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Welcome to, rationally speaking, the podcast, where we explore the borderlands between reason and nonsense. I'm your host, Julia Galef, and my guest today is Razib Khan. Razib is a geneticist for Insight Tome and he has three blogs and two podcasts of his own. He blogs for Insight tome and then also blogs at Gene Expression and Brown pundits. And then he hosts the Incitation podcast and hosts the Brown Pundit's podcast. So he's a busy guy. But this episode with Razib was inspired by a conversation on Facebook recently in which I was complaining about public intellectuals not changing their mind very often, you know, like I do.
And Rasyid said, oh, interesting. This makes me want to write a list of things that I've changed my mind about or things that I've been wrong about. And he did. He wrote a blog post with this fascinating list of like 30 things that he's changed his mind about in the last decade or so in his field of genetics, but also in other fields of science, politics, economics, religion. And I was reading through it and I just kept wanting to ask him to elaborate more on why he changed his mind and what his new view is.
So that's what we're going to do in this episode. Razib, welcome to rationally speaking. Great to be here. You know, I liked that your mind changes in your list are more complex than just the sort of archetypal, you know, I used to think X and now I think the opposite of X, which I think is actually a very unrepresentative type of mind change. But it's like the archetype that people think of when they think of changing your mind and your art.
Well, I mean, yours are all different, but a lot of yours are like, well, I was pretty confident that X and now I'm confused, which is how most of my mind changes go, honestly.
Yeah. So I think you hit the nail on the head there. A lot of it has to do with my stronger skepticism of very bold and strident claims as I've gotten older and I have more experience with how those work out.
Yeah, I feel like that is a pattern and it makes sense. I wonder if there's anyone whose evolution of their thinking over time has gone in the opposite direction and they're now, you know, less agnostic and they think things are simpler and clearer than they used to when they were when they were younger. That would be an interesting episode.
You know, I would say that I think if you are in a very technical field and you have a specialty, you can develop an intuitive feel for things. Sometimes you know, where I feel like there are certain questions, certain types of things related to genetics where I have a stronger opinion than I would have twenty years ago because I had more experience.
So let's jump in with something you wrote about religion. So I'm just going to when I go through this list, I'm going to read what you wrote and then we can we can have you elaborate. So you wrote, My views in relation to religion were close to what was for a while termed the new atheism. I don't hold that view anymore. Around 2004, I moved away from this position and came to believe that the roots of religion were cognitive and the social and cultural complexity required deeper analysis rather than plain dismissal.
So I assume by the new atheists, in view of religion, you don't just mean the view that it's false. You mean something about how new atheists explained the roots of religion or the role of religion in society.
How would you describe the new atheist view of religion?
I think the new atheist view of religion is kind of like a complicated version or an educated version of the village atheist view of religion, where religions basically like village atheist. Yeah, I mean, it's a village atheist, just like the guy like in the medieval village who just didn't believe the orthodoxy and was just really just obstinate, you know, a little bit like, you know, like medieval Richard Dawkins. Imagine Richard Dawkins in a pageboy, you know.
Yeah. So basically what I mean by new atheist is the idea that religion is a set of propositions, just like a formal set of propositions. And that's how I view religion. So you could just refute it. And I don't think it's that way, I think most people for most people, it's a set of intuitions. They don't have a really strong, rational view of it. Does that make sense?
Yeah, I certainly share that view.
I guess I would have thought the standard atheist model of what's happening for religious people is like there's this thing that, you know, people around them believe that they've grown up thinking is like the good and virtuous thing to believe. And it's also comforting. And so they have it's the standard kind of motivated cognition model where they want to they have various motives for believing it. And so that is confirmation bias and and nihilism and things like that.
Is that not what you're saying?
So that's that's a layer. That's a layer on top of it. Like the social aspect is a layer on top of it. But I I'm pretty sure that most people, just from what I've done reading the psychology, they have strong supernatural intuitions due to like agency detection and stuff like that.
What do you mean by agency detection? It's like if you're walking through a cemetery, you're creeped out because you think someone might be there. Like, I don't actually have that feeling very strongly at all, but I know many people do. When I have an aunt, when I have a discussion with someone who actually believes in ghosts, it's really difficult for me to overcome their strong intuition that there are ghosts. I don't have that strong intuition. I never have.
And a lot of people who I know who are atheists like me have never had that strong intuition. So I think we start out with a deck of cards that make us much more amenable to the idea that there are no supernatural agents in the universe because we don't have that strong intuition.
Interesting. But so religion, there's a super strong correlation with whether you're religious and whether your family and society or like subculture are religious. So does that suggest that the predisposition to have this kind of agency detection trait is like is genetic or that it's.
Yeah, I think agency detection is basically an outgrowth of theory of mind. So, yeah, it is genetic, it is heritable. There's some variation within the population. There's a disposition. But I mean, the way I would think about it is like if you think of like the constant rate of acceleration of a ball as it drops, we have intuitions of how that ball should actually move, and that's at variance with reality. But we can show people what the constant rate of acceleration is with like an iron ball or something like that.
