The ambiguity problem is an obstacle — one of many — to the effective pursuit of truth.
Humans often disagree. Sometimes the disagreers are people who want to agree, and try to agree, but they fail. This happens a lot. John Nerst joked that 82% of the internet is people arguing, and the rest is cats and porn. Sometimes when people disagree they’re not really trying to agree. Sometimes they’re trying to win, or to be right. They might actually be averse (consciously or not) to changing their mind.
But sometimes people — or at least parts of them — are genuinely trying to resolve a disagreement. And they just simply fail to do it.
And sometimes these people are skilled truth-pursuers. Intellectuals. Scientists. Philosophers. Lovers of truth. Sometimes they’re friends and comrades who genuinely respect one another. And they simply fail to agree.
What’s going on in those cases?
I want to suggest that a large percentage of the time, the problem is semantic ambiguity. Natural language has a nice feature in that it lets us be vague and gestural. It lets us speak in metaphors and allusions. It lets us describe part of a thing while leaving other parts ambiguous. But sometimes we need more precision than that. Sometimes natural language is too vague — sometimes it’s critically vague. This can get us into unproductive disagreements. Sometimes — perhaps very often — two people who disagree, think that they are understanding one another when they are not. They think that one believes p and the other believes not-p, when really, one person is saying that they believe p1, and the other is saying that they believe not-p2, where p1 and p2 are orthogonal. But because they hear “p” and “not-p”, they think they’re understanding one another and having a debate, when really they’re just talking past one another.
I want to give a provisional name to this phenomenon. Let’s say that the ambiguity problem is the propensity for natural language to lead to unproductive disagreement rooted in misunderstanding about the meanings of terms.
David Chalmers has called disagreements of this sort “merely verbal” disputes. In the linked paper he offers a technique for resolving them: the conversants should temporarily taboo the ambiguous term and re-phrase it in less ambiguous terms.
I have a hunch that a more powerful solution is possible. For people who are genuinely interested in pursuing truth and who are hindered by this ambiguity problem, my provocation is that we can create a tool that:
lets people create bespoke semantic objects disambiguated to the appropriate degree for their desired use case, and
reference these objects unambiguously.
My hunch is that such a tool has the potential to take motivated people a long way towards dissolving the ambiguity problem.
I’ve been writing about disambiguation techniques. Here’s another one. This one applies when the question cannot be disambiguated into a continual variable.
Suppose Adam and Bob and a bunch of friends live in a house together. They all enjoy living together and hope to continue for a long time to come. But a complication has emerged. Adam is allergic to dogs, and Bob’s girlfriend has a dog. Bob would like to have his girlfriend come over more — and maybe even move in some day — but it’s hard for her to do that because she has to leave her dog at home.
This poses a risk to Adam and Bob’s goals of living in the house together. If Bob can’t have his girlfriend over, he might have to move out. Or Bob might not move out, but might someday find that his relationship with his girlfriend has been strangled by the fact that she doesn’t spend much time at his house. Or if Bob brings his girlfriend’s dog over anyway, it may cause Adam to have constant allergies, and Adam might have to move out.
There’s also a possibility that some happy compromise can be found — perhaps if the dog is bathed regularly it won’t produce an allergic reaction. Or maybe the dog can be limited to certain areas of the house that Adam doesn’t care to spend time in.
But Adam and Bob find themselves having a hard time talking about the issue. If they were to disambiguate using this technique, they might find out why.
The first step is to list the possible outcomes. They agree that there are 4 possible outcomes worth discussing. Next, they each record their likelihood estimate for each outcome.
Here’s what they come up with.
Adam’s expected likelihood of this outcome
Bob’s expected likelihood of this outcome
Bob moves out
Bob stays but his relationship with his girlfriend is strangled
Adam moves out
A happy solution is found whereby all of the above are false
Finally, they compare results. Looking at the last row, they see a huge delta on their expected likelihood of a happy solution. Now it makes sense to both of them that Bob has been excited to talk about solutions, while to Adam this has felt wrong.
From here, with a greater understanding of one another’s point of view, they can further disambiguate to find out why they have such different likelihood estimates for this outcome. They’re doing productive disagreement.
I’ve been writing about disambiguation and the high-dimensionality of superficially low-dimensional phenomena like abortion.
The continuum from pro-life to pro-choice can be visualized as a single dimension.
But it’s probably more helpful to think of one’s position on abortion as high-dimensional. It’s composed of your views on questions like “when does life begin?” and “how much should we value the preferences of the would-be mother?” We can say that your positions on those dimensions project to a position on the single pro-life/pro-choice dimension.
We can disambiguate one person’s views this way, and we can also disambiguate a second person’s views this way. And we can map both of their views onto a single graph.
For many issues, this would go a long way towards getting two people to understand one another and to disagree productively rather than unproductively.
We could also compare one person’s actual views with what the other person thinks that person’s views must be. This type of misunderstanding/ambiguity is responsible for a lot of unproductive disagreement.
A few days ago I wrote about Eric Weinstein’s discussion of the “middle” position on political issues. He used abortion as an example. We have the terms “pro-life” and “pro-choice”, and most people’s position is probably somewhere in the middle.
Weinstein said something interesting about this so-called “middle”.
I don’t think it’s at the middle. …. I think that there’s this very flat, low dimensional plane where these positions [pro-life and pro-choice] live. And what we’re calling the middle is not the thing between these. It’s in a higher dimensional space that combines these crappy low resolution, moronic positions, and it projects to the middle, but it isn’t the middle.
I’m interested in visualizing this. Here’s a sketch.
In recent posts I’ve been talking about a gap in our ecosystem of communication tools. My last post used an example from Eric Weinstein to illustrate the problem. Here I want to build on that post by looking in more depth at the current solutions that Weinstein has available to him.
What solutions are available to him right now?
He can say “well I’m pro-choice, generally”. This is succinct but not accurate.
He can give a monologue articulating his actual view. This is accurate, but not succinct.
He can write an essay, publish it on the internet, and give the view articulated therein a name — eg, he could call it “pro-utility” (if he thinks his view is utilitarian). Then when asked, he could say “I’m pro-utility. You can read my blog post about it.” This gets him succinctness and accuracy. But it introduces another problem. Asking someone to read an essay on your blog is a tall order. He’ll say “I’m pro-utility, you can read my blog post.” And his audience will, for the most part, not read it. So now he’s failed to get them to understand at all, let alone understand succinctly and accurately.
If he could get his new word, “pro-utility” into the popular lexicon, then he could say “I’m pro-utility” and not have to refer to is blog post because people would already know what it meant. Now he’s getting understanding accurately and succinctly. One obvious difficulty with this approach is that it’s difficult to get a new word propagated into the popular lexicon. A second difficulty is that if he manages to succeed at popularizing the word, he’ll soon run into the same problem he started with: people will use the word “pro-utility” to name a range of views which aren’t actually what he meant. They might be closer to his actual view than “pro-choice”, but there will be ambiguity resulting in loss of accuracy.
What else could he do?
He could make a short video and put it on YouTube. But this seems to have the same problems as his essay. Maybe the video is shorter — but this would seem to come at the cost of accuracy or specificity.
He could find someone — a scientist or politician perhaps — who has already written an essay, and refer people to that. But again, people aren’t going to read it.
The unfortunate fact, I believe, is that he doesn’t have a good solution to this problem given current tools.
If the three traditional estates of the realm are the clergy, the nobility and the commoners, and the fourth estate is the mainstream media, then we might say, as William Dutton has, that networked individuals enabled by the Internet are the fifth estate.
But the Internet has not provided all of the tools for communication and democratic action that the fifth estate requires. There’s at least one important gap.
Giving conversation about abortion as an example, Weinstein says that he wants to escape the “enforced conversation of morons” in which we identify our views as one of two positions in a single dimension: either pro-life, or pro-choice. Weinstein says that he caucuses with the pro-choicers, but that his real position is “a plague on both your houses”.
I’m not pro-choice to the extent that I’m willing to call a child four minutes before its birth ‘fetal tissue’. Nor am I pro-life to the extent that I’m going to call a blastosphere a ‘baby’. Both of those seem patently insane to me.
my key point is, look, I’ll drop these people in a heartbeat if you give me some nuanced room in which to maneuver. Let’s talk about the neural tube formation.
Let’s talk about what we think of as life…nowhere do I get to discuss Carnegie stages in embryonic development, which would be sort of a more scientific approach to what quality of life is it that we’re trying to preserve.
What Weinstein wants is to be able to convey his actual position on abortion, succinctly. Currently, he has to choose between the two: he can succinctly convey something that isn’t his actual position (“pro-choice”), or he can laboriously convey his actual position. But he can’t do both.
His inability to do both forces him to choose. And it prevents him from accomplishing a number of important things. It makes it hard for him to be seen and understood accurately. It makes it difficult for him to have truth-seeking conversations with reasonable people. It makes it difficult for he and others, if they have different views, to find out whether they might want to caucus together for some particular purpose.
I believe that there’s a tool that’s within our power to build which would let Weinstein and everyone like him communicate about their actual positions succinctly. Let’s call it the Disambiguator. I’ll talk about it (probably) in a future post.
The ambiguity of natural language is often a benefit: it gets us in the right neighborhood with parsimony. And it helps us to caucus around views that may not actually be as similar as our language makes it sound.
But one thing ambiguity is not good for is specificity. Sometimes we don’t want the broad, general, multiply-interpretable word. Sometimes we need a precise semantic package. In those cases we can use — or invent — jargon. But jargon is, by definition, inaccessible.
How might we get the best of both worlds — accessibility and precision?
I caucus, if you will, with the pro-choice community,
my real position is: a plague on both your houses.
I’m not pro-choice to the extent that I’m willing to call a child four minutes before its birth ‘fetal tissue’. Nor am I pro-life to the extent that I’m going to call a blastosphere a ‘baby’. Both of those seem patently insane to me.
if people see that I caucus pro-choice, then they say, okay, you’re willing to sit with somebody who’s willing to terminate a third trimester pregnancy frivolously because they’re ideologically committed to it. Ergo, you’re evil, ergo we can no longer be friends.
my key point is, look, I’ll drop these people in a heartbeat if you give me some nuanced room in which to maneuver. Let’s talk about the neural tube formation. Let’s talk about what we think of as life…
nowhere do I get to discuss Carnegie stages in embryonic development, which would be sort of a more scientific approach to what quality of life is it that we’re trying to preserve.
a lot of what The Portal is about, is we’ve got to break out of this enforced conversation of morons, to some place where we can actually potentially get enough resolution to say, oh, here’s what I’m really about.
About that middle…
Yeah, I don’t think it’s at the middle. I mean, I really think, and for those of you who are watching, rather than listening, I think that there’s this very flat, low dimensional plane where these positions live. And that what we’re calling the middle is not the thing between these. It’s in a higher dimensional space that combines these crappy low resolution, moronic positions, and it projects to the middle, but it isn’t the middle.
Whatever we call it,
One thing that I’m fascinated by, and maybe we’ll come back to this, is what is the force that makes the middle so difficult to hold. That pushes more and more people towards either being sort of what I’ve termed troglodytes or dupes.
I thought this episode was astonishingly good, so I transcribed it with the help of an ML tool.
Eric Weinstein 0:21 Welcome. You found The Portal. I’m your host, Eric Weinstein. And today we have something that I think is going to be very interesting for many of you. We are happy to have a guest that I’ve been looking forward to meeting for quite some time, who’s been a personal intellectual hero of mine. He is the Gorter Family Professor of Islamic Studies, a professor of economics and also a professor of political science, all at Duke University. So welcome, hoşgeldiniz, to our esteemed colleague, Dr. Timur Kuran.
Timur Kuran 0:53 Delight to be here. Thanks for the invitation.
