when there was no fixed periods for Parliamentary elections, Falklands War….some and luck and the Brits would have lost.

  46. Anonymous[270] • Disclaimer says:

    Peter Turchin is a very smart and interesting man. He is doing the best he can to get some sense of history. Alast, just about all of it is still mathturbation. I wish he acknowledged that.

  47. Anonymous[206] • Disclaimer says:
    @Steve Sailer

    Dr. Turchin agrees with my assessment that his oeuvre is reasonable, detailed, and ambitious.

    When do people refer to other people who have PhDs as “Dr.” (in front of their surnames), versus when don’t they? It seems that usually they do not.

    Dr. King
    Dr. Gorka
    Dr. Turchin

    • Replies: @Lot
  48. Anonymous[206] • Disclaimer says:
    @Anatoly Karlin

    effectively turning history into a science as opposed to a list of events or a just so story.

    Is life driven by physical, causal phenomena (“science”) or isn’t it?

  49. Anonymous[206] • Disclaimer says:
    @The Alarmist

    Sure, the old “Under-promise and Over-deliver” ploy works every time… unless you’ve read the book.

    Which book? And why is that the caveat?

  50. Anonymous[206] • Disclaimer says:
    @bob sykes

    Merely saying civilizations rise and fall with some periodicities adds nothing to our historical knowledge.

    On the contrary. It is very useful to know that all civilizations fall, and even more so that they tend to have lives of 300 years.

  51. @kanye's doppelganger

    Frustrated aspiring elite is most definitely what we have in the US right now. The 1960s changed the consumers of college education from industry to government insofar as certification from a “college” or “university” was promised as a political favor to various voting blocks. This was coupled with a political promise of “full employment”. The two favors were gradually expanded with time and, even by the 1980s, certification was decoupled from quality — from actual ability to perform some useful function. By the 1980s, even some engineering students were saying things like “I don’t have to learn the material in this course because I’m going to be a manager, so give me an A.” And they were right, in a way — they didn’t have to learn the material.
    By around 2000, corporations stopped hiring PhDs, even those with MBAs, for management positions. Again, a fairly good decision. People can’t communicate well across an IQ gap of over about 20 points (try it some time, it’s limited to the “Here is a dollar, now let me walk out of the store with this item” level. That holds for both higher and lower IQ — it’s the spread that counts.) PhD IQ is over 20 points from the mean of executive society, so the PhDs are as ineffective as the janitors would be.
    At this point, the _content_ of college education was completely divorced from the _certification_ of the college. Mass production of certified “college graduates” became possible, and the certification was actually useful to people in professional areas that required certification, and for showing disparate effect on “protected minorities”, as the legal term puts it.

    At the same time, the certification is believed to be real by the people who get it. High IQ or ability people have little advantage in that content and ability to use content has been largely removed to increase the pass rate, so there is not that much objective evidence that the more able _are_ more able, and the less able can convince themselves that they are certified because they are actually capable (Dunning-Kruger effect, of course).

    So: We have a _very_ large cohort of aspiring elite that are, to phrase it informally, have no socially provided evidence that they are not elite, not enough congnitive ability to figure it out for themselves, and a legal system that puts them into responsible jobs and keeps them there. That’s the lucky ones — there are only so many responsible jobs.
    The above process decreases the cognitive ability of those who hold responsible jobs, but _increases_ the conformity of management as a whole, as herd behavior (“diffused responsibility”) is the only way for management to be safe.

    Top it off with political promises that “There is enough for everybody” and “Our enemies are morally bad”, plus the fundamental economic failure of the cities, and you get an “aspiring elite” situation, as the certified but not able and also unlucky are confronted with their luckier but still inept colones — which is what we’ve seen in the Democratic Presidential debates.

    So, yes, I’ll agree about similarities between today and the French Revolution. Whatever else the FR was, it was definitely a revolution of the marginally competent and half baked. When you read Rousseau today, you wonder how he could convince anybody reasonably smart or even experienced. The answer being that he couldn’t and didn’t — but didn’t have to.

    Counterinsurgency

  52. @Dieter Kief

    There is no way to de-potentialize existing histories (= accepted and widely shared stories /experiences / angles of view on the past) by proving, that there are facts, which contradict at least one aspect of these (established) narratives.

    Interesting idea.

    A good part of propaganda is devoted to showing the other side’s myths to be false, and much of this relates to “facts”. Ron Unz’s American Pravda is just one example of this. The end of the USSR, during with the Russian chief of state canceled history examinations one year in all Russian schools on the grounds that they were all lies suggests that it is possible to lose faith in myths that are inescapably counterfactual.

    While it is true that logic doesn’t compel belief in the same way that starving compels death, and that the same experience can support radically different conclusions, it is also true that neither logic nor experience are completely without effect. Life is wonderful — we get to wonder how to live with the ambiguity.

    Counterinsurgency

    • Replies: @Dieter Kief
  53. @Colin Wright

    What if that’s a misconceived undertaking?

    Than it’s abandoned. That happens often in history of science. See Kuhn, _Structure of Scientific Revolutions_.

