Trump and the mind of the abuser

Is he an idiot or a genius? He is neither, simply a psychological predator

One of the most common dilemmas that Trump watchers must suffer is to ask themselves whether Trump is an idiot or a genius. Arguments for both abound. On one hand, nearly nothing that Trump has done as President (or any other of his business endeavors) suggests anything other than unadulterated, blithering stupidity. According to most inside accounts of his behavior, be it from Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, or Bob Woodward’s more recent Fear: Trump in the White House, Trump is a man of frighteningly low intelligence who has trouble grasping basic concepts, much less expressing them in coherent form. His unhinged, incoherent rambles that pass as public speeches seem to be testament of this: it would actually take a supreme effort from someone of moderate or above-average intelligence to consistently speak so badly on so many topics.

On the other hand, the way in which he has whipped up such a large support base appears unparalleled in modern US political history. The comparisons with Hitler and Mussolini abound, and it is obvious that despite the hideousness of their policies they were quite intelligent men and crafty statesmen. Is it also common for those of us living in Britain to compare Trump with his British Tory opposite, the buffoonish Boris Johnson, an Eton- and Oxford-educated man born in privilege and who is just as likely to recite the classics as he is to fly on a zip line waving Union Jacks like a clown at a children’s party. Johnson is no fool, he just plays one. Is Trump a master thespian? A genius wearing a cloak of idiocy?

In my view, no, Trump is no genius. He’s merely an abuser. Continue reading

The tale of the immoral cyclist (and CEO, and Republican)

Why pretending to be moral will actually make you a worse human being

Use the Greenwich Foot Tunnel during rush hour at your peril. Every weekday from around 5pm onward (I have not crossed it in mornings), the Victorian-era tunnel that conveniently connects both sides of the Thames between Greenwich and the Isle of Dogs becomes a shortcut for cyclists who speed through it at full speed from their finance jobs in Canary Wharf to their southeast London homes. The cylindrical foot tunnel, which as its name describes is for pedestrians, is not much more than 2 meters across at ground level. Most annoyingly, it has very large and very clear “NO CYCLING” signs at both entrances and also painted on the ground every couple of meters along the way. Despite this, only a fraction of cyclists who cross the tunnel during rush hour ever bother to dismount from their bikes and cross it by foot. Which by law, they should.

One typically expects reckless, obnoxious behavior in London to be committed by the usual suspects: chavvy youths or wolf-packs of loutish drunk working-class men. Not well-off bankers, most of which are white, middle-aged men. Furthermore, one expects blatantly illegal behavior like riding at full speed in a pedestrian tunnel, where a slight mishap might have them seriously injuring (possibly even killing) someone, to be the domain of cyclists. Cyclists, after all, are the good guys in the story. They don’t burn off CO2 from their cars or from using transportation. Many Western cities now openly encourage people to take up cycling to work.

Why are the most morally-minded, ethical people doing something so wrong? Continue reading

The Spectrum Fallacy

Why all of something good isn’t better than just some of it

The economic rise of China since the 1980s has been one of the most, if not the most, impressive feats of economic progress ever. It has eradicated poverty by the hundreds of millions, created an industrial sector that has dwarfed anything ever seen in human history, and despite the country’s size and maturity, continues to grow at a pace that any Western democracy and even most developing economies can only dream of. This has been largely been achieved by the Chinese government’s adoption of market policies. China is now the world’s greatest trading nation and also a massive receptor and supplier of foreign investment. Capitalism works, and it follows that China is the perfect example of why countries should liberalize their economies and embrace free markets unconditionally.

Except it doesn’t follow.

If you were tempted to draw this apparently obvious conclusion, congratulations, you are a victim of what I like to call the Spectrum Fallacy, possibly the most pernicious flaw of logical argumentation in policy circles. What is the Spectrum Fallacy? It is the flawed premise that just because something is demonstrably better than something else, more of that something is necessarily better than only some of it. It is very similar to a well known logical fallacy, the false dilemma. Like the false dilemma, the spectrum fallacy assumes that there is a false choice, that one must necessarily choose between two mutually exclusive options (statist communism or laissez-faire capitalism). However, here we are assuming not that there are more choices but that either of these two choices can be better when they are applied less extremely across the spectrum of possibilities. Continue reading

When demagoguery comes to your doorstep

How Latin America’s oldest democracy is succumbing to the radical, religious right

The song opens with an funky bassline before the horn section kicks in, inviting you to dance. But this is not your typical Latin song.