Eric Weinstein 0:55 So the reason that I’ve been so eager to have you here is that this podcast is themed around the idea of escape from a more humdrum existence that is starting to, I think work less and less well for more people. And so we’re trying to find ways out of the sort of cognitive traps that we’ve been held within for quite some time. And I first became aware of your work when I was searching for an explanation of why the field of economics built such an utterly simplistic model of human preference and belief. And I was led to one book of yours in particular, called Private Truths and Public Lies. Hope I have the ordering on that correct as
Timur Kuran 1:44 Private Truths Public Lies, yes, without the “and”.
Eric Weinstein 1:47 Okay, Private Truths Public Lies, which brought an entirely new perspective in the field of economics, which is that of preference falsification. I wondered if you would sort of just give us a brief introduction to this theory. And then perhaps I’ll say a little bit more about why it’s so powerful and also so incredibly dangerous to the field.
Timur Kuran 2:09 So preference falsification is the act of misrepresenting our wants under perceived social pressures. And it aims deliberately at disguising one’s motivations and one’s dispositions. It is very common, and sometimes it occurs in very innocent situations. If I go into somebody’s home, and they asked me, What do you think of the decor I’ve selected? I might actually, even though I don’t like the decor, it doesn’t suit my taste, I might say to say, Oh, it’s wonderful, and compliment my host’s taste. I’ve falsified my preference, but not much harm has come out of it. I’ve avoided hurting my my host’s feelings. But preference falsification happens in a very, very wide array of settings and in some of these settings, it leads to terrible consequences.
In the political arena, people, whether they’re on the left or they identify with the right or somewhere in between. People routinely falsify their political preferences for fear that they will be skewered if they express exactly what’s on their mind, if they say exactly what they want, if they express the ideas, that lie under those those preferences.
And just to give some examples from our society: immigration is one of these issues, abortion is another issue. We have a clash of absolutes: you are either pro choice or pro life and there’s nothing in between. And if you take a position in between and offer a more nuanced opinion that you favor free abortion, let us say in the first trimester, but not later on, you will be accused by both sides. There’s very little that you will gain and there’s a great deal that you may lose. And in today’s society, you may lose a lot of friends because the main fault line in American society today is political ideology. There are more people who will object to their son or daughter marrying somebody who supports the wrong party, has the wrong ideology, than will oppose their son or daughter marrying somebody of a different ethnic group or a different religion. So what is happening on issues like this is we simply don’t come to resolution.
Eric Weinstein 5:47 Yeah. So before we started this podcast, the time that we were talking together, I sort of made an unfriendly accusation which is that I think that you have developed a brilliant theory but that you have not actually even understood its full importance. And that part of this has to do with the oddity that sometimes to see what’s so dangerous and what’s so powerful you actually need curators. So I’m hoping to help by curating a little bit of what I’ve gotten out of your theory how you’ve taught me even though we’ve never met before this week.
One of the things I think that’s fascinating is that we have a democracy that is stitched together through markets. And when you think about the role of economics — the free market, or even a managed market allows us to each individually direct a larger amount of our action without central direction. And so anything that happens in the economic sphere, like a new theory of preferences, could have absolutely powerful implications because of the role that our understanding of economics plays in underpinning civil society.
One of the things I think that’s extremely dangerous about your theory — and one of the reasons I’m attracted to it — is that it is backwards compatible with standard economics. That is, if my private preferences and my public preferences are the same preferences, then without loss of generality, as we’re fond of saying in mathematics, everything that you’re bringing to the table is just some unnecessary extra variables because in fact, the two are coincident. However, if my public preferences and my private preferences are different, then, while I can recover the old theory from your work, I’m now in some new territory in which I’ve expanded the field to accommodate new phenomena such as an election whose result no one sees coming.
Timur Kuran 7:52 And we’ve broadened the field to accommodate vast inefficiencies that our political system that involves people expressing their political preferences once every four years through a system that involves primaries, nominating conventions, and so on and ultimately an election, that this system ultimately produces an outcome that reflects people’s preferences. When you introduce preference falsification into the picture, when you accept it as something significant, and I would suggest that its significance is growing, you open up the possibility that our political system can generate outcomes that very few people want that generate very inefficient outcomes. You open up the possibility that because people are not openly expressing what’s on their mind that the system of knowledge production and knowledge development and therefore, solving problems — that that gets corrupted.
Eric Weinstein 9:17 I’ve tried to figure out how to make what you do a little bit more memetic, so that more people start to appreciate it. One one of the ways I’ve tried to talk about it among friends is that you have developed a theory of the black market in the marketplace of ideas — that is, underground concepts, underground desires, unmet fears, that can’t be discussed in the curated market, managed by institutions. Another way of saying it is that this is the economy of silence, or the economy of deception. Do those fit?
Timur Kuran 9:55 I would prefer economy of deception because people don’t say stay silent. In our society on most issues, people don’t have the luxury to stay silent when they are in an environment consisting mostly of pro choice people or mostly of pro life people. They are asked to take a position. So it’s not that some people are speaking and other people are silent. If that were the case, we would know well, 70% of society is silent, they must not agree with either of the two extreme positions — pro life and pro choice. But people actually pretend — when they’re in a group that is primarily or exclusively pro choice or pro life, they sense this. They take that position — that is preference falsification. And in doing that, they also fail to express or choose not to express the reasons why they find an intermediate position more attractive. And all of those reasons get subtracted from public discourse. We have a very distorted public discourse that is underlying our whole political system.
Eric Weinstein 11:26 There’s so much that’s juicy to dig into. I think that there that you may be undervaluing some of the aspects of silence where somebody will say, Well, look, I am not a very political person, somebody else might make an admonition, Keep your head down, stick to your knitting, stay in your lane. There are all of these ways in which we we do favor silence. But those of us who have to speak in a professional capacity who’re expected to form opinions on these things — we really don’t have the luxury usually of staying silent.
Timur Kuran 12:01 I think I will grant the part that there are many issues on which we consciously avoid putting ourselves in positions where we will have to take a position.
Eric Weinstein 12:15 We take ourselves out of the game.
Timur Kuran 12:17 We take ourselves out of the game, and we’re successful in doing that in most contexts.
But in going through daily life, we find ourselves in situations in social events or in the workplace, where we have to take a position — everybody’s taking a position, you’re sitting around the table and an issue is being discussed, and it has to do with workplace policy on some issue, and you have to take a position. And you have to sometimes vote. So your point is well taken that in any person’s life there’s a pretty broad zone in which you can avoid not taking a position.
Eric Weinstein 13:16 Let’s go back through a little bit of just modern history and talk about the times in which preference falsification, even though people have often not had the terminology for this theory, really came into its own in a way where people were so surprised by a turn of events, that they came to understand that people held preferences that were far different than the preferences that had been assumed to be held. Let’s say radically quick shifts in that structure.
Timur Kuran 13:47 Let me give you an example from Eastern Europe. Communism was, remains, a highly inefficient social system. Inefficient economically. Highly repressive, also. It was a puzzle to many people that it survived for decades in Eastern Europe. And for a long time, the dominant view was that what kept communism in place for decades in the Soviet satellites, in the Soviet Union itself, was brute force. And people would give the examples of Prague in 1968, or Hungary, the show trials of Stalin. This is the kind of thing, the Gulag, people would refer to Solzhenitsyn’s book. When when you actually looked at these societies that were some of them and which there was no gulag and the prison population was smaller than the prison population at the time in the United States as a proportion. Czechoslovakia is a good example. So Czechoslovakia wasn’t a place that we associate with show trials. Yes, we think of 1968 when Soviet tanks came rolling in, but even after that you didn’t have major trials, you didn’t have huge numbers of people disappearing.
So what is it that kept Czechoslovakia communist society? And what kept it a communist society is that people who hated the system, pretended to approve of the system and turned against dissidents. The very few dissidents who had the courage to say, this is a system that is not going to last forever. It’s an inefficient system. It hasn’t brought us freedom. The state hasn’t withered away, it’s gotten bigger, it’s more important in our life. And they would turn against them. What sustained communism all across the Soviet Union and its East European satellites was preference falsification.
Now what this meant was that the system was extremely unstable. People were falsifying their preferences because other people were doing so — even though I was against communism, and you were against communism, we both supported the system because the other was. Now this is a system where if one of us decides for whatever reason that we’re going to call a spade a spade and say this system doesn’t work, I don’t like it, I go out in the street and I start demonstrating — a lot of other people are going to follow. So what’s happened is ultimately, when some demonstrations began, and it happened to be the demonstration started in East East Germany, these demonstrations started growing every week, more and more people found in themselves the courage to say what they believed and to come out against the regime.
The regime itself didn’t want to overreact. There were discussions in the politburo — some people said We better crack down right now or this is going to get out of hand. Other people said, Well, if we crack down now and some people die, the negative effects could be greate; winter is coming pretty soon and people will be more reluctant to go out in the street; let’s let this pass, let’s not overreact. Before they knew it, the Berlin Wall was down and that created a domino effect.
Nobody foresaw that. And it’s quite significant that among the people who missed this were the dissidents, the East European dissidents, who were the only people — and I include in this all the top experts, CIA experts, the top academics studying Eastern Europe — the only people who understood what was holding the system together. Václav Havel wrote a book called The Power of the Powerless, and its main message was this society that hates communism holds within it, the power to topple it. Even he missed this even he was surprised. Even he was surprised. When Gorbachev came two weeks before the Czechoslovak revolution, when Gorbachev came to town, a million people came out in Prague to greet him. They were enthusiastic, they thought change was coming. A New York Times reporter Robert Apple asked, asked Václav Havel Is this the revolution that you are predicting, have people discovered that they have the power to topple the regime? And he said, I’m not a dreamer. He said, I’m probably not going to live to see happen. So here’s a case of a system built on preference falsification, that was sustained by preference falsification, that suddenly collapses when a few people call it out. And then you get the cascade.
Eric Weinstein 20:01 So this is one of the things that I want to dig into, because the cascade effect is really a refinement, as I see it, of the old story of the Emperor’s New Clothes where all it takes is one person. But then it’s missing the mechanism. It’s like Newton’s laws, there’s no ability to transmit gravity, it’s an instantaneous action at a distance. To my way of thinking, the best way of understanding your theory for most people is to understand a motif that is found throughout American cinema. And the motif has a name, I believe inside the business, which is called the slow clap, which is that somebody can’t take it anymore. And they give an impassioned speech that nobody’s expecting that starts speaking to the unmet beliefs of a large group of people, none of whom have understood that there’s a lot of support for this in terms of private preferences. That’s the first action. Now if I understand your theory correctly, people have private preferences and public preferences, but they have some threshold of alternate support in the group that will be necessary for them to update their public preferences towards their private preferences. And then the most important thing is that that crazy speech is followed by some anonymous member of the group who starts the slow clap. And that slow clap becomes oppressive. Because in that group, that person is saying, We all know that what has just been said reflects the group and then the slow clap is joined by a third person. And you watch the cascade visually.
Timur Kuran 21:52 So what you’re describing is a cascade that involves a large group of people who have different thresholds. So can imagine that the very first person in your example, who gives an impassioned speech, who’s just had enough, at some point, something happens. This person was just boiling with anger against the regime or the system or the policy, whatever it is, was boiling with anger. But knew, has known all along, that there’s a huge risk to acting on this. But something happens where that person says, I have just had enough. I’m willing to take the risk and going to prison for 20 years. I’m going to make this speech. I’m just going to say — I can’t live with myself. And there are people on any given issue. And that person on one particular issue might feel that way, on other issues might not. Then there’s somebody else who is also quite impassioned, also boiling with anger, but just a little bit less so. So the person again, to go to your example, the person who follows the impassioned speech with the slow clap is that next person, the person with the slightly higher threshold. But the person who gave the impassioned speech awakened that person, that courage, and was just enough to tip that person over the threshold. There are other people in the audience who have slightly higher thresholds. It takes two people to call a spade. Say the Emperor is is naked. Say I’m opposed to this policy. That person then jumps in, and so forth.