    Or, supposedly in Carl Sagan’s words,
    “They laughed at Newton, they laughed at Einstein, they laughed at Bozo the Clown”

    Now, if Turchin were making enforced laws (like, say, the Marxists), then there would be pressing need to stop _that_. As it happens, he’s not.

    Counterinsurgency

    • Replies: @Colin Wright
  54. @Inquiring Mind

    OK, someone, tell me, there was a place and time in history where they worked?

    Near-starvation rationing of limited food stocks in emergency situations is the closest successful analog that I can think of.

    Counterinsurgency

  55. @Counterinsurgency

    1) Yep. The method to find one fact which does not fit – and therefore conclude, that the narrative is false can not work in cases, which reflect actual experiences of thousands if not millions of people.

    This method does work though if applied to many (most, I’d guess) kinds of formal systems. One mistake can prove them false altogether. Interesting, that you mention Ron Unz.

    2) Yep, this methodical difference between the two cognitive modes is something, that does make life interesting. Friedrich Schiller dug this, Kant and Wittgenstein too.

    3) If people don’t get this difference, they can get on the nerves – not least of one another. I think there are not only phenomenological fundamentalists (postmodernism could be described in these terms) but also logical fundamentalists, who think, that all that is not correct in a strictly formal sense is not worth further notice.

    • Replies: @Counterinsurgency
  56. @Johann Ricke

    wipe out the rebels along with the populations that fed and sheltered them, which wasn’t really a choice for 20th century Western leaders

    Agree. What choice would China make in the 21st century, given dependence on African resources?

    Counterinsurgency

  57. @Counterinsurgency

    ‘What if that’s a misconceived undertaking?

    Than it’s abandoned…’

    So one hopes. However, in the interim, a good deal of nonsense can take place.

    See, for example, Jered Diamond’s impressively misplaced confidence that his background in medical research makes him more qualified than conventional historians to decipher the mysteries of the past. Or to deviate slightly into the subcategory of ‘Political Science,’ there’s Samuel Huntington’s absurdly over-schematized organization of the world in The Clash of Civilizations. Finally, of course, there are all the successive but uniformly tedious absurdities of generations of Marxist historians and other ideologically-driven schools of thought.

    History — at its best — is an academic discipline of its own, not a science but certainly not a liberal art. It requires a comprehensive awareness of all elements in a given area of study, followed by a judicious weighing of the — usually conflicting — data, and then the creation of a paradigm that brings some sense to the welter of disconnected facts yet avoids forcing them into an artificial ideological straitjacket. It’s not simply the recitation of successive events, but neither is it some sort of demonstration of some particular theory, and finally, it’s not simply a story to be dreamed up to suit the preferences of the author. All of these motives contribute to it, but none of them comprehend it.

    • Replies: @Counterinsurgency
  58. Lot says:
    @Anonymous

    “Dr.” for people with Ph.D.s is most common among blacks, germans, and white southerners. Low status non-tenured adjunct teachers like it too and are spreading it outside the South.

    For a polite person like Steve, it feels best to err on the side of an inflated title, especially as a written title.

    Actually speaking to a professor (outside of a medical school) as “Dr. Smith” is still pretty black and traditional southern white. I don’t know if it is even the entire South.

    • Replies: @Anonymous
  59. Anonymous[427] • Disclaimer says:
    @Lot

    A lot of Protestant ministers are also “Dr.”, often a Th.D.

    Every Catholic priest (in Western countries) has an equivalent degree but they never go by dr., unless, rarein the US but common in Spain, they are medical doctors too.

  60. Lagertha says:
    @Jenner Ickham Errican

    Lazy, indolent at Manhattan event – but, I witnessed throughout the 1985-2000+

  61. @Dieter Kief

    Interesting, that you mention Ron Unz.

    The West has a sort of mythology that, if believed, produces the sort of Western catalepsy that we’ve seen build since the end of WW II. It is best captured (IMHO) by two books published just after WW II: _The Authoritarian Personality_ and _Blaming the Victim_. Both asserted (in bare bones terms) that the West was inherently evil (the word “fascist” was used, but the word “evil” was meant) and would destroy _any_ other group it came in contact with. When these books were published, war propaganda from WW II was accepted as unquestionable truth, and the news that the Allies were “just as bad as Hitler” was accepted by much of the “intelligentsia” (a Russian originated term meaning “government employee / civil servant”, rather than “intelligent” [1]).
    Ron Unz (and for that matter Suvorov) is engaged in destroying that mythology by pointing out that it has very low fidelity with reality, either historical or current. (It has some fidelity. For example, it involves Western humans as pawns contaminated with absolute evil, and Westerners are indisputably human, or at lest Homo Sapiens.)
    That is critical work. The mythology does induce political catalepsy, and it can be rejected more easily if it is shown to be lie intended to empower a political faction by disorganizing its opposition.