I find myself in a spiritual battle
Which is hard to control
This feeling overwhelms me and I want it no more
For I know it’s not against the flesh

The song is called “Batalla Espiritual” (Spiritual Battle) and the singer is Fabricio Alvarado, a former news anchor and later Christian music star, who is currently a few hours away from becoming the next president of Costa Rica, and one of the first evangelical heads of state in Latin America. His unlikely rise from obscurity is a testament to the politicization of the evangelical movement in the region, as well as some deep social conservative undercurrents in what is otherwise one of Latin America’s most progressive countries; one which also happens to be its longest-running democracy. The Fabricio phenomenon has also shown how even countries that have not experienced the traditional Western narratives that have fed right-wing demagoguery in recent years (terrorism, immigration, and economic crisis) are not immune to it. Continue reading

In defense of Free (ish) Will

Beneath the hype, hard determinism still has major flaws

The debate around free will is one of the longest running in all philosophy, and has huge ramifications well beyond it. By and large, we live in societies created under the libertarian notion that human beings possess free will: the ability to make decisions that are free of causal and coercive influences. If I go to a bar and choose beer over wine, it was an act of free will since nothing stopped me from choosing wine instead; I don’t dislike wine (though I prefer beer), they cost pretty much the same, and both were readily available on the menu. Laissez-faire economics runs on the notion that we have free will in nearly every element of our lives, and the way to maximize individual freedom is to provide people with more choice, while removing the constraints that would limit those choices (namely the state). It’s hard not to feel some natural sympathy for this position. We all feel like we have free will. The very notion of being human and feeling human (as opposed to being an automaton) depends on this.

Unfortunately, the evidence in favor of this libertarian view of free will is scant. In contrast to libertarians, determinists believe that every single human action was entirely determined by prior causes and therefore is not truly free even when there is no coercive influence that prevents us from doing otherwise. So perhaps nothing stopped me from choosing wine, but was I entirely in control of my physical desire for beer? Not really. Perhaps I want to “prove” my free will by next time choosing wine but did I choose the thoughts in my head that made me want to behave like a contrarian? Did I choose my contrarian personality? Perhaps there is some degree of randomness in the neural activity or quantum mechanisms in my brain that led me to this and so my choice is not fully determined in a strict sense, but since I cannot control processes at the micro-level, are they even relevant? Either way I did not have the free will to pick wine over beer in the first instance, or beer over wine in the second.

In recent years, determinism has exploded in popularity, particularly since it has been embraced by numerous celebrity public intellectuals like Sam Harris (who wrote an essay length book in 2012, Free Will). Determinism is to pop philosophy similar to what Freakonomics was to pop economics a few years back: it’s a great way to start a dinner conversation and look like you’re the smartest person in the room. After all, most people who haven’t read extensively on both sides of the philosophical debate would be naturally prone to thinking that they have libertarian free will. Getting swayed to the determinist camp is easy when done by an eloquent and convincing interlocutor, which Harris certainly is, and when one doesn’t particularly have a stake in the outcome – if anything, determinism seemingly justifies all the bad things you’ve ever done since you couldn’t help yourself from doing them! The problem is that Harris performs a number of intellectual sleights of hand that are common among determinists: reduce the debate to a single definition of free will, claim that the opposing arguments are so rubbish that they cannot be taken seriously, and avoid discussing those arguments that seriously threaten his point. That Harris chooses a 66-page pop philosophy book to do this rather than undertake his battle in rigorous, academic channels is telling of his unwillingness to face serious opposition from compatibilists: those who believe that free will and a deterministic universe can coexist. Continue reading

The trickster: dissecting Jordan Peterson

Why the Canadian darling of the alt-right is the most overrated public intellectual of our day

The meteoric rise of Jordan Peterson to the status of public intellectual stardom has been one of the most interesting, if not regrettable, cases of how the internet has created idols out of people who would have best languished in obscurity. Peterson, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto, was a hitherto relatively unknown figure outside of Canada until a number of his videos caught the public attention in 2016. The videos were made in protest of a proposed amendment to Canada’s Human Rights Act (a bill known as C-16), which included “gender identity and expression” to the list of characteristics which would be subject to human rights protection. The bill also included a specific mention to “refusing to refer to a person by their self-identified name and proper personal pronoun” as grounds for discrimination. The bill was clearly seen as a victory particularly for the transgender community. But Peterson, along with many conservatives, decried it as an abuse of free speech. According to Peterson, the law opened the door for anyone to be jailed if they used the wrong pronoun to refer to a transgender or non-binary person, even if they were unaware of it. Amid the poisonous atmosphere of identity politics that dominates the West (both on the left and right), Peterson’s objections went viral and a celebrity was born.

