Eric Weinstein: A Case Study in Denial

I watch for evidence that supports or contradicts Varki’s MORT theory.

With average citizens it’s hard to distinguish ignorance from denial. The only way to know for sure is to explain the facts and associated evidence about human overshoot to someone and then observe if they still deny our predicament and what needs to be done about it.

It’s much easier to detect denial in polymaths because almost always fossil energy driven overshoot is the only important topic they are completely blind to.

I’m therefore on the lookout for smart polymaths, especially those with physics degrees, because with a physics background it is impossible to be blind to energy overshoot without denial of reality being in play.

I recently discovered Eric Weinstein via an interview on the Joe Rogan podcast. Weinstein has a PhD in physics from Harvard and hosts a podcast called The Portal in which he discusses big picture problems facing society.

Weinstein has been quietly working for a couple decades on a theory to unite general relativity with quantum mechanics. There’s no consensus yet on whether he’s onto something promising, but he’s clearly a really smart guy, as this recent unveiling of his theory demonstrates.

I’ve listened to several of Weinstein’s Portal podcasts and he demonstrates an impressive command of many disciplines. This one is a good representative sample covering a wide range of topics:

Weinstein is thus the perfect polymath poster child for testing Varki’s MORT theory.

On the important issues facing our species, this is what I think Weinstein is saying:

  • Economic growth and scientific advancement slowed in the late 70’s which is a big problem, but he doesn’t know the cause. He thinks we should invest more in physics research, we should make higher education more effective, and we should encourage innovation. He’s apparently blind to the effect of rising energy costs. I wrote about our stagnation after the 70’s here.
  • Economic growth today is faked with debt which is a big problem that threatens democracy. He doesn’t know the cause and makes up crap like all the other pundits. He’s apparently blind to the relationships between energy, wealth, debt, and growth.
  • He thinks that we need to return to 3+% economic growth to avoid a zero sum game and the human violence this will unleash. He’s apparently blind to the implications of 3% exponential growth on a finite planet.
  • One of the new technologies he thinks has promise is radical lifetime extension in which people will live many more years before dying. He’s apparently blind to human overshoot and the need to get our population down quickly.
  • He thinks non-carbon energy is a feasible solution to climate change, and is thus just as wrong as all the other famous polymaths.

In summary, Weinstein understands everything except what matters. Given his impressive intelligence and education this is impossible without strong reality denial.

I’ve added Weinstein to my list of famous polymaths in denial.

Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes by Daniel Everett

I just finished the book Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle by Daniel L. Everett. Thank you to Perran for recommending it.

A riveting account of the astonishing experiences and discoveries made by linguist Daniel Everett while he lived with the Pirahã, a small tribe of Amazonian Indians in central Brazil.

Everett, then a Christian missionary, arrived among the Pirahã in 1977–with his wife and three young children–intending to convert them. What he found was a language that defies all existing linguistic theories and reflects a way of life that evades contemporary understanding: The Pirahã have no counting system and no fixed terms for color. They have no concept of war or of personal property. They live entirely in the present. Everett became obsessed with their language and its cultural and linguistic implications, and with the remarkable contentment with which they live–so much so that he eventually lost his faith in the God he’d hoped to introduce to them.

Over three decades, Everett spent a total of seven years among the Pirahã, and his account of this lasting sojourn is an engrossing exploration of language that questions modern linguistic theory. It is also an anthropological investigation, an adventure story, and a riveting memoir of a life profoundly affected by exposure to a different culture. Written with extraordinary acuity, sensitivity, and openness, it is fascinating from first to last, rich with unparalleled insight into the nature of language, thought, and life itself.

I read the book hoping to find some evidence either supporting or contradicting Ajit Varki’s MORT theory. It was an enjoyable and very interesting read. The author is smart, articulate, and an engaging expert on languages and anthropology.

Everett describes in detail the Pirahã (pronounced Pita-hah) which is (was?) a rare tribe whose culture has (had?) not yet been significantly modified or subsumed by contact with modern industrial civilization.