Right. So, I mean, you can obviously convince people out of these views. It's just some intuitions are stronger and more culturally embedded than others. I used to think if you refute the ontological argument for the existence of God and then you refute the teleological argument for the existence of God, et cetera, et cetera, you could refute the existence. I think this is very irrelevant to most people.
OK, so your model, it's kind of a two prong model or multifactor model of who becomes religious. Some people have stronger innate intuitions that make them feel like there should be a supernatural explanation for things and other people have less of those intuitions. But then the degree to which you are amenable to overwriting or changing your intuitions depends a lot on cultural factors and like your family in the society you live in. Exactly, sort it's phenomenon with multiple structural layers, and so the bottom, most layer is just when I say cognitive is what your intuitions about plausibility.
Right. And that's like no foundation. You know, it doesn't have any organized religion. It's not necessarily so. That's why I gave you the example of people who believe in ghosts. Yes. Because they see ghosts is just they feel that they're there. I've never felt that they were there, but that's just me. Got it.
And what changed your mind about this? Was it just talking to people and discovering that they have these really strong intuitions that you just never had experienced?
No, I was reading research because that's the way I roll over and keep it top. Yeah, it's just it's just show you how I'm not like, you know, I'm not a normal person. Like, I had to read, like, replicable research on like, oh, these intuitions are really strong. They're not just lying to me.
Let's talk about some of the items on your list that were about genetics. I don't know enough about the field to understand why the questions that you listed that you changed your mind about are significant, like why the answer to those questions matters. So I just wanted to go through a few of them and find out why they matter.
One is, you said I underestimated how complex complex traits were. I wasn't totally wrong, but the factor was off. So why does it matter how complex complex traits are? And how did you learn the factor with off?
Yeah, I mean, why would it matter if we're doing genetic engineering and there's like, I don't know, a thousand genes that affect a characteristic, you're not going to be able to engineer it very easily because there's so many moving parts. If there's one or two genes, obviously, it'll be easy to quote unquote fix or change the characteristic. Right. So when you translate science into engineering, the complexity is going to have an effect in terms of how easy it will be to engineer and more broadly, why it matters.
If you're wrong about prediction algorithms, they're generally just going to be easier when there's fewer genes that you can have in your model to make the prediction. So everything becomes more tractable when you have fewer genetic positions. So let's think about something like height, actually. Like I'll give you a concrete example. Skin color turns out to be mostly due to about ten genes. That means that for Forensic's, you can do really good predictions on pigmentation, relatively good prediction of the pigmentation of, say, like samples.
So for criminals or crimes or stuff in the past, when it comes to height, it's more like a thousand genes, like one hundred to a thousand genes, depending on how you want to do the distribution of effect sizes. That's a lot of genes. So it's much more difficult to predict someone's height than it is to predict their complexion. Right. And so, I mean, that matters for forensics and matters for a bunch of things. It will matter if you want to do genetic engineering and then obviously beyond hide their psychological traits, which are like super controversial and super important and super interesting to everybody, like intelligence, personality, even religiosity, all of these things, everything is somewhat heritable to various degrees.
Something like schizophrenia is 80 percent heritable. Right. So, I mean, that's really important for genetic prediction. So how complex the trait is depends, you know, affects how good your predictions are going to be.
Is there a kind of direct relationship between how complex something is and how heritable it is?
Like the more complex, the less heritable in general? No, actually, it's the more complex, the more heritable, because often it's not strongly selected like height. Oh, I think it is.
It's kind of a subtle kind of coincidental if all the pieces.
Yeah, well, I mean, it's just there's a lot of variation. If it's complex, there's a lot of variation in your genome. So if it was strongly selected, the variation would be gone, you know, and so actually it tends to be the opposite way. Like really complex traits tend to be more heritable than you would expect, though it's not always true. But, you know, like intelligence, like 50 percent heritable, 50 percent of the variations in the population, heights like 60 to 80 percent, schizophrenia's 80 percent.
I'm just surprised because you said that skin color was simple or. Yeah, was simpler than height. But obviously skin color is more heritable than height like it would be. Right. I mean, if you. Yeah, yeah.
So I mean, this is like it's a general, it's a generality. But a lot of times this is something like, something like number of digits you have on your hand. They're usually due to new mutations. Right. So they're not actually that heritable. They're between like their new mutations. You know, these are like like technical issues. But generally it really simple characteristics often have like strong fitness consequences. If they're strong fitness consequences, selection often tends to get rid of the variation quickly.
So a lot of the variation is random. Does that make sense if the fitness consequences aren't strong, if it doesn't matter if you're tall or short, selection is not going to get rid of the variation and so more of it will be preserved. That's heritable across the generations.
Yeah, interesting. So why did you used to think their traits in general were simpler than they actually are?
You know, I probably partly because I wanted to be, you know, I mean, you want, you know what to say. Like if you're doing a science, you kind of want it to be tractable. Like that's why you're doing. Is it like you started with simple trades, because that's just what we we as a, you know, scientific community first discovered and people focused on those and just kind of wishfully assumed they could extrapolate to most other traits.