    Or, if you want to take a page out of fantasy writing, you can think of mythologies as magic spells: Say the right words (“riot”, “Slavery”, “Concentration camp”, “Russia”, “racist”, “anti-semite”) and the enemy freezes in place, or starts attacking itself, or some mix of the two. (The last magic word, “Russia”, is a bit strange, since it’s not part of the West and was until 1990 a product of the group using the spell, but, hey, that’s magic for you. No consistency needed.) Destroying the mythology would be like teaching a protective spell or holding a magic amulet or being protected by one’s own faith in a supernatural being who protects from evil.

    Note that destroying mythology is quite distinct from constructing mythology. So far, the West has no basic belief to replace the catalepsy inducing mythology now being rejected / destroyed. It is in the position of fighting a religious war without a religion of its own. Which can be done, just not done well.

    Counterinsurgency

    1] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intelligentsia
    Note the article’s tone: “is a status class of educated people engaged in the complex mental labours that critique, guide, and lead in shaping the culture and politics of their society.” The article should have said “weakly god-like” and saved itself some words. It’s the history that counts — a class of educated / indoctrinated people (whose ancestors were neither) trained to be administrators in service of an external power.

    • Replies: @Dieter Kief
  62. @Colin Wright

    History — at its best — is an academic discipline of its own, not a science but certainly not a liberal art. It requires a comprehensive awareness of all elements in a given area of study, followed by a judicious weighing of the — usually conflicting — data, and then the creation of a paradigm that brings some sense to the welter of disconnected facts yet avoids forcing them into an artificial ideological straitjacket. It’s not simply the recitation of successive events, but neither is it some sort of demonstration of some particular theory, and finally, it’s not simply a story to be dreamed up to suit the preferences of the author. All of these motives contribute to it, but none of them comprehend it.

    I’m in full agreement with you here. Quite often historians change their beliefs after researching a subject, which would not happen if “history is written by the victors, and is therefore a lie” were really true. Try “propaganda is written by all sides, the victors’ propaganda is not destroyed, but is still a distortion or a lie”. (That’s one of the problems that historians have to face — getting real information out of an Late Roman panegyric is quite a task, I’ve read a walk-through of that and it didn’t look easy.)

    The problem you’re bringing up is one I have seen historians discuss, most notably William McNeil, who was interested in cultural diffusion for his entire professional life. Consider trade routes. Good things come over them (raw materials, artistic forms, new ways of thought), bad things come over them (plagues, invaders eventually, new ways of thought). Are trade routes good or bad? The Romans were as surely destroyed by Asian diseases as were the inhabitants of the Americas after AD 1500. OTH, Shogunate Japan found itself obsolete after shutting off outside trade; so did Imperial China when it tried to shut off outside trade. No risk-free answer.

    I, myself, don’t much like cultural stasis, being a researcher at heart. So I say: let Turchin work. Maybe he’ll come up with something interesting. It’s the old Thomas Khun theory: two kinds of science: incremental and revolutionary. Both are needed _if_ you want science.

    WRT that, there is a fresh interest in applying self organizing criticality theory [1] to history. This seems to be a variant on the Hegelian idea that social changes have distributed causes – each change preparing the way for the next. It also has a good deal of fatalism about it — the distributed causes are independent of human intent or comprehension: if conditions are right (and if they’re not, then nature eventually makes them right), then a mundane event can cause a major event in human history. The usual comparison is with a sand pile [2], in which physically deterministic events are not in practice observable and are best thought of as random events (in this case a random event from a memory free exponential distribution).
    You can see that this theory could lead to simple passivity, “Fate is all”. It could also lead to understanding of what a social “critical state” is, and whether there is some way to reorganize without burning everything down to the bare bricks.

    So: to me, at least, highly abstract approaches to the discipline of history looks like a recurring risk, the risk of most change. Sometimes such abstractions have worked out very badly (Marxism being a recent bad memory, and its variant, National Socialism also), some better (the Enlightenment). I’m in favor of letting the change happen as an attempted “revolutionary” change in discipline, but it’s also true that most world societies prefer stability.

    Counterinsurgency

    1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-organized_criticality
    2] http://nautil.us/issue/23/dominoes/the-amazing-autotuning-sandpile

  63. @Counterinsurgency

    Wikipedia writes about the intellectuals in the mandarin-mode. That’s a bit outdated by now, isn’t it?

    I’m astonished, that you rank the Frankfurter’s Authoritarian Personality Study so high.

    Especially, since it is helplessly entangled in – not least – Adornos “Aporias of the subject-philosophy”, as Habermas put it quite nicely (that’s a serious counter-argument, that Habermas brings forward here against Adorno. I’m almost inclined to write: Dead serious).

    Erich Fromm too knew quite soon, that Adorno was on the wrong track and countered the latter’s critical absolutism not least with a (quite reasonable) defense of – authority. Fromm was much more read than Adorno – maybe not exactly by tenured professors, but otherwise, he had a much greater readership than Adorno.

  64. Anonymous[158] • Disclaimer says:
    @Peter Akuleyev

    Which white farmers did Mugabe kill? He reserved his violence for his Matabele rivals and didn’t waste it on the whites. Foreign whites who complain about Mugabe’s seizures of white property while saying nothing about his actual massacres of fellow blacks don’t have much moral credibility.

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