The Pirahã are unusual in that they have no origin myths or well defined religion, although they do believe in spirits, but Everett was very vague on how these spirits influence their culture. The Pirahã have no interest in, and resist conversion to, other religions like Christianity.

I was most interested to learn whether the Pirahã believe in life after death because this is central to Varki’s MORT theory. I found it very odd that the author, a former Christian missionary, would discuss almost everything about their culture except their belief, or lack thereof, in life after death. Everett did say the Pirahã bury their dead with the few valuable items they own, which to me suggests they do believe in life after death, otherwise why not keep the wealth for the living?

I found it difficult to identify Pirahã behaviors that suggested they do or do not deny unpleasant realities. Perhaps this is a side effect of them living in the moment and therefore having many fewer unpleasant things to deny.

In summary then, with respect to support for or against Varki’s MORT theory, I’d say there was evidence for denial of death, but not much else.

The book offered, as a pleasant surprise, some genuine inspiration on how to lead a happier and more sustainable life.

The behavior of the Pirahã suggests that the Maximum Power Principle (MPP) may not be a primary driver in all human cultures, as I had previously assumed. The Pirahã work hard to acquire enough resources to survive, and will fight to protect those resources if necessary, but do not acquire nor desire more resources than required to survive.

The Pirahã live in and enjoy the moment. They do not obsess about bad events in the past. They do not worry about the future. They forgive quickly. They laugh, tell stories, and dance. They are proud of their way of life. Everyone is expected and does contribute to the tribe, unless they are physically unable, in which case the tribe looks after them.

I very much like stories with happy endings and this book delivered. Everett began his work as a devout missionary trying to convert the Pirahã to Christianity. Over time his scientific training that required evidence based reasoning, and the obvious fact that the Pirahã led happy fulfilling lives without Jesus, caused Everett to abandon Christianity and become an atheist. Hallelujah!

I wish the Pirahã would turn the table and send out missionaries to convert the 8 billion lost souls that need salvation.

P.S. Everett did a nice take-down of Noam Chomsky’s linguistic theories, which I enjoyed, because Chomsky irritates me as yet another famous polymath who knows a lot about everything, except what matters.

P.P.S I’ve started another book by Daniel Everett, How Language Began: The Story of Humanity’s Greatest Invention.

P.P.P.S. Here are a few videos of Everett talking about the Pirahã.

Biased Cognitive Biases

Cognitive Bias Codex

Thanks to Apneaman for bringing this image to my attention, it’s very interesting.

This info-graphic was constructed from a list of cognitive biases assembled by a team of experts collaborating via Wikipedia over a 15 year period.

A cognitive bias is defined as:

A cognitive bias is a systematic pattern of deviation from norm or rationality in judgment. Individuals create their own “subjective reality” from their perception of the input. An individual’s construction of reality, not the objective input, may dictate their behavior in the world. Thus, cognitive biases may sometimes lead to perceptual distortion, inaccurate judgment, illogical interpretation, or what is broadly called irrationality.

Some cognitive biases are presumably adaptive. Cognitive biases may lead to more effective actions in a given context. Furthermore, allowing cognitive biases enables faster decisions which can be desirable when timeliness is more valuable than accuracy, as illustrated in heuristics. Other cognitive biases are a “by-product” of human processing limitations, resulting from a lack of appropriate mental mechanisms (bounded rationality), impact of individual’s constitution and biological state (see embodied cognition), or simply from a limited capacity for information processing.

A continually evolving list of cognitive biases has been identified over the last six decades of research on human judgment and decision-making in cognitive science, social psychology, and behavioral economics.

I counted them. There are 195 distinct cognitive biases named and described in the list.

Have a look. Do you notice something very odd?

The most important and powerful of all human cognitive biases, and the one that created our unique species, is not on the list: denial of unpleasant realities.

Nor is its progenitor, denial of death.