Since then, Peterson has become one of the most identifiable members of the so-called “intellectual dark web”, a group of pundits and academics who share two main characteristics. The first is their massive online followings; many of them are regulars on the podcast circuit or are otherwise ubiquitous on YouTube. The second is that regardless of their backgrounds and ideologies, most of them share an opposition to radical progressivism, “social justice warriors” (SJWs), and the campus activism that has become commonplace in recent years, mainly in the US. Not all of them are declared conservatives. Most openly dislike Donald Trump or at least express serious reservations about him. Many of them describe themselves as “classic liberals”, an increasingly used cop-out that seems to be a euphemism for hardline libertarianism but which implies a belief in social liberty. Aside from that, the intellectual dark web comes from all walks of life, be it neo-conservative journalists (Douglas Murray), Bernie Sanders-supporting evolutionary biologists (Bret Weinstein), and more traditional conservative pundits (Ben Shapiro). Even unconventional feminists like Christina Hoff Summers and Camille Paglia occasionally join their otherwise almost entirely male-dominated ranks. And the doors are also open to non-intellectuals, like disgraced Google programer James Damore of the infamous gender memo fame.

Not surprisingly, many of the most prominent members of the intellectual dark web have huge alt-right followings; in Peterson’s case, borderline rabid as evidenced by the commentary in any one of his YouTube videos. But given their academic credentials and their lack of overtly racist pronouncements, many of them (including Peterson) have been labelled the “alt-lite”. They may not be Tikki Torch-wielding white nationalists from Charlottesville but you’ll find many ideas that at best can be described as “hate enabling”, such as spouting contested ideas on IQ differences among race and gender, stringently denying concepts like white privilege, and condemning left-wing activism like Black Live Matters and the #MeToo movement while being remarkably complacent about the activities of the radical right. These views are not unique to the alt-lite or the intellectual dark web but have been spreading even among more respected intellectuals such as the New Atheists and New Optimists (notably Steven Pinker), many of which share an overlapping fandom and can be seen in many of the same online outlets  such as the Rubin Report (arguably the headquarters of the intellectual dark web and the alt-lite), as well as the widely followed Joe Rogan and Sam Harris’ podcasts. Snippets of their media appearances are everywhere on YouTube, usually given provocative click-bait titles like “Jordan Peterson DESTROYS progressive interviewer on gender pay gap” and which in reality are far from the knockout blows their titles claim to be once you actually watch them. Continue reading

How to filter bad beliefs

A six step guide to weeding out truth from nonsense

A few posts back I made the case that beliefs don’t matter as much as the process in which you acquire them. This is not a problematic conclusion to anyone with any semblance of common sense, the logic being that even if your beliefs prove to be wrong, you will have been wrong for all the right reasons and also that in the long run, you are likely to have more beliefs proved right than in the case you adopt them arbitrarily. But just how do we go about choosing our beliefs? Is there a set of principles that we can use to weed out the good beliefs from the bad ones?

I believe there is. Read on to find out:

Step 1: Can your belief pass the Truth Demon test?

One of my favorite pieces of philosophical wisdom in recent months has been this article by Keith Frankish which describes the Truth Demon, a very simple thought experiment that everyone can use to test just how strongly you are committed to a belief. In summary and in slight variation to the original, imagine there is a Truth Demon that will torture you for eternity if the certain belief in question is wrong. Take god, for example. If you had to bet your soul’s eternal torment on whether god exists, I suspect that not only atheists but a large share of believers would bet against his existence. Why? Because there’s no real negative payoff in believing in god in real life. Pascal’s Wager even argues that this is a logical, rational choice. However, imagine if we modified the decision matrix to assume an infinite loss if you believed in him wrongly. Suddenly you need to be really, really convinced. The Truth Demon fits in neatly to what mathematician Nassim Taleb calls the “silent risk” of not taking payoff into account. Continue reading

Why libertarians are wrong about seatbelts (and pretty much everything else)

Nanny state laws don’t just protect the victim but everyone else too

I have made it clear in previous writings that I find libertarianism to be possibly the most morally repugnant economic ideology, and also a particularly dystopian one if put into practice. My most obvious objection to it is that is presents only axiomatic evidence to vilify the actions of the state. Under pure libertarianism, aside from the enforcement of private property and possibly national defense (the “nightwatchman state”), the state has no role to play in society. More so, forcible methods of financing for said state, namely taxation, is viewed as “theft” or even as Robert Nozick argued, as forced labor. Despite this, there is a role for the state in enforcing legislation, but this too is vastly limited in scope. Nanny state laws that impede personal freedom are seen as unnecessary and morally unjust, even if they seek to prevent undesirable outcomes. The best example is the libertarian aversion to something most people would take for granted: laws that force people to wear seatbelts.