Well, I mean, so when when I first started thinking about this, say, 20 years ago, we didn't know how many genes there were in the human genome. Now we know there. Nineteen thousand. Right. So we didn't know a lot of the we didn't know a lot of the map. And so if you told me that intelligence was like one hundred genetic positions, I'd be like, OK, that sounds plausible. It turns out it's closer to a thousand.
OK, so I knew it was complex, but I didn't have a good sense of order of magnitude because we didn't have a good sense of order of magnitude. The whole genome.
Right. You didn't have a clear prior of of like. No, I mean, it's like I didn't have a scaling factor. Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Got it.
OK, another item on your list and the genetics category is I no longer believe in a quote, cognitive great leap forward fifty thousand years ago in human evolution. I don't know what I believe, but I think gradual and cumulative processes are probably more important and the roots of human uniqueness as quite ancient. My views began to change around 2010 with evidence for archaic in progression. What is the cognitive great leap forward?
Yeah, so it basically means that there's like a mutation or a change and we go from becoming nonsensical to sentient from non cultural creatures to cultural creatures.
Oh, does that mean it's actually discrete? I mean, it can't be really discrete, Gene, for sentience, right. Or.
Yeah, I mean, there is there's a Richard Klein of the anthropologist who wrote a book in 2005 which basically argues that there was a macro mutation. So it was a consultation event. You know, that's the most extreme case. So it's an event where there's a single mutation. And he's positing that it was due to random genetic drift and allowed for development of language. Someone with a more psycholinguistic viewpoint would say recursive language, huh?
So discrete, like like evolving lactose tolerance or something or.
Yeah, I mean, that's that would be that's actually an example of a mutation like that where it's like. Yeah. Like a single change and it changes the whole characteristic. So I mean the idea is like quite rapidly we became a cultural creature about fifty thousand years ago and we spread across the world and we replaced everybody else. Right. So stuff like religion, language, symbolic manipulation and thought all of these things that are characteristic of our species, like if not exclusive to like we always have developed it pretty extensively.
The idea was it emerged really rapidly and it explains the rapid expansion of humans outside of Africa because like because we know from the archaeology that there was like a massive pulse between, say, 40 to 60 thousand years ago, like let's like centered around fifty thousand years ago. And our ancestors, our relatives, our ancestors were the first to make it to the Australasia, the first to make it to the new world. They pushed north into Siberia and areas that hadn't been occupied before.
So hominids like our lineage has been around for a few million years. Right. And they've been gradually increasing in brain size for a few million years. But then around fifty thousand years ago, there was kind of a revolutionary switch in terms of what we could do. So we know for a fact that modern humans did not make it beyond the Wallace line. Well, at least they did a little little bit on the Wallace line. I think the hobbits in Flores are a little early on, but they didn't make it really to Australia.
They didn't make it to Papua. Not happened about forty five fifty thousand years ago. And so it seems like really, really started. And that's also when Neanderthals were placed in Europe. So the hypothesis was something special happened. We don't know what happened.
So yeah, I just looking at that pattern naively and trying to guess about how sentience evolved would have assumed that the evolution of intelligence was gradual and not not like suddenly, you know, like lactose tolerant. There's a mutation and people are sending. And so the evolution of intelligence was gradual, but there was some threshold above which you're intelligent enough to, like, transmit culture and kind of store it. So so the actual functional intelligence of, you know, a community or a or a civilisation looks like it.
It just like with this huge discrete chain where suddenly you have this rapid expansion of culture because you've just passed the threshold of raw intelligence that you can start doing that. Is that not was that not the prior that people had.
Yeah. I mean, yeah, I don't you know, I don't know what people it was just kind of we just knew there was an out of expansion out of Africa expansion. And I don't think it was really well modeled, partly because as you are, as you're implying, we know from the skulls that the brain size gradually, like the biggest the biggest brain hominids are Neanderthals. OK, so, I mean, the there was a lot of confusion on what intelligence meant.
And was it related to, like, how the brain was organised as opposed to size? There was a lot of lack of. Clarity. All we knew was some incredibly like. You know, effective cultural creature emerge around 50000 years ago. And replaced everyone else. OK, so you say around 2010, you started getting evidence for something called archaic in progression, which changed your view of that. What is archaic integration and why did it change your view?
I mean, basically, you got sequences of Neanderthals and you saw that it was in a lot of modern humans. So we obviously intermixed with them, you know, and there's various technical reasons. We know that it happened about fifty thousand years ago and primarily a singular event. So perhaps it was a fusion of a small Neanderthal tribe with a greater group of humans that happened in the Near East. But I mean, humans will have relations with will copulate with lots of organisms.
But so I'm not saying we're necessarily picky, but to me, it was suggested like, OK, like we obviously perceive them as human. Most people outside of Africa, about two percent Neanderthal. And, you know, they don't seem that we don't seem that strange. And so, you know, there were already like I was already having skepticism of some of the extreme or extreme out of Africa views before 2010. But that's like direct evidence, right?
We interbred with them. We made it with them, and there were hybrid offspring. We've now discovered individuals that are like an eighth Neanderthal, you know, so they had a great grandparent that was Neanderthal. And so, I mean, that strongly suggested that they were just human like us, just different. But anyway. Yeah, so with that with the Neanderthals, basically, they seem way more human looking at their genome than we were expecting. So if there was a big genetic difference, it's not there in the genome, does that make sense?