Any half-wit who studies human history will notice that the first wacky thing our species did after evolving into behaviorally modern humans was make up stories (religions) to deny death.

Today our species aggressively denies every single unpleasant reality of substance that threatens its survival including: over-population, non-renewable resource depletion, climate change, pollution, habitat destruction, and species extinction.

So here’s the question…

How is it possible that a group of experts over 15 years can assemble a list of 195 cognitive biases and completely miss the most important one?

The only explanation big enough and powerful enough to explain this gobsmacking dumbfuckery is denial of denial.

WASF

Sabine Hossenfelder’s Lost in Math

Sabine Hossenfelder - Lost in Math

I just finished Sabine Hossenfelder‘s book Lost in Math.

Whether pondering black holes or predicting discoveries at CERN, physicists believe the best theories are beautiful, natural, and elegant, and this standard separates popular theories from disposable ones. This is why, Sabine Hossenfelder argues, we have not seen a major breakthrough in the foundations of physics for more than four decades.

The belief in beauty has become so dogmatic that it now conflicts with scientific objectivity: observation has been unable to confirm mindboggling theories, like supersymmetry or grand unification, invented by physicists based on aesthetic criteria. Worse, these “too good to not be true” theories are actually untestable and they have left the field in a cul-de-sac. To escape, physicists must rethink their methods. Only by embracing reality as it is can science discover the truth.

My review is brief but accurate:

  • Brilliant.
  • Lucid.
  • Brave.
  • Not in denial.
  • Rare.

Most of the physics Hossenfelder discussed was over my head but it makes me happy to be reminded of what the brain of our species is capable of achieving.

I also very much enjoyed watching a great intellect take down other great intellects that are denying reality.

I’m pretty sure Hossenfelder’s a denial mutant. I wish she would read and discuss Varki’s MORT theory.

I will read her book again soon.

Hossenfelder blogs here, and makes physics videos here.

Here is a must watch 7 minute synopsis of the book by the author.

 

Her most recent video took down Trump using quantum mechanics.

 

Hossenfelder also makes music videos here and here. These are a couple of my favorites.

 

 

Yuval Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (revisited)

Harari Sapiens

I first reviewed Harari’s book 5 years ago here.

After watching this book sit near the top of popular book lists for several years I thought I should re-read it to see if I missed something. I posted the following refreshed review on Goodreads.

Another fine example of Panglossian cognitive dissonance in the tradition of Pinker’s Enlightenment Now and Ridley’s Rational Optimist.

Harari gets everything right except what matters: human overshoot and the total dependence of everything he admires about humans on rapidly depleting non-renewable resources.

Harari does seem to get the fact we’re trashing other species and the planet but then leaves that thought unfinished and shifts to an abundant future with genetically engineered humans and artificial intelligence.

By pandering to and reinforcing the human tendency to deny unpleasant realities it’s no wonder his book is popular.

Despite being very well read he’s just another idiot monkey in denial.

By Nate Hagens: Earth Day 2020 – The State of the Species

Every year Nate Hagens gives a talk on Earth Day. I missed the announcement of his talk a month ago, perhaps because I killed my social media accounts, but better late than never.

Nate’s presentation as usual is excellent, and this year he provides thoughts on how the virus may influence our overshoot predicament.

Here are a few of Nate’s predictions and ideas I thought were noteworthy:

  • The virus gave our economy a heart attack, although it was already sick.
  • The Great Simplification has begun: a GDP decline of 12-20% is likely this year.
  • Global peak oil was, with no uncertainty, October 2018.
  • Diesel availability is at risk because of surplus gasoline (my note: big problem because diesel powers everything we need to survive: tractors, combines, trucks, trains, and ships).
  • The financial system has been nationalized: central banks are now both the lender AND buyer of last resort.
  • Global debt/GDP, which was before the virus already unsustainable at 350%, will now rocket to 450+%, which sets us up for another more acute crisis in the not too distant future.
  • Poverty will increase in all countries.
  • Renewable energy is in trouble.
  • 25+% of higher education institutions will go bankrupt.
  • The experts don’t have answers: they do not understand energy or how our system works.
  • We need humans to have better bullshit filters: if we don’t use science to help us going forward we have no hope.
  • We should nationalize the oil industry and drain America last.