A cascade is a self reinforcing process, where every person who joins the movement, who changes his or her preference, induces another person, tips another person over his or her threshold. And so the system builds on itself. And over a very short time, you go from a condition where nobody is opposing the status quo, to where everybody is now in opposition, and it becomes now — it can become dangerous to support the status quo ante.
And this is actually something — if we go back for a moment to the East European example, I spoke of the famous New York Times reporter Robert Apple. Well two weeks after the Czechoslovak revolution, the New York Times decided they’d written about dissidents for two weeks, they’d written lots of stories about dissidents, and about all these people who said, Oh it was so bad living living a lie, and so now we’re going to start living in truth. And so it occurred to somebody in the New York Times editorial board — You know, this is a society that was run by communists, there’s lots of people who are members of the Communist Party — we should do a story about them, what’s happening to them. They’ve been in power for half a century and overnight they’ve been pushed out of power. Let’s send our best reporter back to the region to interview them. So Robert Apple lands in Prague and he starts looking for communists. And of course he finds lots of people who have held communist party membership, but they say Oh, I’m not a communist and never was a communist — I was falsifying my preferences. I had no choice, I have children, I had to you know, put them through school, I wanted to keep my job, I’m not a communist And he wrote back a famous article in The New York Times that said I could not find a communist anywhere. So of course, this is now preference falsification in reverse, because there are people who were benefiting handsomely from the system.
Eric Weinstein 26:45 So that’s an overshoot.
Timur Kuran 26:56 This is an overshoot. This is an overshoot, now. And now in Czechoslovakia, you did not have a witch hunt against the supporters of the old regime. Of course, the members of the old Politburo were all, or most of them were sidelined. Two or three of them managed repackage themselves as social democrats and continued in politics. But most of the people were were sidelined. There wasn’t a witch hunt. But there were other countries in which there was a witch hunt. And of course, Czechoslovaks didn’t know what was going to happen. There was always a danger that the new regime would go after the old communists and try to punish them and punish people who ran the jails and had important positions in the Communist Party. So because there was a possibility of this danger, now they pretended that they were all, all along they were lying.
So, events, massive events, that change the course of history, which were unpredicted, after the fact, one looks at them and one finds it impossible not to understand why they happened. They’re overdetermined. We have tremendous amount of data showing why the system had to collapse. Yet in reality, to go back to your example, if that one person hadn’t made the impassioned speech, this thing could have gone on for more years.
Eric Weinstein 29:01 Well, let’s play with this a little bit. One of the things that I find so fascinating about the theory is it also sort of starts to explain how in a society where people’s private and public preferences are somewhat aligned, they can go out of alignment very quickly. So I don’t know if you’ve seen the video, for example of Saddam Hussein coming to power at a Ba’ath Party meeting in Iraq, which is fascinating.
Timur Kuran 29:28 I’m not sure. I have seen some videos of Saddam Hussein and Ba’ath Party meetings. I’m not sure I saw this one.
Eric Weinstein 29:35 You would remember it. So let me describe it for you. Because you’ll see the mechanism the opposite direction. So he’s sitting there on stage smoking a cigar and he’s videoing himself. I think knowing what comes next. He says, hey, we’ve got a special guest today. And a man who I don’t know exactly who he was stands up and start speaking and saying I have plotted against Saddam and I have co-conspirators in the audience and I’m going to name them now. Well, you see terror take over this auditorium, because there’s also cameras, if I recall correctly on stage filming the people. And these names get read and these people are being led out. And then the preference falsification sets in and you start seeing the private preferences suppressed and the public preferences going into nonsense territory and people are saying Long live our brother Saddam, he is the one! Because they realize that their life is on the line. And according to legend, and I don’t know whether this is exactly true. Those who are left at the end are given sidearms to execute those who’ve been led out to make them complicit in the crime to freeze in the preference falsification. Or if you like, people are now preferring to, to save their lives rather than preferring to explore their politics.
Timur Kuran 31:01 I hadn’t seen this video. I’ve heard just as a little footnote here that in North Korea, the Kims have used the same sort of thing where they actually will say that they’re going to name some people in the audience. The latest one was where a relative of Kim Jong Un was, might have been an uncle or something, was actually led out. This was the same sort of thing that happened in that case. I don’t think it was somebody from the audience who pulled the trigger but everybody could hear a shot go. He was obviously murdered. Everybody could hear that this was instantaneous. If Kim decided you had betrayed him, you would be put to death.
Eric Weinstein 32:00 A pet project of mine which I don’t think I’ve ever advanced sufficiently, is what I term the analysis of message violence. That there’s certain violence that is committed theatrically as an instrument of transmission to induce preference falsification. So this is used by the cartels in Mexico. This used to great effect by the Kims. It was used by Saddam Hussein. And with message violence, the idea is to create something so horrific, beyond what is necessary to silence someone through murder and death, to communicate to others the instant necessity of beginning to falsify their preferences. So it’s a leveraging effect where a small amount of violence results in the maximum amount of preference falsification.
Timur Kuran 32:56 Yes, this does happen and there plenty of examples we can give. We can go back to the show trials of the Soviet Union, where Stalin got rid of every single member of Lennon’s Politburo — all the heroes of the October Revolution and the building of the Soviet Union, one by one he got rid of them through through show trials. And the fact that such heroes could be executed in such humiliating ways and of course, a message to the entire society that if this happens to them this can happen to anyone.
But I would want to emphasize that preference falsification, even massive preference falsification, can occur even without such theatrics. And if we come back to our own society, jumping from the Soviet Union and Iraq to the United States today, there are many issues on which we do not talk to each other, honestly. On which there’s a great deal of polarization and expressing nuances can get you in great trouble. And we cannot point to a single event — we can point many smaller events, but no single event — that has the theatrics of Saddam’s Saddam’s executions, or what the Kims are doing.
Eric Weinstein 34:28 Well, I’m so glad that we’re making this transition, because as interesting as the historical examples are, and those that are particularly bloody, the best application of this theory, in my opinion, only comes from when we realize that violence can be moved from the physical sphere to the reputational and the economic sphere. So if you think about your reputation as part of what Richard Dawkins might have called our extended phenotype, it’s something that you carry around with you. That is necessary for, let’s say employment. We now worry about reputational violence, which can be exacted theatrically, for example, through social media. So the question of what we can say, what we can discuss, what we can explore, has a similar character. If I take the James Damore situation at Google — whether or not you thought his memo was brilliant or a little bit tone deaf, it certainly wasn’t an insane exploration of misogyny. It was some exploration of differences between men and women at the level of Big Five personality inventories. The idea being that success or failure might have a lot more to do with one’s Big Five, let’s say hedonic decomposition of our personalities rather than our actual gender. And then if males and females had different hedonic profiles at the level of Big Five personality inventory traits that could explain some of the imbalances. And he was actually, to my mind, talking about the fact that if you wanted to have a more equal society of engineers, there are things that you might explore to try to actually better utilize women in the workplace. Now, whether or not you buy into that, it certainly didn’t seem like an insane thing to suggest. And yet, the reputational violence that was exacted on somebody who was told to attend a seminar and asked for feedback seemed to me to be of a piece with this kind of message violence but not at a physical level, at a reputational level. Do you think that there’s some parallel there?
Timur Kuran 36:46 Yes. I think the reputational violence can do enormous harm in the society. Not only can it can it affect your job prospects, your prospects for promotion and the company that you’re working for, you can lose a lot of friends, it can affect your prospects in the marriage market. 50 years ago, when people were asked, Americans were asked whether they would mind whether their daughter or son married somebody of the opposite party, about 20% said that it wouldn’t make any difference to them. By contrast, more than half of Americans said that if their son or daughter married somebody of a different ethnic group, or of a different religion, this would matter to them and many people said they would not accept the person from a different religion, different ethnic group, different race into their family. Those numbers have come way down over the years. By contrast, the numbers regarding ideological differences and party affiliation have gone way up today. So, coming back to reputational violence, being pigeon-holed as a radical Republican or even as a Republican or being pigeon holed as a Democrat, not even a progressive Democrat. To many people, all Democrats are the same, the nuances between the progressives and what many of us would call more moderate Democrats, there’s no such distinctions. They’re all on the wrong side. And there are people who do not want to befriend them, who would be completely against their son or daughter marrying a Democrat or Republican depending on who they are. And you can see why. At the Thanksgiving table, the tensions would be enormous, because to bring Democrats and Republicans together, even moderate Democrats and Republicans together these days, let alone people on the on the right side of the Republican party with the progressive Democrats is a is a recipe for complete disagreement for opening up issues that will expose hatreds. Because the two sides no longer talk to each other. Because no one accepts the possibility, the viability, of a middle, of some kind of compromise. People don’t know how to talk to each other. People don’t know where their differences begin and where they might actually have some room for, for compromise.
And so there’s a reason why these days, people feel that if they are pigeon holed, if they say something that then allows others to put them into one of these pigeon holes, political ideological pigeon holes, that their life will be ruined. Let’s go back now to the East European situation. This is similar to what the dissidents faced in Czechoslovakia. Dissidents like Václav Havel, who did spend small, short periods in and out of prison, but mostly it was allowed to be a dissident playwright, but he got enormous amount of hate mail. Most people, even people whom he knew from earlier times in his life, would not say hello to him for fear that the friendship would imply that they sympathized with his ideas. They’d cross to the other side of the road that they saw him coming just so they wouldn’t have to confront them. So his social circle got smaller. The number of people he could go to to ask for help diminished. So all of this was all of these inconveniences.
This is happening right now in the United States. If you cannot live with somebody of the other party as a close relative of yours, if you cannot talk to the other side because you think they’re just beyond the pale, they’re subhuman, their ideas just are are inhumane, there’s no way you can even begin to consider their validity or consider them as worth discussing as part of a part of a conversation. You’re certainly not going to see them as people you can go to in a time trouble. That is why you would rather live in a neighborhood consisting if you’re Republican where everybody’s Republican, and if you’re a Democrat where everybody’s a Democrat. Because you’d like in a time of need and time of emergency, you’d like to be able to go to your neighbors, you’d like you’d like to have neighbors with whom you can have pleasant chats when you meet them in the street when you’re walking your dog and you meet them in in the street and not have to ignore them and see them as evil people.
Eric Weinstein 43:24 Well, so this is — it’s fascinating to me, so many different ways to go here. I’m trying to figure out what the best line through is.
One thing that I’m fascinated by, and maybe we’ll come back to this, is what is the force that makes the middle so difficult to hold. That pushes more and more people towards either being sort of what I’ve termed troglodytes or dupes. And makes it very difficult to — I guess what my model is is that you have an A-frame roof. As the A-frame roof gets more and more peaked, there are fewer number of fiddlers who can stay on the A-frame roof without falling over to the left or to the right. And so right now, I think that the skill level needed to inhabit a sensible position is priced out of almost all of our abilities.