We have the genome like we can actually see their sequence. Their sequence is not that different in all the special areas like the language areas and all these other areas. There are subtle differences, but not striking differences. We had heard about the language gene in the early 2000s. We would have called FOX Pitou. It was reported extensively. We don't find really strong differences between Neanderthals and modern humans like we know this from the genes. Now we have the Neanderthal genome, right?
So if there was a prediction of a single gene that was different between the two lineages, it's really hard to find that that has anything that's related to cognitive development.
Was the original idea of the cognitive leap forward, was that the same as move from Neanderthal to human? No. That's the best case because Neanderthals were so successful and we replaced them in Europe, our modern human ancestors seem to have replaced them in a very, very clearly documented way. Europe has a lot of archaeology because of its historical background, and so we know a lot about it. So it's the best case scenario is the best test of the hypothesis.
Does that make sense?
OK, just one more time. What should we expect to see in Neanderthal genetics if the great cognitive leap forward hypothesis were true?
I mean, I think one of the predictions would have been that all of these like biobehavioral loci related to language and development, just psychological dilemma, should be very, very strikingly different. And there have been geneticists that have looked for like the gene that makes us human. As we understand it, they haven't really found it.
Let's move on to a mind change or you had several minor changes in other scientific fields besides genetics. One was about evolutionary psychology. So you wrote, I accepted evolutionary psychology in a classical sense, massive modularity, etc. in the early 2000s. Not sure that the full package is necessary. What do you mean by modularity? Is it like the modular mind thesis that we have different parts of the mind that evolved to do different things? Yeah, I mean, so Tuebingen because Myotis, when they when they kind of promoted the field and developed in the 80s, they had this, that they came out of psychology and they had this idea that, you know, the Swiss Army knife model of the mind and that we had like competencies that were very specialized.
So there's like a language module and, you know, like theory of mind, like I mean, and there was stuff in the nineties and thousands about like localising using cognitive neuroscience to particular regions of the brain. And the main reason that I might change my view is like looking at the cognitive neuroscience. It looks like a lot of the stuff is like kind of relatively more plastic, even though there are like regions of the mind. But I mean, if you have damage to one area of the brain that's normally localized for, say, language like sometimes like another area, the brain can actually come on as a back up and do it, even if it's not at like one hundred percent, you know, or like there was a book by Jonathan Tahani on reading and it showed how, you know, when we recognize letters, it localizes to a region of the brain that's normally associated in hunter gatherers with looking at like shapes in nature.
And so there's there's obviously some localization, but there's just so much cooption and and like repackaging that this sort of like specialized domain competencies, like, I don't know if that's really necessary to understand what's going on.
Interesting. Is that really central to Evo psych, though?
Like when I think of kind of archetypal evolutionary psychology hypotheses like, I don't know, men being attracted to women with markers of fertility or women being attracted to men with markers of status or strength or whatever.
I don't see how that relates to make hypotheses like that don't seem to relate to the modularity of mind theses. Yeah, I mean, so I'm not a psychologist myself, so but I mean, in the original formulation, there's basically a core group of evolutionary psychologists that adhere to all these, like, general propositions. And then there's like the broader field of just like evolutionary psychology without know the capital letters. Right. And so I think the modularity of the mind comes out of this theory that, OK, like adaptation is very strong and our brain is adapted to these specialized tasks.
And it just makes sense to think that there was like special regions of the brain that were targeted by adaptation. Got it. So do you have a model of why you disagree or what you disagree about with current evolutionary psychologists like Diana Fleischman on on the show last year? What would you disagree with her about regarding just the general, you know, Prior's or method in the field?
Yeah, I mean, I don't know. I mean, I know Diana and I respect her work. I don't know what her theoretical commitments are. So like we're talking mostly about theoretical commitments. I think evolutionary psychologists do. I think they're a little bit more out of adaptation to than I am at this point. And also, like they focus more on like individual level gains a lot. And so I think they think I think the Diana would probably favor more individual optimization of fitness.
And I think it's a lot noisier than that at this point. So a lot of the stuff is not a signal of adaptation. Like it could just be I mean, I'll call it noise, but I mean, I think like it's embedded in a broader cultural matrix. And I think it's more important to look at it that way now. So it's evolutionary psychology versus behavioral psychology like they're not that different, but their cultures in science are different what they focus on.
And so I'm I'm more like in between that I used to be. Got it.
You mentioned cognitive neuroscience in a couple of minutes ago. One of the other items on your list was, like many people, I put too much credence in fMRI based cognitive neuroscience should have ignored it. So I think I know roughly what you're referring to. But for the sake of our listeners, can you give the nutshell summary of why Cretans and fMRI based neuroscience has gone down?
Yeah, I think a lot of it is just like that was one of the first cases of the replication crisis, although I think it was even before the primary replication crisis. But yeah, yeah, it was like these small sample sizes of like brain imaging and they had to be small sample sizes because if you know people who do fMRI, I mean, how many people are you going to get to sit in that little, you know, that chamber to get scanned?
