I don't really disagree but let me say this: I spent like 30 years on the theory that if folks made good, rational decisions my ideas would work and if they made bad ones it was on them. It has never, ever, produced good results for anyone. Some acknowledgement of the machinations of Moloch need to be made for any large social problem and at this point I'd consider "people believing false things because they don't like the people who believe the true things" to be a large social problem.

Expand full comment

Great post.

One of the things that I've noticed when digging into a few conspiracy theories is that they "rhyme", semantically. They all seem to use the same tricks:

- "you can trust me, why would I lie to you?"

- "this expert was wrong in this one particular place, so nothing she says can be trusted"

- "I have a single interesting argument backed by facts, so you should believe everything else I say"

- "if you accept the conventional wisdom, you're a sheep. You don't want to be a sheep, do you?"

- "Here's a fact. Allow me to extrapolate from that fact to the nth degree"

If I were emperor, I would explore the idea of having students earning advanced degrees have to demonstrate their critical thinking skills by debunking a conspiracy theory. Not because the theory needs debunking, necessarily, but because the process of dissecting those arguments will set that student up to recognize the "rhyme and meter" of other conspiracy theories

Expand full comment

It feels like this post might not have digested David Deutsch's The Beginning of Infinity or at least it's Popperian sections sufficiently.... It's as if there is an assumption that we can do better than dialogue and critique . Deutsch would disagree and it's hard to argue with him once the case is laid out

I have a friend who holds several conspiracy theories and he always asks for certainty from the positions that oppose him, and believes he has exposed them when they can't provide it. So he believes the moon landings were faked and just because the scenes could have been filmed in a studio seems to him proof that they were. Isn't the beginning of rationality an agreement to accept the same standards of evidence on both sides of an argument?

Expand full comment

Well said. just to add: reading Scott's 25k words about Iv. was a lot of FUN, because: Scott, obviously. Interesting, too - maybe enlightening even, dunno. See, I have a Masters in FLT (German as a foreign language) and minors in History/Theology. And a patreon of "acoup". - None of that matters. As in: really matters, pays my bills or whatever*. But it tickles my brain. What else life is for? - 98% of Scott's "more-than-you-want-to-know"-readers are there for refined infotainment, I guess.

(*it gave me needed credentials. Early on I suspected FLT is no science. Nowadays I know on top of that: at college it is not even a craft.)

- Otoh: Scott should have ignored Kavanaugh, maybe. But then: epistemology, important kinda. -

Takeaway from covid: The biggest issue was never whether there were good/reasonable reasons to mask and to lockdown, but whether the downsides were given enough thought (and vice-versa). And the authorities for one aspect were usu. utterly ignorant about the others. Thus: No one was "expert" enough. Well, overall you became one of the best. (I just don't know the others)

Expand full comment

Just to clarify I'm not putting words in Deutsch's mouth. I'm saying that if one absorbed the essence of his book the original piece might have been conceived and framed differently. I will try to point out some of the more obvious sentences but the profound differences are in worldview or background assumptions more than specific points

Expand full comment

“If we tell young people to (almost) always trust the American [X] Association on X, and journalists about the news, dismiss anything that the authorities call a conspiracy theory, and never get any practice thinking for themselves on such matters, we deserve what we get.”

Yes, and the sad thing is, I think it (used to be, decades ago) more or less true that if you were not interested in / not able to look into complex topics yourself, you would more often than not get a good result by trusting the American X Association on X and journalists about the news. (Although occasionally things labeled conspiracy theories have turned out to be true. And it’s always been beneficial to use your brain and think for yourself when something doesn’t ring true.)

In general “trusting the experts” was a useful rule of thumb for the many, many things that we don’t have time to research for ourselves.

That is no longer true -- _really_ no longer true -- on many issues of importance (for instance when I hear such cheery reports on the results of EPA testing in East Palestine OH, I simply don’t believe it).

I don’t think it’s melodramatic to say this deserved loss of trust portends the unraveling of our society and culture.

If the only way you believe you can get accurate information is to look into every issue yourself -- well, ain’t nobody got time for that (not for everything that matters).

And so we end up being in a state of ignorance, knowing we’re in a state of ignorance (do I know anything about the air and water in East Palestine, Ohio? No) and unable to make good decisions. Perhaps the default decision becomes “freeze and do nothing,” because you don’t know whom to trust-- or perhaps you perceive “each ‘side’ has its own agenda and therefore none of them is to be trusted” -- and I believe that’s what happened to a lot of people with covid, especially in the US.

This yielded very bad results, if you measure US outcomes against the rest of the world’s.

I don’t know how or whether it’s possible to repair the damage. I doubt it is. We have a ruthless plundering profit-seeking class, and they will carry on until there’s nothing left to be gained. In the meantime, the truth of any matter be damned.

Expand full comment
Feb 20·edited Apr 10

A couple comments:

(1) First, do we all agree that the idea that Ivermectin might be effective against Covid is a CONSPIRACY THEORY? My impression from the Scott-Alexandros exchange was that it was a live scientific debate, but that Scott and most US medical experts think it's likely not to be significantly effective.

(2) Second, I'll offer myself as a test case reader.