Timur Kuran 44:24 What leads you from a position where 50 years ago we had people on the extremes, we had people favored segregation, people have favored desegregation. We had, we had serious disagreements before. But there were many people in society who held positions, had strong opinions, but also felt that the people on the other side were humans. Were well meaning. And could be parties to a conversation, and you could compromise with them. So when you picked up the New York Times after some vote in Congress, 50 years ago, there would be a list of Democrats voting for, Democrats voting against, Republicans voting for, Republicans voting against. There were lots of people in all four of those groups. And all four of those groups were considered legitimate. Even the people who had voted yes considered the people who had voted no in their party as legitimate senators or legitimate Congresspeople. And they on some other bill, they cooperated with them. And of course you just mentioned a skill set, there’s a skill set that went with that. The skill set was that you and I could disagree on issue A and debate for days and days and days, I could say that your thing is going to lead to disaster along this front and you could say the same thing about me, at the end of the day, one of us would win, the bill would either pass, or lose, or this would go into some conference we’d have some kind of compromise. You and I would accept that compromise as legitimate. And so as we did this we developed the skills of compromise. The whole political system develop this. And society saw this and accepted the people, Republicans and Democrats as both representing legitimate sides of legitimate positions on issues subject to disagreement. We gradually have moved. It’s a cascade that has moved us gradually, that has expanded an area of issues on which we have absolute positions, and that are not subject to discussion. And what’s happening, what has happened in the last few decades is that the number of such issues has grown. As this has happened, the number of issues on which we no longer discuss — we just have absolute positions. We’re pro choice or pro life, we don’t discuss. We don’t have conferences where we discuss, bringing people from both sides and say what kind of compromise can we —
Eric Weinstein 48:01 Well there’s compromise at a political level, but I think there’s also a question about the intellectual basis of our conversation. So let’s just take pro life and pro choice. I talk about sometimes dining ala carte intellectually. Where I can’t get my needs met in a low resolution world any place, and so I sort of pick and choose which bits of things I need. And I sort of think of this as political flatland that people are trapped in pro life versus pro choice. And my real position is a plague on both your houses. I’m not pro choice. To the extent that I’m willing to call a child four minutes before its birth, fetal tissue, nor am I pro life to the extent that I’m going to call a blastosphere, a baby. Both of those seem patently insane to me. And nowhere do I get to discuss Carnegie stages in embryonic development, which would be sort of a more scientific approach to what quality of life is it that we’re trying to preserve. And yet I caucus, if you will, with the pro choice community, not because I hold the idea that it’s simply a woman’s right to choose, because obviously there’s something else that’s going on inside of a woman — there’s the whole miracle of gestation and reproduction. But if people see that I caucus pro choice, then they say, okay, you’re willing to sit with somebody who’s willing to terminate a third trimester pregnancy frivolously because they’re ideologically committed to it. Ergo, you’re evil, ergo we can no longer be friends. And my key point is, look, I’ll drop these people in a heartbeat if you give me some nuanced room in which to maneuver. Let’s talk about the neural tube formation. Let’s talk about what we think of as life — is it the emotional connection to seeing something one recognizes as human? Is it the quality of the brain? Is it something mystical and ineffable? Are you coming from a religious tradition? The key point is to make it impossible to have a discussion.
You know, I remember being beaten up on a picket line — not a picket line, there was a group that was picketing an abortion clinic and I was demonstrating for the right to keep it open. And I got beat up in Rhode Island on camera. And after this incident, I think I had a chance to talk to the person I thought had hit me with a picket sign. And it turned out that we couldn’t get all the way there, but there was at least a partial rapprochement where we could say, well, I see where you’re coming from, I see where you’re coming from. Maybe we can understand that we’re both motivated by the best interests as we perceive them. That has gone away in large measure, because what we’ve taken, or at least this is my understanding, is our institutional media and our sense making apparatus and they have become complicit in making the center that is the sensible and analytic center absolutely uninhabitable. Does that match your?
Timur Kuran 51:21 Yes. And I think this has happened on a growing range of issues. Which is why now we go back to New York Times lists of who in which party voted which way, sometimes that list doesn’t appear because they say it is just a party line vote. And this is a reflection of society, and it’s not that within the Republican Party or within the Democratic Party, you don’t have people, on whatever the issue is, you don’t have people in in the middle, but that if they bring up the nuances, if they try to bring the conversation a little bit toward a compromise, they will get skewered by the people. By their own people. Or the other side. And the other side will not come to their defense. And in fact, if the other side does come to their defense, that’s a terrible signal for them, and they’ll be skewered by their own side.
Eric Weinstein 52:37 What concerns me here, though, is that we are dependent on people of integrity, who risked everything when it was least popular to do it. So that we we can sort of hold these people in reserve. So when the madness becomes too great, we can turn to them. Let me just take a couple of examples that matter to me.
One of which was the Patriot Act. And when the Patriot Act was voted in, in the wake of 911, and there was this sort of mob hysteria to do something, because something very significant happened to us, only one person, only one senator voted against it. And that was Russ Feingold. I don’t have a clear memory of the other names in the Senate that time, but I will always remember Russ Feingold for the courage to stand alone.
A different sort of version of that, I think about as Katharine Hepburn. Who is sort of the most love of all Hollywood actresses, I think she had four Academy Awards that she used as doorstops for her bathrooms, because she didn’t seem to give a whit what other people thought of her. And she went and did, if I recall correctly, you know, Connecticut community theater theater during the McCarthy era, because she was just going to wait out the stupidity, the excess and the idiocy of the movement. Whereas a Humphrey Bogart, who organised an artist’s push to fight back against this, was immediately cowed by an article in Filmfare magazine if I recall correctly. He had to write an article saying, Hey, you know, don’t call me red, I’ll never do that again. And the great Humphrey Bogart, the tough guy of movies, crumbled under this pressure, whereas Katharine Hepburn, his co star, you know, sort of stood tall and waited it out. Do we have these hyper individualists, these incredibly disagreeable people in the sense of the agreeable component of the Big Five personality inventory, where we know who they are, and we know to whom we can look in times of crisis?
Timur Kuran 54:46 Well on particular issues, you will find people who write books that advocate a middle position that identify all the nuances that portray both sides as having legitimate goals. They don’t necessarily get attention. So they write a book, whether the issue is abortion or immigration, it takes some kind of middle position, it doesn’t get the play in the media that a book that takes a very strong position a very absolutist position does. So yes on any on any given issue, there are some some people who you can find people who are trying to start a dialogue. You can find here or there little associations, little nonprofit organizations, that are trying to start a dialogue. That’s not what the media pays attention to. So effectively, they don’t exist. And increasingly, the groups that get attention are the groups that pigeon hole people into one — so you’re either for us or you’re against us.
And the two sides, the two extremes, both of them are playing this game of you’re with us or you’re against us. They’re actually reinforcing each other. They’re completely agreed on that. That there is no middle position. And having a middle position and having the media pay attention to the people in the middle would hurt them both.
Eric Weinstein 56:52 Yeah, I don’t think it’s at the middle. I mean, I really think, and for those of you who are watching, rather than listening, I think that there’s this very flat, low dimensional plane where these positions live. And that what we’re calling the middle is not the thing between these. It’s in a higher dimensional space that combines these crappy low resolution, moronic positions, and it projects to the middle, but it isn’t the middle.
Timur Kuran 57:18 Absolutely, absolutely. There are many more dimensions that these simple positions hide. I completely agree with that. And the middle is more complex and involves many more dimensions. And these dimensions to go back now to these extreme groups they don’t want these dimensions to be brought into the picture. So for the pro life group, the issue is, are you going to terminate the life or not right and for the pro choice group is do you respect a woman’s right to choose. And so each one of them for each one of them it’s just a one dimensional thing. There’s a yes no answer. And bringing in some other dimension immediately gets you in trouble.
Eric Weinstein 58:20 So, I want to talk about the specific weirdness of economic theory.
Now, I claim to be an economist, and I’ve never taken a class in economics. And partially the reason for that is that I developed a theory with my wife about gauge theoretic economics, and I always thought that if we could get attacked, and somebody could say, well, you’re not really an economist, I could get a chance to defend myself because it dealt with another aspect. There are the great adjustments to preference theory. Preference falsification is yours. Gauge theoretic changing preferences is ours. Paul Samuelson had one about incoherent preferences that he buried in his Nobel acceptance speech —
Timur Kuran 59:05 Which has received very little play.
Eric Weinstein 59:07 Almost nothing. He was the one who pointed me to it saying, you know, this idea that we don’t actually even have preferences is something I always thought was important. He saw it as the lack of integrability of tangent planes to create indifferent surfaces for those of you geeks following at home. And all of these theories about what’s wrong with our preferences — George Soros has one about beliefs with reflexivity — have been really effectively kept out of the main stream of economic theory. And I view economic theory as a little bit like — it’s not quite as totalitarian as North Korea, but it’s very similar to certain places in Eastern Europe where there’s that which you can explore freely and that which you can’t talk about. Or at least it was this way until recently.
Now, I look at the moment where I think you had your kind of Saddam Hussein moment about what we can and can’t discuss. I trace it in part, just funny to even think of it in these terms, to Becker and Stigler’s paper called De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum. And in it, they harden the theory of fixed preferences to a dogma by comparing it preferences to the Rocky Mountains. Aand they said on on our interpretation, there’s an alternate view of why we can’t discuss tastes. And that’s because like the Rocky Mountains, they are unchanging over time and the same to all men. And you know, my jaw dropped as an outsider because I hadn’t been indoctrinated when I read this. And I thought that is the single craziest — idiotic —thing that could be said about human beings and their beliefs and preferences. And yet, somehow it became a famous paper as opposed to being laughed out of the field.
Timur Kuran 1:01:02 Well, here’s again an example of a theory that is foundational to a discipline that gets falsified. I think his first name was Richard — Richard Herrnstein. Does the name ring a bell? The Harvard — was it Richard or Robert?
Eric Weinstein 1:01:04 Can’t remember.
Timur Kuran 1:01:28 Anyway, Herrnstein. He developed a theory that explained a phenomenon that Becker swept under the rug. Which is that a heroin addict’s preferences do change. Through hyperbolic discounting. There are many addicts who, after they’ve taken their fix, now the panic attack has gone away, and they understand that this heroin addiction is ruining their life. And they very sincerely want to give it up. They very sincerely want not to take more heroin. But. A few hours pass and they start craving heroin again. They need a new fix. And they get to the point where their preferences change to, let me have one more. And I’ll quit afterwards. A few hours ago they were prepared immediately. Now they’re willing to quit, but, after I get my next fix. And this thing can go on again again. So you have intertemporally inconsistent preferences. So this is another problem with the economics discipline. But economics is not immune to the forces that we’ve been talking about. There is preference falsification in the economics discipline. There are certain fundamentals of the discipline, and if you challenge them as a young person, you’re never going to get a job. And if you and if you challenge them before you get tenure, you’re not going to get a job. But to get tenure, you have to develop a certain reputation. And that has involved adhering to the conventions of the discipline. Theoretically, after you got tenure, you could switch. But the costs then are huge because there’s a lot of reputational capital you’ve lost.
Eric Weinstein 1:04:23 And we’re watching a lot of prominent economists sort of change their position without announcing that they used to be, in effect, working for a nonsensical theory, or at least quieting themselves. I was astounded by Paul Krugman’s column, or maybe it was a blog post, called A Protectionist Moment where he starts talking about the scam of the elites’ forever freer trade. Where, I associated that with the intellectual force of Jagdish Bhagwati and some of these theorists who clearly were pursuing a political position. Where, in the case of like free trade, there are two separate phenomena. You can say that something would Pareto improve the society if everyone is made either as well off as they are today or better off. And then there’s this other, more technical version of this, called Kaldor-Hicks improvement, which is that if we were to tax winners to pay losers, then everyone would be Pareto improved. And I’ve noticed this very interesting thing about economists, where they have two voices. They have the voice that they have to use in the seminar room because there’s nowhere to hide from the fact that a lot of these public pronouncements are absolute nonsense. And then the claim is that, oh we’re in our seminar voice. And then, maybe this was Dani Rodrik’s phraseology, I can’t remember whose it was, but then when we speak publicly, we’re allowed to say something that is actually different. It’s not the same thing in two different voices. It’s an idea that there’s an exoteric and an esoteric way of expression, which is a sort of Straussian theory. And the esoteric is reserved for one’s colleagues. But we’re actually allowed to lie to the public to help the fortunes of the politicians we favor when we’re speaking publicly. What the hell is going on?
Timur Kuran 1:06:22 So there’re some people who have achieved a certain stature in the profession and yet they feel there’re certain things that are wrong about the profession, or that they can’t stay within the profession. They develop a second persona, which is their op ed persona. They’re policy entrepreneurs. And as public intellectuals, they’re much more critical of the discipline than they are within the discipline. Or they have decided that there really isn’t a possibility of changing the discipline, but there’s certain points that have to be made, and they’re going to make them anyway, and they’re going to make them in a much less technical way. And there’s a third, charitable interpretation. I think this does apply to some of my colleagues, I would say. They believe that the core principles of economics, even if they’re not true, even if they don’t give you a reflection of the real economy, they lead to useful, correct thinking — they’re very useful for disciplining your way of thinking as an economist, and they give you a good base model, which you can tweak to bring in reality. So I have had some people who for years did not take my work on preference falsification seriously, who’ve now come to the position that this is a useful extension of economics, and they’ve said, you know, you did use standard economic tools of utility maximization in order to get to this point. And there is a point to that.