And, you know, the images were really, really captivating and you would see the associations of images to particular regions and particular stimuli. And it was just like everything fit together in terms of like what you would think, because you know, that this is like in the brain somewhere and they're actually showing you where it is. Right. And so it was very it was very attractive in terms of being able to see the physical location of some sort of psychological phenomenon.
But I mean, I think a lot of it has turned out to be just like small sample sizes and spurious associations because of the small sample sizes using the traditional values. And, you know, you would they would try to make some functional sense, like this is in a region of the brain associated with this, that this. But obviously, you know, they were there was a lot of data dredging, like the lack of multiple hypothesis testing going on there.
And so I just don't know. I assume some of it is still valid, but a lot of it was obviously just wishful thinking.
And the sexiness of the technology really sold it for a lot of people, including me, in the sense of like having pictures of brain scans makes make they claim same 50 percent more credible. Exactly, yeah, because stuff's happening in the brain, you know, that, oh, like like discovering that part of the brain lights up a specific part of the brain lights up. When you look at a picture of an attractive person of the opposite sex or something, that exactly is not should not be surprising.
Like, of course, some part of the brain is going to light up that we didn't actually learn anything but the whole causal sequence of connections that people were making and the theories that were spun out of that, obviously a lot of that is just not it's probably not going to be replicated. They've tried. I think they've tried, actually. Some people have.
Do you think that you should have known better at the time that, you know, if you were thinking more carefully or rigorously, it would have been clear to you that you should have ignored the former eBay studies? Or do you think it's just like, well, we didn't know because we hadn't tried to replicate it?
I think a lot of it has to do with I thought that there were other Prior's in terms of what we knew about the brain. So maybe we didn't know as much about the brain in terms of like the functional localizations as we thought, because it wasn't just like the sample size of like 20. There was also like, oh, well, we know functionally in people in aphasia this part of the brain associated with this. And so I thought I think there were a lot of like moderate confidence things that were going through my brain.
I think it turns out like maybe we don't know the brain structural localization as well as we thought we did. And as I admitted, I think just looking at the picture, I'm a materialist. Basically looking at the picture was very, very attractive to me because now it's not like some abstraction. And, you know, and some of it has to be deal with the fact that, like data dredging and like, you know, low, you know, bad p value oriented science was common in the two thousand.
So that's some of it. But I think for me, a lot of it had to do with the fact that I thought, again, going back to modularity, I thought we understood other Pryors a lot more than we did.
Yeah, I was thinking about this, a version of this with respect to social science and, you know, my Cretans. And it has gone on down a lot in the last ten years, as you alluded to. And I was recently reading some old blog posts on overcoming bias from, I think around 2007, 2008. And it was crazy to see people like friends of mine in the comments talking very credulously about various social science studies that we all now know are terrible.
And I was wondering, should we have known at the time not to trust those studies? And I kind of think that, yes, we should have, because even though the rhetoric some people hadn't. Some people some people did.
Did you know about social science and just not I didn't know what to think about it, but I had a friend who was a graduate student in twenty six who would tell me all this social psychology crap. Like everything he said was totally right. Like he literally, like, exactly predicted it. So the thing that I well, I guess if I'd been paying more attention to the stats, which is your friend, like, statistically savvy, he did a statistical analysis in a social psychology lab.
Oh. So he totally he's I mean, he he and like one other person in the field told me, a lot of this stuff is not going to pan out. It's crap. People just need lines on their CV. And my thought honestly was like, could that actually be true? Could this all be just like some weird conspiracy, not conspiracy, but, you know, just like could this all be like statistically invalid, like this whole field with all these people and all this?
And Chris Chabris also kind of was suggesting things to me. And I was just like, yeah, whoa. And so when the replication crisis happened, I'm like, well, they were right. Like, they told me I didn't know what to think. I was agnostic. I wasn't in the field, you know, how do you judge? But they knew.
I think the part that I don't really blame most people for is the data mining. Like, have you read Andy Gelman's Garden of Forking Paths Metaphore?
Yeah, I have. I'm a big fan of his blog, yeah, yeah, yeah. So there are like statistical problems with the research. That means a lot of it is worthless. But I actually think looking back at some of the papers that even friends of mine were talking about credulously 10 years ago, if you just read the methodology, you should it should be clear to you that doesn't actually test the thing you care about. Like, you know, like the papers where the headline is, looks like humans learn to trust each other more when you wear green or something.
And then the experiment is, you know. Well, actually, just in a recent episode, my guest was talking about measures of whether video games cause violent behavior. And the thing they did to measure violent behavior was to measure how much hot sauce people put on a plate of food for someone else, which is like so tangentially related to violent behavior that just reading that you should go. Oh, I should not update much at all from the study, even if it were perfectly conducted about the actual question I care about, which is video games and violent behavior.
And I, I think that a lot of studies were like that, maybe not quite as performative lethally as the hot sauce one, but just like, you know, no external validity, basically.
So I do in retrospect, to blame us for not reading the methodology and going what we shouldn't update from this.