Under libertarian logic, seatbelt laws are immoral because they take away the right of a person to decide out of their own free will whether they wish to risk death on the road. This risk is hardly questionable: motorists who don’t wear seatbelts are more than twice as likely to die in a road accident than those who wear them. It seems almost common sense that a) if you’re a motorist you should wear a seatbelt and b) the state would do good in ensuring that even the people irresponsible enough not to wear a seatbelt will not risk their own death in doing so. Libertarians will have none of that, arguing in the primacy of individual freedom over anything else. There is a slippery slope logical fallacy employed here; the argument is not so much that such a law is bad per se, but that any state that is capable of creating and enforcing such a law can create and enforce more and more severe laws that encroach on freedom. Today it is seatbelts, the next logical and inevitable step is turning into Stalinist Russia*. Continue reading

How Facebook and LinkedIn make you stupid (in completely different ways)

Encouraging bad behavior or monotony of thought

If any technology has fallen from grace in the past few years, it is social media. Gone are the days in which Facebook and Twitter were praised for their ability to coordinate mass popular movements such as those which fueled the Arab Spring of 2011. Today’s views of social media are broadly hostile to its contributions to democracy, not least by how the deluge of fake news and political vitriol have poisoned reasoned debate. If you’ve ever debated online with a Trump supporter, or a Brexiteer, you probably know what I mean. But the left (particularly young progressives) has done no service to itself by adopting the same angry, intolerant rhetoric, perhaps more worryingly, even against its own kind.

However, not all social media is the same. Recently, I read a comment about how fake news is practically non-existent on LinkedIn, the professional networking site. This raises some interesting questions on what it is about Facebook that makes it so uniquely prone to be subverted by vitriol. However, LinkedIn is not free of its own original sin.

Facebook and our second life

The key point to consider about social interaction on Facebook is the low, in some cases no-existent, negative payoff of bad behavior. By bad behavior I will consider the three main ones that are prevalent on that site (in no particular order of severity): 1) fake news, 2) extremist opinions (mainly racism and misogyny), and 3) hostile discourse. None of these three are present in “real life” interaction, at least in civilized environments, to the degree that they are found in social media and there’s two main reasons for that. The first is payoff. There is a lot of discourse on social media whose content or tone would be met with a punch in the face in real life. If not a punch, at least some other form of visible disapproval that could cause embarrassment or a reputational hit, such as walking out on a dinner conversation, a formal complaint to superiors, etc. People on social media suffer very few consequences for the material that they post or share but in turn, gain considerably from the approval of like-minded individuals which are easier to come across in the global society that the internet creates. Facebook almost makes stupidity a rational choice. Continue reading

Steven Pinker’s dangerous optimism

How to defend the status quo by giving humanity props it doesn’t deserve

Are we high on humanity? Despite the pessimism over the return of right-wing populism, religious fundamentalism, gun violence, and stagnating prosperity in the West, two recent events can give us hope that some degree of optimism about the destiny of our species is not entirely unwarranted. For starters, we recently accomplished the singular feat of sending a car to space, orbiting permanently (and pointlessly) around the globe in order to remind us of the supreme narcissism of its previous, earthly owner Elon Musk. The other, is the publication of Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, a quasi-sequel to his bestselling The Better Angels of Our Nature. Both books follow the same basic plot line: humanity has never had it so good. By every measurable standard of progress, we are leaps and bounds better than any generation before us. Stop complaining.

If optimism is a religion, the Canadian-born Pinker is its high priest. The religious analogy is not unfounded: Pinker defends his thesis with a zeal that is uncommon outside of theistic circles, admonishing his critics and presenting absurd arguments even in topics where he has little or no academic authority. In a recent article in Popular Science, he argues that we should not fear AI being smarter than humans any more than we had to fear airplanes being faster than eagles because “someday they will swoop out of the sky and seize our cattle”. For someone defending the use of reason, an argument like that almost begs ridicule. Sadly, his perennial defense of human progress comes with an unfortunate by-product: it becomes a thinly disguised support of the economic and political status quo. If this makes you uneasy, just remember how much wealthier and healthier you are compared to your great-great-great-grandfather.

End of story, so it goes. Continue reading