Eric Weinstein 1:08:52 Yeah. But the problem is that that’s why it’s actually intellectual kryptonite. So, because your theory can be accommodated within the standard theory, the question is —
Timur Kuran 1:09:05 A version of it.
Eric Weinstein 1:09:06 Well, I think I could do a pretty decent job of shoehorning it into this sort of Samuelson neoclassical perspective. The problem is it’s a ready-made upgrade to the existing theory in which nothing is lost but new degrees of freedom are gained. And that could have an absolutely unpredictable effect on the entire field because it’s at the level of the substrate.
Timur Kuran 1:09:31 The big danger is that so many propositions involving efficiency — and the principle of revealed preferences, that actions reveal people’s preferences — that goes out the window. And many efficiency propositions — that if you allow people to interact with each other, you’re going to get efficient political solutions, you’re going to get efficient solutions in the market. My way of thinking leads you to multiple equilibria. And one equilibrium can be preferable to another.
Erik Weinstein 1:10:26 So this is one of the great dangers for economists as high priests, which is if there are multiple ways in which a market can evolve, therefore, you can’t say that the market finds the optimum because you can’t say which of these things actually was the optimum.
Timur Kuran 1:10:41 And there’s a danger to political economy, which is that what the political system generates, whether you have elections or not, and whether you have the secret ballot or not, is not necessarily efficient. Because in a system where people cannot speak freely, many ideas are stuck on the ground. They’re not being expressed. When people are going through the primary process, they’re not thinking of all the options. They’re not thinking of all the dimensions. They’re thinking in a single dimension. And so they’re not coming up with candidates who hold the best positions, whatever your values are, or a set of coherence. Something we haven’t talked about is the coherence of various policies. One of the things that can get you in great trouble is if you say, within the Republican party or the Democratic Party, look, on this policy I’m with you, on this other policy I’m also with you, and on this other third policy I’m also with you — but the three policies, we don’t have the resources to accomplish all —
Eric Weinstein 1:12:14 Drug interactions between ideas.
Timur Kuran 1:12:18 And some of these policies undermine others. These are not necessarily consistent with one another. So these parties are coalitions, these coalitionss have certain objectives, they are deliberately keeping quiet about the contradictions among these.
Eric Weinstein 1:12:44 Well, I think there’re some contradictions — even lies, I talked about load bearing fictions — we have to have some number of load bearing fictions in any society because you can’t actually just do everything thing in broad daylight and hope that everything that we want can be harmonized. Some people are going to have to accept that there are tradeoffs who can’t intellectually accept that there are tradeoffs. And they will require load bearing fictions. For example, we do convict innocent people using our system of justice, and there’s nothing magical about 12 people on a jury being able to decide what actually happened. But if we don’t have some kind of mysticism around the wisdom of a jury of our peers, we won’t be able to mete out almost any justice at all. So I don’t think that we can hope for a child’s vision of an honest society.
But what I find really impressive is the rent-seeking aspect of keeping it so expensive to investigate something that it’s impossible. So you talked about a system of selective pressures where if you raise certain questions, you won’t be employed and therefore through directed survivor bias there’s nobody at the top of a profession who will speak about something openly and in public. One of the things I’ve been curious about — my wife has a concept that she’s talked about called ‘economics squared’. The economics of economists. So economists are famous for training their lens on everyone else, except for themselves. They’ll talk about what are the economics of a physician, and trying to figure out how to allocate scarce organs. Very upsetting things. And the culture of economics, for those who don’t know, is that economists don’t blink when they talk about things that are incredibly upsetting. They’re part of a technocratic class who considers emotions to be beneath them. The one place that I can find where they cannot actually have an honest conversation in general, is if you say, let’s talk about the economics of being a macroeconomist. If you’re so good at understanding the economy, you should be able to trade in a market which is relatively complete because there are instruments of every kind to place any bet. Why are you asking for a grant? Because obviously if you’re any good, you should be rich. Not because ‘if you’re so smart why aren’t you rich’ works in general, but you happen to be concerned about the one thing where that would be the proof of concept. Can economics squared be born?
Timur Kuran 1:15:27 I cannot imagine being in a department meeting where somebody asks this question and says why don’t we base our hiring of say macroeconomists on how well they’ve done in a market. I think they would be immediately laughed out. I don’t think it would ever make it onto the agenda. I think the institutional pressures against applying such a criteria are too great. Because economists also believe — most academic economists — that they have come into an institution where the primary goal is seeking the truth. They’ve given up possibly more lucrative careers. And they should not be therefore judged on the basis of how well they do —
Eric Weinstein 1:16:43 Well I’m not saying only trading. You could ask the question, for example, does being an expert witness as an economist for one side or the other influence the objectivity of your judgment? You could ask the question does the prestige of being invited to Jackson Hole affect the quality of discussion? Because people don’t want to be excommunicated from the priestly class. You could ask the question of whether or not the secret Harvard jobs market meeting, which is a particular problem for me, actually serves the interest of economics or serves the interests of the higher-ups in the profession by being a direct interference in the free trade of ideas. All of the really fun questions that economists would ask in a heartbeat about anyone else, they refuse to ask about themselves. So it’s quite a bit more pointed than just asking for trading prowess among macro economists. The profession — and this isn’t against you — the profession has trained its magnifying glass on everyone else. When do we start doing the economics of economists?
Timur Kuran 1:18:00 Again, I think there are a few people here and there who publish in journals that very few people read who have done this sort of thing. There have been studies of the economics profession. Philip Mirowski, More Heat Than Light, I think. He has done some work along these lines. But the people doing this are not people at the top of the profession — as perceived by the departments that take the first picks when the junior job market opens, who in the US News and World Report rankings are considered the top departments to get a PhD from and so on. Based on that ranking, people who are at the top are not among those asking the question. So again, as with other issues which are very polarized, other issues on which there are taboos, other areas that bring to mind questions that nobody can really ask, at least in polite company — as in those cases, here, the contradictions you’re raising have been noticed. There are people who have written. They just don’t get attention.
Eric Weinstein 1:20:10 To me it’s like saying, who is the greater wrestler? Gorgeous George who wrestled in part of the professional wrestling arena where everything is fixed, or could be Nurmagomedov, who wrestled inside of the UFC, who’s an unbelievable grappler. Well, I don’t think that Nurmagomedov has ever achieved what has been achieved inside of the WWE. When everything is scripted, you can do things that are so much more fantastic than anybody outside. And yet, what we’ve been trying to do in part is to ask the question, why can’t we smuggle legitimate economic kryptonite into the economics profession so that it can grow into a real field? Favorite example is, imagine that you’ve got alchemy and chemistry in the same department. Or you’ve got astrology and astronomy in the same department. The great opportunity is to get rid of the astrologists and get rid of the alchemists, right? Because it’s not that all of economics is nonsense, but so many of the perceived top players in the field are actually acting as professional wrestlers, that it’s time for the revolution that I would imagine, your theory actually predicts. It’s so ripe. And so many of us who are mathematically inclined look at the history of mathematical intimidation, and we think this is mathematically intimidating? You guys aren’t even that good at math.
Timur Kuran 1:21:46 This may actually happen through the young generation. It might actually take a couple of generations. One huge change that has happened in the economics profession —
Since Becker and Stigler wrote De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum, that was I believe 1977, since they wrote that, the most prestigious field within economics, which used to be economic theory, has lost prestige. The best economists now go into data heavy areas, and they are driven by empirics. And often the theory follows the empirical work that they do — if there’s a theory at all.
Eric Weinstein 1:22:10 Sometimes it’s like deep learning — you don’t even know what the theory is.
Timur Kuran 1:22:48 You don’t even know what the theory is. And they start with so much data. They just start analyzing it from some some corner of the issue. And the very best of those works then generate new theories. So now the empirical parts of the profession are driving the theoretical. And the old theorists who were trained as theorists never to touch and to look down on people who worked with data — many of them are retiring. They are being replaced by theorists who are getting accustomed to operating in departments where the bigwigs are the data cowboys. And this is going to have some effect on the theory because the empiricists that I talk to in the economics profession now consider a lot of the theory a waste of time, a lot of it highly misleading, some of it far too abstract and irrelevant. And the theory taught to the first year graduate students and even going before that to undergraduates and masters students — that this has to change. Nobody yet though, has come up with the equivalent of Paul Samuelson’s first edition of Economics.
Eric Weinstein 1:25:05 An ostensible framework for which almost any question that can be posed can be posed within the framework.
Timur Kuran 1:25:12 Within the framework. And within a few years all major departments were using either Paul Samuelson’s textbook, or textbooks written according to the same template, basically offering the same thing at a somewhat higher level, somewhat lower level. And that has come down to the present. There have been a few attempts to bring in behavioral economics. Their textbooks are not quite popular. People like Bob Frank, Daniel Kahneman have of course introduced new ideas concerning behavior and how people think. There have been attempts to bring some of these ideas into textbooks. But they don’t define the mainstream yet.
Eric Weinstein 1:26:22 This is the thing that I think people don’t realize about economics. I could make a decent argument that our two greatest theories, our two greatest intellectual theories that we’ve ever come up with, would be Darwinian selection in the in the realm of biology, which I think has flaws, and what I would call geometric dynamics, which covers both the modern understanding of the standard model and general relativity. What’s weird is that economics, if you think about it, is a decision to make a continuation of selection by other means. Which is, to come up with an as-if physics to mediate selective pressures between apes, which is us. And it’s the only place I know where there’s a meaningful interaction possible between our two greatest ideas. So for me, the really interesting part of economics is that it is the one place where our greatest ideas might even touch and reproduce.
The problem I have with the profession is that the fear of what could happen if we started to do real economics has locked out the kind of innovative spirit which requires both much more detailed knowledge of selection as per Kahneman and Tversky, and much greater understanding of mathematics. It’s not that you guys have used too much mathematics it’s that you’re not good enough, and you’re not getting enough in mathematics. Lots of people have master’s degree, very few have PhDs, and very few of those are trained in the few subjects that would reveal markets to be truly geometric, which is a revolution that happened between geometry and physics in the mid 70s for the Standard Model, or the teens for Einstein’s theory of relativity. You guys are next. And it’s a question of people holding back the possibility for genuine innovation. So this is a place where I’ve been hoping that preference falsification would actually lead to the cascade effect that we began this podcast talking about.
Timur Kuran 1:28:38 I actually don’t think that this is going to happen through people who are currently falsifying their preferences, so agree with the direction you go, and then, disguising their preferences, they become the chairman of the major department, then they suddenly redirect hiring and the department changes. I don’t think it’s going to happen that way. I think it will happen through the emergence of new departments and smaller departments, lesser known departments.
Eric Weinstein 1:29:27 George Mason.
Timur Kuran 1:29:30 So George Mason has a particular direction. And there were some brilliant people — Buchanan, Tullock, Vernon Smith joined them later on — who had problems with the direction that economics was going, with what it implied for political science, for political markets. And they were pushed out of the mainstream of the profession. They just decided to form their own department. They, of course, all congregated at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. Then when Virginia Polytechnic Institute decided, crazily, I think that they’d rather have a mainstream department, they just packed up and left. And George Mason jumped at the opportunity.
So that is the model that I think. That there will be a group of people, some of them young, in fact, probably many of them young, young enough that they can spend energy and creativity and think of developing their ideas for several decades. And there’s some university with a with a visionary president. And some entrepreneur who gives a big grant to establish a new department. And you get ten, fifteen people collected somewhere. That is, I think, what will happen to shake up the economics of the profession and shake up in particular the theoretical core of the discipline. I think the empirical parts of it are just being shaken up daily, through the data coming in and through the very interesting results and findings that are coming up as people are developing huge new datasets.