Well, I mean, if it's out of field, I feel like I think one of my assumptions was like, how am I going to figure out the methodology? Like when it's in my field, it's pretty easy because I know all the methods and I've done them, although these are like general statistical ones. So I guess, like, that's a stupid argument. But I mean, I think that was part of my logic.
At the end of your list, you say if there is an overall theme to the items on your list, I think I was more optimistic about the future in 2002 than how the future has actually turned out. And I'm more pessimistic about the future in twenty nineteen than I was in twenty two or sorry, 2002 by a long shot. Does that mean you disagree with the sort of Steven Pinker enlightenment now world is getting better thesis?
I think his facts are right, but humans care about positional status a lot. And that's I guess my key. And maybe it's because I'm older. I see that more. You know, obviously, like the development of China has been great. On the other hand, you have wiggers being put into camps. So, I mean, from a current Korean perspective, like China is like one of the greatest successes of the last generation. Yeah, but you have issues with like you know, it's also gotten to be a much more effective totalitarian state in a way because of technology.
And also it's force projection has caused issues across the world because the United States is no longer the hyper power. And that's going to cause instability in terms of like my pessimism, I'm just reflecting it against Fukuyama's, like, whether it Fujiyama himself believe this or not, because, like, his his views are more subtle. But the last man, the end of history, there was going to be some great neo liberal global paradise of like free markets and free capital.
And, you know, every president was going to be Bill Clinton in nineteen ninety nine and the dotcom bubble was going to go on forever. I mean, this is a caricature, but like the world from nineteen ninety nine to like twenty nineteen, twenty nineteen seems a lot more like nineteen fourteen than I thought it would about.
Does that relate to what you were saying about humans care a lot more about positional status. Yeah. Yeah. Because like we are we are way more. The average American middle class person has Star Trek computer in their pocket, actually like most Americans, the smartphone. Right. And yet we are getting stressed out about the fact that manufacturing is declining. But a lot of it is like other nations are catching up and are stressing us out because we don't feel as rich.
But that doesn't sound like a reason to say that you are more pessimistic about the. Oh, do you mean you're more pessimistic about the future in the sense that, like, as nations catch up, people in the richer nations will be less happy because their positional status is lower?
That's that's what that's one of the things on the individual level. But I also think like something like Trump's trade war, it's not really rational, but it makes sense if you're thinking of it as a zero sum game. Hmm. And I think that's what people are doing. I mean, you know, we're probably going to global recession soon, and it's definitely being exacerbated by the volatility due to Trump's trade issue. But actually, most Americans support even on the left, they support an anti free trade position and strongly, intuitively favored, I feel like the disagreements between the Pankratz and the antipodal.
It's not like there's one camp event. I think it's I wouldn't put you in you know, you're critiquing thinker, but you're not in the same camp as like the Vox critics of Pinga. But anyway, the people who don't fully buy the pinger thesis, I think one thing that tends to happen is Pinker's thesis, although he doesn't always make this clear, is I think it mostly rests on the progress of the Third World, like people in China are.
You know, child mortality is going way down and and people are getting more education and so on and so forth. And so his.
Mostly rests on that, and then the people who don't buy it point to conditions in the developed world that aren't getting as much better or have other the other problems you were pointing to.
Exactly. Yeah. Which maybe that's what you meant by you don't disagree about the facts. Yeah.
I mean, you know, the global, global, global, you know, infant mortality, something like that. Can't disagree with that fact. It's a great it's a great fact in terms of like the direction is going. Well, I have relatives in Asia and I can tell you they're very optimistic. They have like a totally different mindset. But like they have like six to eight percent growth per year. Their lives are changing in their generation in a very concrete way like that.
We can't even understand, like they're going from like not having a toilet to like having a smartphone. So, I mean, they're obviously going to be very optimistic. We're not we're not there like we're trying to figure out a lot of people trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives. Like, that's that's a weird question to ask, but it's a legitimate question, you know. And I think, you know, I mean, I think if you're old enough to remember, like when people were really optimistic about the Internet and what it could do and what it could unleash.
And now I think we're a little bit more cautious because it turns out that what the Internet unleashes our social mobs and Meems and a lot of porn.
So when you say you're more pessimistic about the future now than you were in 2002, I guess it just means that you were you were optimistic about progress in society and people's happiness and so on in the West, like in the US or Western Europe. And now you're less optimistic about that, that.
Yes, that's for sure. And I also I also think, though, that unfortunately what happens in in the West is going to matter in some ways because the world is interconnected. Yeah. And, you know, I'm not fact I'm not excited about the US being the world policeman. But when you have one cop that really simplifies things a lot and that's fading away and we are going to have a multipolar world and that adds complexity. And so your expected value can be OK, everything's going to be fine, like people aren't going to go crazy.
But I think the variance of outcomes is going to start to increase because as you saw during World War One, World War Two, humans are really good at taking a good thing and destroying it.
Do you think that in retrospect, you should have known in 2002 that you were being overly optimistic and like, is your change a matter of getting new information or paying more attention?
I wonder if a lot of it is just getting older and getting to understand human psychology better. And I didn't know, I don't know, like that much more history than I did then. But I thought this time it was different. And maybe that's just the psychology of when you're like 20 to this time, it's different, you know.