(a) Scott waded into this area, conceded that there are a lot of studies indicating that Ivermectin might be effective, rejected many but not all of those studies, and then proposed a novel theory that Ivermectin shows effectiveness in the developing world because that population is more likely to also be infected with parasites.

(b) Then Alexandros made a bunch of very detailed criticisms of Scott's analysis, and Scott ultimately conceded that while he didn't agree with all of Alexandros's criticisms, he had unfairly dismissed some studies, and that the case for parasitic co-infection as an explanation for Ivermectin's results in developing world Covid studies is not accepted by at least one parasitic infection expert.

(c) As a result, I've updated to "Ivermectin is probably still not significantly effective against Covid, but the case for effectiveness is much stronger than I had been told." If we were still living in a pre-vaccine, pre-Paxlovid world, I'd probably stock up on Ivermectin just in case my family caught Covid, on the theory that it probably won't help, but that in appropriate doses, it's more likely to help than harm.

Now, if (c) is bad, then I guess Scott's interaction in this debate is bad. I'm not sure if it is or isn't.

It's probably my error, but by getting into more detail, and then conceding he was wrong on some important points, Scott raised my general assessment of his personal credibility, but also reduced my assessment that he's correct to discount Ivermectin in this specific case.

By contrast, when Zvi and Scott disagreed on the likely effectiveness of Vitamin D, my guesstimate was that Scott was closer to correct, in part specifically because he kept his argument at a simple, difficult to disprove level like "Vitamin D is often associated with positive health outcomes, but almost always disproved at the end."

Expand full comment

A pattern that's taken me many many years to recognize as toxic: putting down the other side instead of offering any attempt of argumentation. It sounds brutally obvious when put like this, but unfortunately even Zvi is doing it quite frequently. I tend to swallow it from Zvi because:

- he's more than compensating by offering good analysis in other instances

- he tends to be right

- time is a limited resource, and some of his posts would have to be twice as long to avoid this.

It's not a great thing, though. But imagine whole books written with nothing but sneer. They're out there, and it's a god damn annoyingly hard thing to recognize as wrong. I think it has something to do with our social brain - if the author manages to suggest that the people claiming X are inferior, you have a hard time accepting X may be correct and the author just full of shit. It would mean that you risk putting yourself in the same class as the inferior people, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, your brain will strongly resist thinking that.

Expand full comment

Every time somebody uses the term "conspiracy theory" as a despective term, they are wrong. Conspiracies do exist, and lately the "conspiracy theorists" have turned out more right than wrong. So all people who are hasty to label them are achieving is showing their own bias against certain kinds of truths.

The important question should always be "is this true?", not "is this a conspiracy theory?".

How do you demarcate a true conspiracy theory from a false conspiracy theory? I'll tell you how *not* to do it: trusting experts over your own judgement.

This is a completely coward heuristic. You can't say that argument from authority is a fallacy... except when the conclusion is true. You are supposed to first determine the validity of the argument in order to consider the truth of the conclusion, not use the likelihood of the conclusion to determine the validity of the argument.

I don't understand how "follow the rules of rationality... except when the conclusion is yucky" is supposed to be an intelligent guideline.

I explore how "skeptics" do not properly evaluate conspiracy theories in this substack article:


Expand full comment

An odd thing about communicating evidence, is that if I see a werewolf, who howls at the moon, flips me the bird, and scampers off into the woods, and I tell you about it, then the bayesian evidence that I have for P(werewolves exist) is seeing [what appears to be] a werewolf, hearing it howl at the moon, and watching it flip me the bird & scamper off into the woods, but the bayesian evidence you have for P(werewolves exist) is just "a guy told me a story about seeing a werewolf".

Afterwards, it would be rational for you to mainly update your posterior of P("dang, people say crazy things sometimes"), while for me it's now rational to buy silver & bullet molds.

Expand full comment

I was getting ready to cheer on this post until I saw that you reported on private conversations we had, and in which I engaged in the spirit of friendly conversation, in such a way as to smear me in a way I cannot defend other than by publishing said conversations. I am updating in the direction that when engaging with people of this "community" in the spirit of cooperation, I will continue to be defected upon until I learn my lesson.

A sad state of affairs that engaging in critique of an objectively error-riddled argument, and raising significant issues, gets me labeled a conspiracy theorist. And even the people who push back on the advice to free ride on humanity feel the obligation to reassert that I am a conspiracy theorist based on private conversation.

I don't know what happened to the rationality community I used to know, but sadly my conclusion is that engaging in private was an error.

Expand full comment

I was impressed with Chatgpts summary but would still recommend the book. Imo it's one of the most elegant essays on human knowledge and enquiry ever, on the level of Aristotle and Kant. It can help anyone think more clearly and theres a great deal to be gained by absorbing a great thinker in action...

Expand full comment

Kavanagh was gatekeeping in that smug way that drives even someone like me nuts.

Expand full comment

Hi Zvi,

Upon some thought, I am thinking of publishing the logs of our conversation relating to pfizer, vaccines, etc. I was able to get access to it, and I think it was a great conversation worth putting out in public. Do you have any objections? I would like to document what I said, why I said it, and let readers make up their own mind.

Expand full comment