All posts by Jamie Freestone

#33 On scepticism


Dear Mat,

Even if we cast aside our ideological, manufactured maps it doesn’t quite mean that we’re mapless. Surely the process of evolution endowed us with a series of inherited maps.  Our heuristics are maps that have been charted by our forebears’ efforts at navigating the world. Can these innate maps be wrong? The extinction of more than 99% of all species that have ever lived is ominous.

I submit that even the doubtful sceptic is really a confident sceptic, whose confidence is based on a good run of relatively stable ancestral environments, but whose inherited map is hard to amend when the environment changes rapidly. I also submit that we have been in an especially rapidly changing environment the last 400 years, meaning our maps are out of date. Continue reading #33 On scepticism

#31 On tyranny

Dear Mat,

There’s a bet involved here. For me the odds are very bad that any serious change will improve the system. For me. I flourish in a liberal democracy where I can lampoon the government, assert my rights, fight businesses on social media, act like an ass in my private life and never get ostracised or imprisoned.

But if you’re marginalised within a democratic system obviously the gamble might look more attractive. Continue reading #31 On tyranny

#29 On post-truth politics

Dear Mat,

This is the letter where I’ve had the least to disagree with so I’ll expand on something you wrote: “Many would disagree but I think truth is alive and well in our civilisation”. Amen. Talk of fake news and post-truth politics seems crazy to me. When the fuck was the golden age when there was no propaganda, misinformation, spin, or lies?

I find that on this point reading about WWII and totalitarianism is always a good refresher. Indeed, sometimes I think that the stuff I was reading when I was 17 pretty much locked-in a lot of how I see the world, which is unusual and disappointing. Back then I studied Stalin in history class and read the kinds of things one is told to read by English teachers when one is 17. Actually, because I’ve been keeping a reading log since I can remember, I can consult the record and tell you exactly what I read ages 15–17. Continue reading #29 On post-truth politics

#27 On satire

Dear Mat,

I’ve tried lamely over the years to make fun of leaders for doing stupid things. Pretty standard really. I’ve always felt that something like, say, mutually assured destruction 1)Re: your last letter. Your second claim about doomsday was that “we’re most likely to die to a Black Swan, so we’d probably not realise it was coming”. But I gotta say, although we obviously can’t predict Black Swans because they will include unknown unknowns, that doesn’t imply we’re more likely to be wiped out by one of them than some more mundane reason like nuclear annihilation. Sure, there are things we can’t anticipate or prepare for (save for diversifying our portfolio by colonising other planets as you point out), but that doesn’t negate the point that there are known knowns that could kill the fuck out of us. is so insane that maybe very harsh mockery is the way to tackle the apathy and the status quo bias on this issue. Ditto for climate change, wars, treatment of refugees or any other thing where people in power need to have their actions subjected to a much harsher burden of proof.

Satire for me is an extension of scepticism or falsification. Ridicule everything and the really stupid ideas will sink and those left floating will be, not perfect, but passable. Obviously you share this view as well, hence the momentous and world-historical publication of our satire manifesto this week. But does satire work? Continue reading #27 On satire

Footnotes

1. Re: your last letter. Your second claim about doomsday was that “we’re most likely to die to a Black Swan, so we’d probably not realise it was coming”. But I gotta say, although we obviously can’t predict Black Swans because they will include unknown unknowns, that doesn’t imply we’re more likely to be wiped out by one of them than some more mundane reason like nuclear annihilation. Sure, there are things we can’t anticipate or prepare for (save for diversifying our portfolio by colonising other planets as you point out), but that doesn’t negate the point that there are known knowns that could kill the fuck out of us.

Dammit I’m mad

I’m a complete amateur at this stuff but I try to keep my hand in, because it seems important. In fact, the most important thing there is: good old Cold War-style mutually assured destruction.

Nukes often get put at number one on a list of existential threats by the kinds of nerds who actually take the time to think about such things. In his last term Obama had been floating the idea of a no first use policy, so the US would only deploy nuclear weapons if another nuclear state did first. This sounds great but there are two sides to the debate, even among non-proliferation fans. Continue reading Dammit I’m mad

#21 On ancestor worship

Dear Mat,

I disagree with your conjecture.

Most new conjectures are wrong. That’s definitely right. But I disagree that the inverse holds: that therefore more old ideas are right. I think there are selection biases that you’re overlooking that are present in social and political domains that aren’t as relevant in science. Deutsch’s ideas about conjecturing apply across the board but scientific institutions are better tuned for this than political ones. In science the old ideas that are held onto, provisionally, are rightly favoured because they’re likely to be erring towards truth because they faced strong tests when they were adopted; new conjectures are more likely to be off the mark but you keep throwing stuff up and eventually you land on an improvement.

In politics there is way more inertia, way more bias towards conservatism and fewer norms for accepting new theories when they hold up to evidence. In politics a new, true idea may well have absolutely no chance of ever being accepted, merely because it conflicts with people’s intuitions, cognitive biases, animal spirits, tribalisms, etc. Continue reading #21 On ancestor worship