Nate concludes with many constructive and positive ideas on how we might respond to our predicament.

Unfortunately Nate did not mention the most important response needed: rapid population reduction. Yes I know that reality denial and the Maximum Power Principle, which govern our behavior, make voluntary population reduction highly improbable, but so do they make improbable all of Nate’s suggestions.

I’m thinking that since it’s unlikely we’ll do anything except react to crises as they unfold we might as well focus on the one and only action that would improve everything: population reduction. It simplifies the conversation, and makes it (theoretically) effective. Much better than talking about many things that we also probably won’t do, but even if we did wouldn’t address the core issue: overshoot.

Imagine this political platform: “We only need to do one thing, and there’s only one thing we need to do, don’t have children unless you win the lottery, so there can be future generations.”

You can find other excellent work by Nate that I’ve posted in the past here.

Gail Tverberg on what to expect…

Hope for the Best, Plan for the Worst

Gail Tverberg is one of my favorite thinkers and has been writing about our overshoot predicament for years. In today’s essay she makes the most specific predictions I’ve seen on the probable outcomes of the economic deceleration caused by the Wuhan virus.

I suspect most of her predictions will happen, but I’m not confident on the timeline. It’s possible money printing will buy us a few more years, or maybe not.

I think we should hope for the best, and plan for the worst.

Regardless, time is running out to make preparations.

https://ourfiniteworld.com/2020/04/21/covid-19-and-oil-at-1-is-there-a-way-forward/

Here are a few excerpts from her full essay.

COVID-19 and oil at $1: Is there a way forward?

Our basic problem is a finite world problem. World population has outgrown its resource base.

In this post, I suggest the possibility that some core parts of the world economy might temporarily be saved if they can be made to operate fairly independently of each other.

The COVID-19 actions taken to date, together with the poor condition the economy was in previously, lead me to believe that the world economy is headed for a major reset.

A reset world economy will likely end up with “pieces” of today’s economy surviving, but within a very different framework.

There are clearly parts of the world economy that are not working:

  • The financial system is way too large. There is too much debt, and asset prices are inflated based on very low interest rates.
  • World population is way too high, relative to resources.
  • Wage and wealth disparity is too great.
  • Too much of income is going to the financial system, healthcare, education, entertainment, and travel.
  • All of the connectivity of today’s world is leading to epidemics of many kinds traveling around the world.

Even with these problems, there may still be some core parts of the world economy that perhaps can be made to work. Each would have a smaller population than today. They would function much more independently than today, like mostly separate economic pumps. The nature of these economies will be different in different parts of the world.

In a less connected world, what we think of today as assets will likely have much less value. High rise buildings will be worth next to nothing, for example, because of their ability to transfer pathogens around. Public transportation will lose value for the same reason. Manufacturing that depends upon supply lines around the world will no longer work either. This means that manufacturing of computers, phones and today’s cars will likely no longer be possible. Products built locally will need to depend almost exclusively on local resources.

Pretty much everything that is debt today can be expected to default. Shares of stock will have little value. To try to save parts of the system, governments will need to take over assets that seem to have value such as farm land, mines, oil and gas wells, and electricity transmission lines. They will also likely need to take over banks, insurance companies and pension plans.

If oil products are available, governments may also need to make certain that farms, trucking companies and other essential users are able to get the fuel they need so that people can be fed. Water and sanitation are other systems that may need assistance so that they can continue to operate.

I expect that eventually, each separate economy will have its own currency. In nearly all cases, the currency will not be the same as today’s currency. The currency will be paid only to current workers in the economy, and it will only be usable for purchasing a limited range of goods made by the local economy.