Eric Weinstein 1:31:46 And new approaches. Like if you think about natural experiments: you happen to have a flood that you could never actually ask for because it would kill people and it would destroy crops. But once you have such a thing, you look at the peculiar thing that happened as a controlled experiment. So I do see that there’s some hope. The concern that I have is that the theory is going to get thrown over because it was handed to the wrong group of theorists, and that the right group of theorists is not going to be allowed in — who could actually change the theory.
Timur Kuran 1:32:14 Well in a sense, the George Mason people would have never been allowed in. Buchanan and his group — he did win a Nobel Prize. He has actually been more influential outside the United States in mainstream economics departments than in the United States. But they did create a self-sustaining group. And they’ve generated enough PhD students who have gone to generally departments that are not in the top twenty, thirty, usually not in the top fifty. And they’re doing work that continues the Buchanan tradition. This is the way it may start. But just because Buchanan’s experiment didn’t result in the quote unquote ‘conquering’ of major departments doesn’t mean the same for the next one that takes on the core theory — which Buchanan didn’t do. Buchanan dealt with the political implications of political markets. And he objected to applying the competitive economics model without some modifications to political markets. That there were certain inefficiencies that people were overlooking. This was his problem. He wasn’t challenging the fundamentals. And if you look at the the basic economics that is taught at George Mason, it doesn’t challenge the core.
Eric Weinstein 1:34:14 No. This is the thing: that I want those of us who are trying to upend the core to actually go into open intellectual combat with the stalwarts, who are defending the core from updating. And if the core is so fantastic, they should welcome it. And I don’t see that happening.
Let’s switch gears slightly. You grew up in one of my favorite places on Earth. Turkey. And you grew up in a very interesting context that I was learning more about. Which is that you happen to be very aligned with the governing ethos of Turkey, which was unlike any other Muslim majority country in the world so far as I could tell. And you came to understand that the preferences of others were being falsified, even though your preferences were very much in line with the country. Given what we’ve been seeing with the AK Party and Erdoğan and all the changes in Turkey, can you take us through a little bit of your evolution as an observer as to what exactly happened to change Turkey so radically so quickly?
Timur Kuran 1:35:30 So for the listeners, the watchers, perhaps a minute or two on Turkish history would be useful. Turkey was the center of the Ottoman Empire, were the law of the land was Islamic law. In the 19th century, a growing group of intellectuals started seeing Islam as the source of the Empire’s problems. And the Empire was falling apart. And the problem turned into an existential issue as major components in Europe were taken away, and in World War One, when the Empire’s survival was at stake and the danger that the Europeans would just colonize what was left of the Empire was becoming more acute by the day. These intellectuals, many of them were in the military. They fought for the Empire and then for Turkey’s independence after Turkey was on the losing side in World War One. And most of what is modern-day Turkey was occupied by Western powers, divided among them. They fought to gain back these territories. And they won. And they won Turkey’s war of independence.
Eric Weinstein 1:37:44 Created an unbelievable opportunity that was actually seized.
Timur Kuran 1:37:48 Exactly. It made them heroes. And the leading hero was Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Who had fought the British in Gallipoli, who had put together a coalition to defeat the Italians, the Greeks, the British, the French, the Russians. And he was a hero, and he and the people around him — there were many other heroes around him — sensed that they had a huge amount of political capital to modernize the country. And to do something that was unthinkable until that point.
Eric Weinstein 1:38:38 Can we talk about how crazy these reforms were?
Timur Kuran 1:38:42 One of them was to abrogate Islamic law and replace Islamic law with secular laws. Legal systems borrowed from the West and adapted to Turkish society. Abolish the caliphate and send the caliph packing. And one by one introduced a series of reforms. Change the Arabic script to latin. And explicitly, openly make westernization a goal of the society. Outlaw traditional dress. Outlaw polygamy. Give women the right to vote long before several other countries including Switzerland have given women the right to vote. Rewrite history, and of course, this involved tntroducing their own myths. Now, we could go on and on describing these reforms. It was an unthinkable cultural revolution. And of course the economic institutions are changing at the same time. The political institutions are changing. The country’s sense of identity — he replaces a religious identity with a national identity. So call themselves Turks, not Muslims. And being a Turk takes precedent over being a Muslim. Marriages have to involve civil ceremonies. Religious ceremonies carry no legal weight at all.
Eric Weinstein 1:40:56 So the reason I’m so animated about this. This is almost like communistic level reforms, but in a different idiom.
Timur Kuran 1:41:04 In a different idiom and done by people who were genuinely supported by large segments of society. Now this is not to say that there was no reaction. Now this is where we come to preference falsification and the bubble that I lived and so on. We’ll get to this. So, there are of course, people who are illiterate, who have no contact with the West, who are very religious. They’re suddenly being told by their leaders that they don’t have a religious identity. They’re now Turks. What unites everybody is Turkishness not religion. That they and the Christian and Jewish minorities are equal, not only before the law but also morally. And they’re all Turkish. They are to accept this. The education is completely secularized. Their religion is no longer being taught. If you learn religion in the family, that’s fine, that’s your business, but the regime is telling you don’t make that public. And increasingly, this new regime is radicalizing itself. So now you have a self-sustaining, self-reinforcing system of secularization. Where people are trying to outbid themselves, outbid each other, in being secular in public. How Western you can look in your dress, how Western you can be in the way you interpret history. How Western you can be in not being Muslim. So people start falsifying their preferences in the direction of being secular. So people who are actually personally religious turn religion into a private matter. They do not fast in public or at least in ways that are noticeable. During Ramadan — Islam allows you, if you miss a day during Ramadan for whatever reason, because you’re traveling, you can substitute for it. It gives you a lot of freedom to do that. So people would. And we know about this through memoirs that were published posthumously. They couldn’t express themselves. They couldn’t say. This was happening among some people who were among Ataturk’s closest associates. Who were religious, but who could not have a religious persona.
Eric Weinstein 1:41:28 So while the West is cheering for Turkey’s modernization — and lots of this is positive — we start sowing the weird undercurrent where people who are genuinely religious are being repressed.
Before we get to that — one component I just want to check to see that my understanding is correct as an outsider, is that a weird thing for Westerners to understand is is that secularism and supposed modernity is guaranteed not by the democracy but by the army.
Timur Kuran 1:44:33 Yes. So while this is happening, the army has a special position in Turkish society. And it owes that to its enormous victories following World War One and to the fact that practically all the leading modernizers were trained in military schools. So the army is considered the protector — it’s part of the checks and balances of the system. That if the system goes off track, the military has a right to intervene. To step in and knock some heads of the politicians, and push out the people who have caused trouble, and restart the system. So with the military in the background you do start getting political parties that start catering to the needs and desires and visions of the pious people, the privately religious. Some of them also publicly religious, but some of them publicly irreligious. And these parties start advancing and they start gradually altering the discourse, and things that were unthinkable to say during Atatürk’s lifetime or the lifetime of the next president, İnönü, start being said publicly and gradually the support of these parties grow. The military intervenes several times when it sees that secularism is being challenged too dangerously from their perspective. They intervene. For a few years the secularists remain dominant but the force keeps coming back. And every time it comes back it’s even stronger. So through this process we come to the Erdoğan era. Erdoğan with a number of other people belongs to what is even today a very extreme Islamist party. That’s where his roots are. A party that favors that an Islamic common market and reducing contacts with the West dramatically, return to many old cultural forms, and so on. But Erdoğan sensed that they could never come to power if they maintained those extreme positions. That, yes, they had the core constituency of ten, twelve percent, but they couldn’t grow much beyond that. But if they advocated greater religious freedoms, without threatening the secularists and others, that they could actually have a winning majority.
Eric Weinstein 1:47:24 So do some good and maybe even fool some secularists.
Timur Kuran 1:50:50 And so he formed a new party, which is the AK Party. The acronym AK means whote in Turkish. It was a very clever acronym, clever name for a party. The real name is Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, Justice and Development Party. And the development was to reassure the business elite that they were so committed to development and justice. Could mean many things to different groups but to his core constituency it meant we would get religious freedoms. And so when he first came to power, he gave the impression that he was going to expand the freedoms of the pious masses, without taking away the freedoms of the secularists.
Eric Weinstein 1:52:04 At this point I became very mystified because I was watching it from here. And there was this phrase that was invariant in American news: “the mildly Islamist AK Party”. And I kept hearing that and I wanted to get the wax out of my ears. What do you mean mildly Islamist?
Timur Kuran 1:52:22 So mildly Islamist was never a good choice of terminology. But what they meant was that this is a party that had certain Islamist goals. It pursued those in moderation, and without doing damage to the rest of society. And this is precisely what Erdoğan did. And it was in fact under his watch in his first two years as prime minister, that Turkey formally applied to join the European Union. And the party he came from, the extreme party, this was absolutely anathema to them. They wanted not only not to join the common market, they wanted to reduce trade with them. Their their party platform said that they would do most of their trade with the Arab world and the Muslim world now what exactly they would be buying from the Arab world and where they would get their machinery and this and that — who knows. Getting back to getting back to truncated public discourse, within that milieu, you never asked this question, how this was going to work out.
Eric Weinstein 1:53:05 You, as a secular Turk from the western part of the country that’s very, very modern, did not see the sort of welling up of preference falsification particularly concentrated in the Anatolian region.
Timur Kuran 1:54:05 I didn’t. Growing up in Istanbul and growing up in a family that was part of this westernization movement — my paternal grandfather fought in the Ottoman army and then in the Turkish War of Independence. During that process while he was taken prisoner by the British and since spent some time as a British prisoner, he came to appreciate the the strengths of Western society. He used that time to try to understand why the British had stronger armies than Turks. Tried to understand what it is that made them invent weapons that the Turks had not. Where several centuries before this wasn’t the case. And he became convinced that Atatürk and the people around him who wanted to Westernize Turkey, anchor Turkey in the West — they were 100% right. After the War of Independence he resigned from the army, became a contractor, worked for the government for the rest of his life. Supported Atatürk’s party, the People’s Republican Party, was to the end of his life, a committed Westernizer. As was my father, as were all my close relatives. I grew up in a milieu where people didn’t falsify their preferences. People were truthful. People supported the government, supported the direction of the country, because they approved of this.
Eric Weinstein 1:56:14 What they didn’t know was that in part, it was a bubble.
Timur Kuran 1:56:18 What they didn’t know was that it was a bubble. Of course they did appreciate that there was resistance. And during the decades from the 1920s to the 1970s, 80s, there had been minor rebellions in parts of eastern Turkey. It was understood that there were people who objected to the country’s direction. But it was also understood that they lived in poor parts of the country. The interpretation was they represent the past: as Turkey gets more and more educated, they will fade into the past, the next generation will not support them. So this is a transitory problem. So it’s not that I didn’t understand that there were people who objected to the direction of the country and that when they migrated Istanbul they brought some of those ideas with them. There were people in poor communities, in Istanbul, in the shanty towns, who pretended, when they worked for major corporations or worked for the post office or the government that they actually supported the country’s direction. But they actually didn’t do it. This much I understood. But I thought that this was a minor transitory phenomenon: this was not something deeply felt by large numbers of people that could actually change the trajectory of the country. This is something that I missed. And there’s a lesson in this. For, if I may, just for for a moment, jump back to the United States, in the bubbles that we have here, bubbles on the left and bubbles on the right, we have people who are talking to each other and just don’t realize how many people there are who don’t agree with them and who have very good reasons of their own for thinking differently.
Eric Weinstein 1:58:57 Taking the US, Anatolia would be analogized to the middle of the country.
Timur Kuran 1:59:05 Flyover states.
Eric Weinstein 1:59:06 Well, I never use that term because I detest it. But yes.