I mean, when I see, like, older people in Silicon Valley who've been through a bunch of cycles of hype and excitement over something like, I don't know, virtual reality, they definitely have a more like, OK, we've been through this before and maybe this next hype thing will turn out, will pan out, but I'm not holding my breath. And then the younger people who haven't lived through the bursting of the hype bubbles are just like, no, this time it will be different.
This is this one's going to work.
Oh, that's exactly it's exactly. I think some of this is not me being smarter is just being older and having more input, having more data. But the data is like visceral, like a lot of the data I we don't. Yeah we didn't. It's not like I, I didn't know that World War One and I'm using it as an extreme case. I'm not saying that's going to happen, but I'm saying I knew what World War One is and I knew what what led up to it and how they were like all these like individual choices, blah, blah, blah.
But I just thought, you know, look like this is like nineteen ninety nine. And we have email like everyone can email everybody else and that's great. It's all the information can be there. They would never like coordinate to do something that insane. And now we are seeing Facebook being used to commit to enable genocide in Myanmar, you know. So I mean OK, like having more information is not OK, is not always going to or like, you know, the social media mobs that are running around.
I mean, OK, like with hindsight, it totally makes sense what's happening there. But that wasn't something that we talked about in nineteen ninety nine. We talked about like the upside. It's just like when people predict their future income, they underestimate volatility, you know, and so like they just assume it's going to be like smooth. We underestimated the downside risks of a lot of this information technology and, you know, like the tracking and all the other things that we're doing, we kind of had it in a vague idea.
But now when it's concrete, we see like what people are using it for and it's pretty disturbing. So, you know, there's that. And, you know, I think that I definitely didn't understand it, partly because the technology wasn't there yet, but partly because I was definitely doing glass half full assessments because I mean. Yeah, like social media mobs totally make sense. Mobs have always been around what happened what happened. When we had the printing press, we had a bunch of revolutions like, you know, a lot of the Catholic relics were destroyed, like there was wars in Germany.
I mean, all this stuff got unleashed very soon after information got way cheaper. And it wasn't just like letters, like woodblocks, like visual representations became way cheaper and spread across the population. So it allows people to mobilize for good or ill, you know, and whether it's good or ill probably depends on where you stand as well. Like maybe some people think social models are great. You know, some people probably do.
Yeah. When you look back at the things on your list, what kinds of patterns jump out at you or not, even patterns, much lessons, like what kind of general updates do you think you should make about how to model the world going forward? You've talked about a couple of them, like you talked about generally paying more attention to the glass half empty side of new technology. Also, earlier in the episode, you were talking about updating to be cautious about extrapolating from your own psychology to other people's.
Are there any other kind of general updates that you think you can make?
Yeah, I don't. I mean, I think this is most people now, but I'm hoping I don't, frankly, update as quickly anymore because I'm suspicious of new information, I think, especially with what's like sexy and salient. If it's too counterintuitive, like I'm like, OK, like I mean, I need to check this out, you know? And so, you know what I routinely do and I don't even read the social the sexy social science stuff.
Now, I do a lot of my own data analysis if I really want to check to make sure that, you know, and I've done things where I've checked and I'm like, OK, like if you change the parameters or if you like, analyze the variables, this doesn't hold out at all. You know, this is like ridiculous, you know. But, you know, I definitely like make sure to look at the original study. I'm really skeptical of stuff that's counterintuitive.
Now, that's too sexy. I'm also skeptical of stuff that increases the confidence of my beliefs a lot like there have been multiple times around, like I believe this is true. But I don't think this actually should make me more confident because I don't think this is a result, you know.
Yeah, that's happened to me a lot in doing research on like bias motivated reasoning. There are a lot of studies that confirm my intuitive anecdotal impressions of in what situations people are biased and how bias works and everything. But then I read the methodology of the study. I'm like, oh, I should not update it all based on this. Like, I still think it's true, but not because of any research, any of this research anyway.
Yeah. And I mean, I also think. The best way to have a really strong opinion on something is to like, again, reanalyze the data and look at it yourself and to develop a strong opinion like reliable or Demián confident.
Yeah, I would say confident, you know, OK, I would say go even in the best way to have a justified confidence.
Yeah. Justified, because unless you're generating your data, you also don't know other things that are going on. But there's been so many times that I've seen where the data analysis is. Manifestly, like, OK, like it's like the forking paths. You know what I'm saying? Like, OK, like they made it like a bunch of different choices and they came to this conclusion. And you reanalyze the data and you're like, oh, you can come to a different conclusion.
Therefore, it doesn't really mean your conclusions. Right. It just means that, OK, like I mean, how is this done? Like, what does this mean?
Normally at the end of the episode, I ask my guest about a book that influenced them or changed their mind, fits very nicely and naturally into this particular episode. Razib, you you actually discussed in your list a book that changed your mind, although it wasn't about like a core piece of your worldview. I don't think it was the book The Fall of Rome, which you said transformed your views on the question of whether Rome fell in a consequential and disruptive manner.
Tell me a little bit about what you previously thought about Rome and why the book changed your mind.
Yes, when you read a lot of history, it's textual analysis and it's a very high level. And so it's kind it's kind of the view of some Roman senator. And so, you know, when you talk about, like the decline of Rome, there's been a revisionist argument. The Rome didn't actually decline and that persisted. And you look at the Catholic Church and it's so great to the Dark Ages and it maintained Roman institutions. And, you know, on the surface of it, that's not a totally implausible assertion.
Like you would say, like, oh, they became really creative in theology and all these arguments. So it was Rome is still very active as an intellectual center with the fall of Rome shows is like if you look at like material remains, if you look at coin hordes, if you look at architecture, if you just look at the archaeology, it's pretty obvious that you can look at the material remains as a proxy for economic surplus. And so you can see the decline in the tax base.
You can see the increase in coin hoards, which means that people have a certain perception of what the future is going to be like spiking up in the 4th and 5th centuries. Right. When classically we did say Rome fell. Right. So, you know, whatever you think about the intellectual environment, the reality is the material environment was far poorer after Rome fell than before Rome fell. And so if the material like a Pinkert right view is what you hold, then you would have to say that Rome did fall in some consequential way.
You can use other.
What do you mean by consequential here?
I originally thought you just meant it had a significant impact or something, but sounds like you mean something so consequential would be like a Roman Roman proletariat in, say, the second century would have access to a range of pottery. If they were wealthy enough to pay taxes, they would pay taxes, they could spend speci. They would have access to like a bunch of services like that's like basically consumer goods and services like classical economics. They would be wealthier than someone that lived in the sixth century where the population density was actually lower for a reason because the the problem of productivity was being utilized less.
A lot of the services were gone and specialization and interconnected trade had declined a lot so that everything had gone back to a village economy. And so the pottery was not nearly as nice because there wasn't specialization. Right. And so you could say that like, well, this isn't really, really a fall. Like they had a Christian religion which was far superior to anything that they had four hundred years ago. That's fine if that's the criteria you want to use.
I still think, like whether you have enough food and the variety of food you have and your goods of services, that should be a primary thing. You should evaluate in a Steve in a Steven Pinker way. Got it.
Consequential in terms of sort of material well-being. Yeah. Like look at the people's teeth, you know, I mean, if the teeth are rotting from too much sugar, well, that's is that really bad?
You also you had another item on your list about Rome. I don't know if it relates to this particular book, but you said you now believe that some sort of complex ethical religious system was going to become dominant in the Roman Empire at some point. Yeah. So if so, why did you come to believe that?
Well, you know, I came to believe it because if you look at cross culturally, other societies have also gone through the same transition around the same time. So, you know, in Tibet, I gave that example, the blog post, there was multiple introductions of Buddhism in Tibet and there was a traditionalist reaction against this because it overturned certain like, you know, power structure. Right. What ends up happening in all these circumstances is these like complex ethical systems, these religions, higher religions are what we call them.
They always come back and they always eventually conquer in these societies. So I think basically what a society with a certain level of complexity, it needs a certain ideological framework that is provided by something that transcends ethnicity, provides like some sort of future for life, and gives like these moral calculus is either through these supernatural agents, whether it's karma or gods, whether it was Christianity or not, something would have emerged like that. I'm not necessarily saying that it would have had to be Christianity like I don't know, it could be some form of Mithras, who knows?
But the old pagan religion of the late Roman Republic, that was not going to persist indefinitely. And so Christianity was stepped into that functional role at that stage in society. Other some. Societies had other religions to step into the functional role. When you look at the Greek empire, do you feel like the religion, the Greek religion was playing that those roles that you describe? Because I don't know. I mean, I'm not an expert in it, but from the books that I've read, it just sounds like this kind of colorful cast of characters and not it doesn't have this kind of deep morality and punitive rules and everything.
Yeah. And I think I think that caused the problem because the elite in the Hellenistic empires tended to be ethnically Greek and identifying only with Greek culture. And so you could assimilate to that, which happened periodically. But that's a big that's a big ask to transition your whole ethnicity. On the other hand, religion is a more discreet package, and you can still retain your ethnicity by switching your religions. So basically, what I'm getting at is allows in an imperial system, multiethnic societies to bind themselves together and have a common currency of communication, of ethical, moral communication, it being a complex ethical religious system.
Yeah, yeah. So I think the religion is always there. It's like what's what's put on top of that. So Christianity is a quote unquote higher religion, like, you know, you can say hi or not. But obviously it's something different than what you were talking about, the Greek religions. Right. But, you know, China had the same thing where it had its like local household like cults and all these things. But eventually Buddhism and Daoism and Confucianism became way more elaborated.
And they served as the ideological binding for this whole empire, because that's what you kind of need for people in different parts of the empire to communicate in a comprehensive way.
Great. Well, that's probably a good place to end. Thank you so much for coming on the show. It's been a pleasure having you. And thank you for writing up this list of ways that you've changed your mind and setting an example, hopefully content for other public intellectuals out there for sure.
It was great talking to Julia. This concludes another episode of rationally speaking. Join us next time for more explorations on the borderlands between reason and nonsense.