Timur Kuran 1:59:10 But it means something to coastal elites —
Eric Weinstein 1:59:15 To coastal elites, and coastal elites is how the middle of the country demonizes the edges. But more than anything, it’s not until you start seeing the headscarves coming out of the BMW, that you realize that your picture is in some sense not an accurate one. That people are quite well to do, that they are coming at this from a cultural perspective that you may not understand.
Timur Kuran 1:59:41 Well this is where preference falsification starts coming in at various levels. Because now the genuinely religious people start gaining political power. And of course, with that political power comes government contracts, comes a reduction in the various regulations that prevented you from getting rich. So a lot of peoople who are culturally conservative, become rich. And so then you start seeing: they start buying BMWs, and you start seeing people wearing headscarves driving BMWs. You start seeing increasingly elegant headscarves. Whereas Initially, the party that built up this movement, it promoted a version of Islam that involved modesty, and they wouldn’t be flaunting their wealth and so on. Well, we get to a point gradually, where those who get rich, start spending their money on increasingly expensive cars, more and more expensive headscarves, and you get to the point where, flash forward to the present, where you have a president is living in the largest presidential palace in the world — one thousand one hundred rooms. He has something like fifteen, twenty, I forget the exact number, private planes. Flaunts his luxury. All the lead members of the government and people close to him all drive cars or have cars driven for them by chauffeurs.
Eric Weinstein 2:01:49 Can we discuss this?
Timur Kuran 2:01:50 Well this is something that in Turkey is very difficult to discuss. If you discuss it, it can get you in trouble. Anything involving the President’s finances or how he spends his money or how his consumption is over the top can get you in trouble. There are many journalists who are in jail at the moment for saying this. Now here we get into another form of preference falsification. Within the AK Party movement, now the people who wanted to advance religious freedoms — we jumped over one phase which I should come back to now. Which is that Erdoğan, as he expands religious freedoms, initially he doesn’t take away any freedoms from the secularists. He doesn’t reduce their opportunities to drink if they want to drink. He doesn’t try to close down restaurants during Ramadan. If you’re not religious, and you want to have lunch during Ramadan, fine. That was Erdoğan during his first two years. But during this time, he’s gradually chipping away at the checks and balances of the system. And the thing that ultimately that he needs to get rid of is the power of the military to essentially remove a government. This was something that was in the Constitution.
Eric Weinstein 2:03:39 I’m going to make a parallel here that I want to see whether you’re going to go for it or you won’t. In some ways I view the military in Turkey as having played a role similar to the sense-making apparatus in our universities and our newspapers. As the sort of meta-guarantors of a stable democracy. And my serious concern about the United States is that we are headed down a path that we cannot imagine actually ends in literal dictatorship of some as yet unknown form, as we lose the thing that eroded that dictatorial impulse. What I see is, I see our newspapers, our universities, our political parties, this institutional class that was supposed to be, quite honestly somewhat elite and somewhat above the fray, increasingly become this completely untrustworthy, weakened version. And where Erdoğan was weakening the military, who was the guarantor of secularism, which was in the process of overreaching, our situation is that our sense-making apparatus is weakening itself because its economics is starting to crumble.
Timur Kuran 2:04:55 I think that there are parallels. We can come back to this. Let me maybe finish the Turkish case. So what Erdoğan does, I think it’s important for readers and watchers to understand this. He disarms the secularists and divides the secularists. And peels off enough of them by making them feel that he will perfect Turkish democracy by getting rid of the role of the military, by pushing the military out of politics through a referendum, by actually changing the Constitution, and you need to have the country vote on a new constitution.
It was a dirty solution. And Erdoğan would always say this — this is not being Western. This was Erdoğan trying to remove this check on his power by appearing Western. And he convinced enough secular people so the referendum passed by, I think 50 and a half to 49 and a half or something. He got through this. And the margin, the 5% margin that he needed came from secularists. And I have many friends who voted for him, saying, Erdoğan, we hate to say this, but he is the one bringing true Western democracy. Show me one European country where the military has the power that it has in Turkey. Yes, there are problems with Erdoğan. We’ll deal with that within democracy. But this is our opportunity.
Eric Weinstein 2:05:42 So having a guarantee a secular democracy was always a little bit of a dirty solution.
In the US context, I find that both Trump and AOC are telling me some of the things that have an inexorable logic that no one will say. And I’m watching my friends peeled off in both directions towards Trump and AOC. And I keep sort of saying, don’t you see what’s coming next in both of those situations? But there’s something about this kind of appeal to it. It’s almost a self-hating nature of the secular. Or maybe that would be more in the case of AOC. And this is sort of appeal to, oh well we’ll just let Trump in to do enough mischief to shake things up. And I keep thinking that these entreaties are clearly going to go to super dangerous places which I can’t convince either side seemingly.
Timur Kuran 2:07:52 Well, the parallel here is that Erdoğan was removing one of the checks and balances in Turkish democracy and preventing it from going in any ideological direction towards dictatorship. He removed this without putting in place other checks and balances.
Eric Weinstein 2:08:26 Yeah perfectly said.
Timur Kuran 2:08:27 Now so here’s the parallel with the United States. We have right now two extreme groups that hate each other, that consider the other side inhuman, and who are willing to suspend all sorts of democratic checks and balances to defeat the other side. Trump is doing this and AOC would like to do this as well. And there are various things that are happening in society that are the equivalent of that. And they’re leading us toward a dictatorship of one kind or another.
Eric Weinstein 2:09:14 And there are very few people who are willing to say I can see this problem. Both of these are saying things that resonate with me. Both of them are presenting dangers and there’s no place to go to say, hey, our problem is our extremists and our exploitative entrepreneurs who are seeing the turmoil in the country and offering us these solutions. Because what I see is I see “bravery and courage” on the extremes and “cowardice” in the middle. And there is no kind of a courageous, moderate perspective that says, what are we talking about? Giving up all of this great stuff that defined our country so quickly at the first sign of trouble?
Timur Kuran 2:10:02 Yes we don’t have. And within American politics today, the hope is that within the Democratic Party, there will be some moderate candidate who will say what you have just said, and defend compromising with the other side, and defend moderate solutions, admit openly the complexity of various issues, and start a conversation on how we prioritize solving these problems. What’s happening is that all of the candidates are afraid of crossing, in the case of the Democratic Party, AOC, and the people around her. And so they are not saying the things that could actually form a counter coalition. And the party is being driven to an extreme. And the people at the extreme, including AOC, and her squad, they think of many of Trump’s supporters in the same way that ardent Trump supporters think of AOC.
Eric Weinstein 2:11:32 And there’s a terrible way which I agree with both of their verdicts about the other. In that the extremes of Trumpism and the extremes of this justice-based thinking that throws out civil society — I have to say that I understand the fear of closed borders, of open borders, of people just saying such dumb stuff. With no adults anywhere in sight.
Timur Kuran 2:12:03 And nobody pointing out the implications. Laying out all the implications of any of these. Whether it’s completely closed borders, having no immigration, totally open borders, which can can never happen. And most Americans believe in a policy package somewhere in between. That involves some immigration, with restrictions, with certain rules. They’re not for closed borders or open borders.
Eric Weinstein 2:12:54 So I’ve been trying to figure out — there’s a game that gets played by demographers who are trying to help a candidate get elected. Which is, can we identify a sector of the economy that nobody’s found yet, that can be swayed? So soccer moms was an example of one of these demographic discoveries. Another one was the exurb. So you had rural, you had suburban, but nobody noticed that before you got to urban from rural, there was the exurb in between rural and suburb, and that that had a voting bloc. To me one of the largest voting blocs, which is there for anybody — I talk about this all the time and it’s amazing to watch people falsify that it even exists — I call it xenophilic restrictionism. People who are fascinated by other cultures, they’ve got foreign friends, they’re interested in having immigrants as being a vital part of our society — but they’re not coked up on this sort of beautiful, nonsensical dream at the base of the Statue of Liberty, which somehow has this mystical hold on immigration expansionism. Now of course, immigration expansionism is a weapon for transfer of wealth among Americans. That is, if you can selectively open borders and increase certain groups’ share the pie, George Borjas has showed mechanisms by which you can transfer wealth. You’re claiming to take a tiny little bit of efficiency called a Harberger triangle, but what you’re really trying to do is transfer a giant amount of wealth, which we might call the Borjas rectangle, from American labor to American capital. Now, you can’t have that conversation about the misuse of immigration as a tool of transfer, because our media will instantly set upon you and say, well, the only reason you’re talking about restricting immigration is your hatred of foreigners and you can’t disguise it from me.
Timur Kuran 2:12:55 So you cannot be a xenophilic restrictionist. That cannot exist. By definition it cannot exist.
Eric Weinstein 2:14:54 Right, of course! I introduced this thing called the four quadrant model, and the idea idea is that the media in particular enforces a narrative that all restrictionism, 100% essentially, is motivated by fear of foreigners. And then you get to fear of brown people and fear of people who are not like us, or people with accents. And it is the largest dumbest lie.
Timur Kuran 2:15:24 And even minorities, talk about brown people and black people — many of them would be among the people hurt by open borders. Because they would lose jobs. You would get cheaper labor from —
Eric Weinstein 2:15:42 This is my question, doesn’t anybody know any immigrants? Doesn’t anybody know any brown people? It’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. It’s like some white person’s crazy idea of what restrictionism is about. It has to do with pushing out labor supply curves.
Timur Kuran 2:16:12 This should be part of the discussion, part of an intelligent discussion that we can have. And reasonable people can disagree on what the optimal trade off is. And ultimately, reasonable people who disagree can come to a compromise. You’re not going to get 100% of what you’re looking for. You’re not going to get 100%. We’re going to come — somewhere in the middle, we’re going to have a national policy, and that’s a national policy that can have some dynamism to it. Every four years we can talk about it again, we can move the needle a little bit. This is the way we can do it. But we have massive, massive preference falsification on this simply because people are afraid of being called xenophobes. And we have massive knowledge falsification which goes along with this. People cannot — because you’re afraid of being put in the wrong box in terms of your preferences, of whether you’re a xenophile or a xenophobe, you don’t say things that should be obvious to everybody. That there are going to be major effects on the labor market that are not going to be distributed evenly. Perhaps major owners of big factories are going to gain a lot from the falling wage rates and a lot of people living in the inner cities are going to be hurt by this. This is something you cannot say because you’ll be —
Eric Weinstein 2:17:59 You want to know how crazy this is? I used the ‘phrase doesn’t anybody know any brown people, doesn’t anybody know any foreigners?’ I’m going to be excoriated for that because I didn’t say don’t any white people know it. It’s like, even when I’m speaking glibly, the cost of any stupid aspect of phraseology is this ridiculous drumming up by the people who want us not to talk about it. Which I think is for economic reasons. I think people who are in control are terrified that they will encounter the idea that in general, Americans are pro immigration and want it at lower levels. Were open to foreigners. We think it’s a vibrant part of our society. But we’re not stupid. We understand that if you have free health care for all free education for all, you know, nearly limitless opportunity to cross border. You cannot do all of these things. We don’t want our votes diluted. There’s no ability to have the conversation. And so a lot of what The Portal is about, is we’ve got to break out of this enforced conversation of morons, to some place where we can actually potentially get enough resolution to say, oh, here’s what I’m really about. I don’t think we should be blocked to the most dynamic people coming from overseas. We need some ability to admit refugees, look at the people who’ve been at death’s door and we’ve saved. And it’s an important part of revitalizing the country. We have to be able to talk with specificity. And what I see is a media that doesn’t have any interest in this long form kind of interaction, simply because it’s trying to enforce low resolution speech.
Timur Kuran 2:19:50 And that low resolution speech involves, to put it in concrete terms, if you want restrictions on immigration, you’re for cages. Well, most Americans are not for caging children either. They’re appalled by that. They would like more orderly forms of restrictions, more humane forms of restrictions. But we cannot get to that point if reasonable people cannot have conversations that are going to involve some disagreement. If they cannot have conversations that are probed by the media, without the gotchas, the underlying assumptions are identified, the tradeoffs are brought out, the knowledge on which people’s preferences are based, those are scrutinized — there are many myths about what the composition of immigration is — so that we actually can get rid of some of our myths and start talking about these issues on the basis of facts. Sound facts. We cannot do this, if we can’t speak freely.
Eric Weinstein 2:21:29 The thing that I don’t understand is the university. So you’re sitting there at Duke. You’re part of this archipelago of higher education as a major node on it. What the heck happened that our universities became places where you can’t explore ideas as opposed to the citadels in which one can. Or am I wrong about that?
Timur Kuran 2:21:53 This has been a slow process. It started with well-meaning policies to help integrate groups that had been excluded. The universities had explicitly excluded certain groups, for example African Americans. And when you bring in groups that have been excluded, there are going to be some adjustment problems. And I think there were some well-meaning people who wanted to help them adjust, and started special programs. And these involved what, in the college that I went to, was called the third world center, or there were African American centers or something. So these centers, these were again created to give these groups, in this case African Americans, a place where they could share their grievances, where they could talk to each other. They were not meant to be closed to others who wanted to communicate with them, who wanted to help them integrate. Gradually they turned into activist centers. And they started pushing universities in the direction of making special efforts — hiring African American professors, bringing African Americans, minorities into the administration and so on. All this was initially driven by well-meaning people. You had administrations and departments that were in fact genuinely racist, that had histories of racism, that had overlooked very talented African Americans. But eventually, starting from there, it started taking on unrealistic dimensions. And I’ll give you an example. I’m right now a professor at Duke. Duke was one of the first universities, if not the first university, to put in its long-term plan or 10-year plan, that every department in the University would have at least one African American professor on its faculty. This was a policy put in place. Well before I got there in the 1980s. It was not feasible because in some professions there were very few African American professors who could teach at a research university. And the competition for them, because what was happening at Duke was happening at other universities as well, the competition for them was very fierce. So given the numbers, some places no matter how hard they tried, some places were not going to make their targets. Well, this was then interpreted not as a consequence of low numbers and the over ambitiousness of the initial plan, — something that could be accomplished over a longer time period but couldn’t be accomplished, say, in in 10 years — instead of being interpreted in that manner, it was attributed to racism. And it got to the point where the policies that were being proposed to reduce the racial imbalance in the faculty and the student bodies, some of the policies that were being proposed at opposing them, started putting you in danger. In that you could be attacked as racist. That shut down conversation. Now I’ve given you one example. Because I’ve studied the struggling universities over affirmative action. But it has happened in other areas as well. Other groups have used the same strategy to shut down discourse on cultural issues and to have universities build all sorts of new units designed to help particular identity constituencies.
Eric Weinstein 2:27:58 I’m actually quite quite interested and divided in my own mind about this. What I don’t understand is why it is that we can’t frame these problems in ways that contain both explanations about human bigotry, unfairness, misogyny, racism — let’s have that as a component, and then let’s have non-oppression-based explanations. And let’s try to figure out what percentage of things are due to both. And what everyone seems to do is that they either want to exclude one or the other from consideration, so that we can’t figure out the mixture. Now I became a mathematician. I went through Penn, Harvard, MIT, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. I think it’s the case that at the time I was in each of those departments, there was not a single female full professor on the faculty. Now, I have no idea what that is. There’re so many fine female mathematicians in the world. I could certainly reel off five or ten, that everyone would agree were first-rate mathematicians, off the top of my head. But there is a wild imbalance in the field. And I am convinced that there’s a component of this that has to do with men of erected mathematics in the way that men are most comfortable with, because there have been so few women in the field. And I’m also reasonably convinced that there’s some asymmetry, maybe not in intellectual ability, but certainly in interest in spending one’s life negotiating a world mostly of symbols. So I have no idea how to call it. But I don’t think that either component of that vector in two dimensions — which is oppression-based explanations and non-oppression-based explanations — I don’t think either component would be zero.
Timur Kuran 2:30:05 It’s ultimately an empirical issue. As with every empirical issue, we need to collect data and we need to approach the issues the way scientists would.
Eric Weinstein 2:30:20 But we’re not allowed to set up the problem.
Timur Kuran 2:30:22 We’re not allowed to set up the problem. We’re not allowed to pose the question. And this is a big danger. This is where the situation we find ourselves in is analogous to the situation of the Soviet bloc. Where you could not ask the question of why East German Ladas were so so inferior to West German Mercedes and various other West German cars. VWs, for example. You could not ask this question. You could pick up TV stations in West Germany and see how incredibly different the lifestyles of workers there were. In the so-called “worker’s paradise”, where the proletariat was in power, in that society in East Germany, workers had a much lower standard of living than in West Germany. The Turks who had to had been brought into West Germany were living much better than the East German workers. For one thing you could not point that out. But secondly, you could not ask the question, why? What is it? Where did we go wrong? It wasn’t that the will wasn’t there. Marx and Engels and the other theoreticians and Lenin had certain ideas and a certain sense of how the society worked. And I believe that they sincerely, passionately believed that in fact they could create the utopia they had mind. There were certain very critical elements of human nature that they didn’t appreciate. But if the East Germans had been allowed to ask these questions, and put these issues, to empirical tests, and so on, they would have come up with the answers and they could have actually made the transition without a revolution.
Eric Weinstein 2:30:41 Timur, I could talk to you forever. So I think what we’re going to do is, we’ve been at this for a little while, end with a question that’s been much on my mind, having to do with, in my case, wanting potentially to retake the White House for the Democrats in an honorable way. Which I don’t think will happen. I’m not particularly close to the Democratic Party. In fact, it’s been driving me crazy, but it is where I grew up. And then I would love to invite you back anytime you like to continue the discussion.
The theory that really has captivated me is how to figure out the appeal of Trump. And I have in part come up with this idea of the checksum theory of politics. Now a checksum has to do with — you’re receiving a binary, let’s say as a computer program, and you want to know whether it’s been corrupted. And so there’s some very quick check without having to be able to see the program to know whether or not the program has been corrupted on its way to you. The three things that I’ve settled on which allow me to know that the Democratic Party and its media organs are lying, have to do with: a belief that immigration is more or less a pure positive and that anybody who wants it restricted, can only do so out of xenophobia; a belief that trade and globalization is a simply positive force that should be expected to lift all boats; and the belief that there is zero connection between terror and Islam, no matter how many people cry Allahu Akbar at the end of a killing spree. Now, that is not to say that there’s no aspect of white terrorism, as it’s not to say that there’s no aspect of trade that is positive — surely it is. And that’s not to say that immigration doesn’t carry positive benefits — I think we’ve extolled several of them in the course of our conversation. But it’s the simplicity and the violent ferocity with which these things are defended, which have caused large numbers of Americans to say I don’t know what this is, but it’s like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. No one could possibly believe anything as simplistic, as stupid, and as threatening as what you’ve created. And it’s driving people in droves to embrace anyone who will say otherwise. Am I wrong?
Timur Kuran 2:34:55 No, I think there’s a lot that makes a tremendous amount of sense. And I want to re-say what you said in a different way and explain the reasons that I think Trump came to power. Vast numbers of people, including diehard Trump supporters, think that he’s not the type of person they’d like to have over for dinner. He’s not the type of person they would like to go into business with. He’s not a trustworthy person. He’s not a moral person. For the millions of evangelicals who voted for him, he’s not somebody who gets close to representing Christian values.
Eric Weinstein 2:36:08 Said the Muslim to the Jew.
Timur Kuran 2:36:09 But there’s one characteristic that Trump demonstrated that no politician, Democratic or Republican, who came close to being a candidate, had. And that is the ability to take on the sacred cows of both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. And it’s important. And it’s something that he demonstrated as soon as he announced his candidacy. He started insulting various groups of societies. Like Muslims. Like Hispanics, he called all of them rapists, all 11 million Hispanic immigrants, he said they’re all rapists.
Eric Weinstein 2:36:26 Did he? I don’t think that he did. He played around with a lot of things that could be parsed one way or the other. He was playing with fire.
Timur Kuran 2:37:40 He was playing with fire. He certainly said awful things about Muslims. Those are the initial groups that the targeted. Could say maybe this is something that a smart politician, a populist politician might do. They don’t have much voting power. But then he started taking on groups, insulting groups, and accusing certain groups of doing horrible things — groups that had significant voting power. Some of them were primarily Democratic voting groups. So you could say, well, that makes sense, because that’s going to energize the Republican base. There are people in the Republican Party who don’t like these other groups. That makes sense. But then he started insulting and demeaning and humiliating groups in the Republican Party. Major groups in the Republican Party. The one that sticks in my mind is the veterans. He insulted John McCain, somebody who was an icon, not only for Republicans, including Republicans who didn’t vote for him when he ran for president and the primary, but also somebody highly respected by Democrats. And he accused McCain of being a failure. Because he had gotten arrested, and he preferred soldiers didn’t get arrested and so on. This is something that insulted so many veterans. Now, his poll numbers went up after he said this, generally, but also among Republicans, and even among veterans. And this was just absolutely stunning to me. And to me, it said, people are looking for a game changer. And what they’re looking for is somebody who can take on the vested interests in Washington, and somebody who can be so open in criticizing groups that are so important to the Republican coalition, will be fearless against anyone, and if there’s anyone who’s going to shake up the system it’s going to be Trump. And I think that is one source of his strength. And I think that going forwards, whether he’s going to succeed in the next election is going to depend on whether people believe that that attitude has generated something for them, that he will stay on that path, and that this is what the country needs more of to move forward.
Eric Weinstein 2:41:10 You know, just listening to this reminds me that the phrase out of control has two separate meanings. Let’s say there’re Trump supporters and Trump detractors. Trump detractors see him as out of control in the sense that he’s a danger to everything. Trump supporters see him as outside of control. And therefore, he can weirdly be trusted because clearly nothing is holding him back. He’s has no paymaster somewhere because nobody could act like this if they were part of the institutional makeup of the country. And I wonder if that’s really what divides us.
Timur Kuran 2:42:05 And this is I think what is dividing us right now. And the people who feel that he’s just destroying so many things that are valuable to them, intensely hate him. And that hatred is now driving them toward politicians who are willing to suspend various civil liberties that are central to the American system or have been central to the American system, because getting rid of Trump is more important than anything else. Trumpism will not be gone after Trump is no longer president. These people who hate the establishment, and hate the various vested interests, insofar as they’re there, they’re going to continue to pose a problem politically. They’re going to continue to be a political force somehow. And the group that you’ve labeled the Trump detractors, we might call them the Trump haters, many of them would like to suspend various liberties, various checks and balances to get rid of this clear and present danger. That is one way we can get to a dictatorship. Another way is, of course, allowing Trump to pursue some of his agenda. That’s another way to dictatorship.
Eric Weinstein 2:42:27 Twin paths to dictatorship.
Timur Kuran 2:43:46 And again, we get back to this issue of the tremendous need that the society has for the people who are falsifying preferences in one way or another, who see the complexity of the issues, to come out of the closet and to find a leader of their own who is going to have the charisma that is going to out-Trump Trump and out-AOC AOC. This is what we’re lacking.
Eric Weinstein 2:44:33 Well, may we find such a person, inshallah.
Timur Kuran 2:44:38 I hope so, inshallah.
Eric Weinstein 2:44:40 Okay, well, you’ve been through The Portal with Dr. Timur Kuran of Duke University. Thanks for listening or watching, and we’ll see you next time.
I just finished reading Semiosis, a novel by Sue Burke, which follows the story of a group of humans colonizing a new planet over the first 100 years. It reads a lot like The Martian — science and survival — but replace The Martian‘s solitude and desolation with community and competition.
It’s a deeply hopeful book about the prospects for the flourishing of sentient and intelligent life. The quote in the title of this post is not from Sue Burke, but it resonates for me as an attitude that, if held, is likely to make our present and future moments better.