These are a few of my ideas regarding what might be ahead:

(a) There will be a shake-out of governmental organizations and intergovernmental organizations. Most intergovernmental organizations, such as the United Nations and European Union, will disappear. Many governments of countries may disappear, as well. Some may be overthrown. Others may collapse, in a manner similar to the collapse of the central government of the Soviet Union in 1991. Governmental organizations take energy; if energy is scarce, they are dispensable.

(b) Some countries seem to have a sufficient range of resources that at least the core portion of them may be able to go forward, for a while, in a fairly modern state:

  • United States
  • Canada
  • Russia
  • China
  • Iran

Big cities will likely become problematic in each of these locations, and populations will fall. Alaska and other very cold places may not be able to continue as part of the core, either.

(c) Countries, or even smaller units, will want to continue to limit trade and travel to other areas, for fear of contracting illnesses.

(d) Europe, especially, looks ripe for a big step back. Its fossil fuel resources tend to be depleted. There may be parts that can continue with the use of animal labor, if such animal labor can be found. Big protests and failing debt are likely by this summer in some areas, including Italy.

(e) Governments of the Middle Eastern countries and of Venezuela cannot continue long with very low oil prices. These countries are likely to see their governments overthrown, with a concurrent reduction in exports. Population will also fall, perhaps to the level before oil exploration.

(f) The making of physical goods will experience a major setback, starting immediately. Many supply chains are already broken. Medicines made in India and China are likely to start disappearing. Automobile manufacturing will depend on individual countries setting up their own manufacturing supply chains if the making of automobiles is to continue.

(g) The medical system will suffer a major setback from COVID-19 because no one will want to come to see their regular physician any more, for fear of catching the disease. Education will likely become primarily the responsibility of families, with television or the internet perhaps providing some support. Universities will wither away. Music may continue, but drama (on television or elsewhere) will tend to disappear. Restaurants will never regain their popularity.

(h) It is possible that Quantitative Easing by many countries can temporarily prop up the prices of shares of stock and homes for several months, but eventually physical shortages of many goods can be expected. Food in particular is likely to be in short supply by spring a year from now. India and Africa may start seeing starvation much sooner, perhaps within weeks.

(i) History shows that when energy resources are not growing rapidly (see discussion of Figure 3), there tend to be wars and other conflicts. We should not be surprised if this happens again.

Conclusion

We seem to be reaching the limit of making our current global economic system work any longer. The only hope of partial salvation would seem to be if core parts of the world economy can be made to work in a more separate fashion for at least a few more years. In fact, oil and other fossil fuel production may continue, but for each country’s own use, with very limited trade.

There are likely to be big differences among economies around the world. For example, hunter-gathering may work for a few people, with the right skills, in some parts of the world. At the same time, more modern economies may exist elsewhere.

The new economy will have far fewer people and far less complexity. Each country can be expected to have its own currency, but this currency will likely be used only on a limited range of locally produced goods. Speculation in asset prices will no longer be a source of wealth.

It will be a very different world!

Providing Alcohol to an Alcoholic

Symptoms of a High Functioning Alcoholic

OPEC backs biggest oil cut since 2008 crisis

OPEC agreed on Thursday to cut oil output by an extra 1.5 million barrels per day (bpd) in the second quarter of 2020 to support prices that have been hit by the coronavirus outbreak, but made its action conditional on Russia and others joining in.

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-opec-meeting/opec-backs-biggest-oil-cut-since-2008-crisis-awaits-russia-idUSKBN20S0TT

Notice that this and pretty much every other news report you read never explains the thermodynamic implications of what they report, because they are ignorant of, and/or deny, the relationships between wealth creation, credit availability, and fossil energy consumption.

Oil producers today cut production by about 1.5%.

Why? Because demand for oil is falling and the world has limited storage capacity. Oil must be burned at about the same rate it is produced. If they don’t curtail production prices will fall below the cost of production and everyone will lose money, except of course shale oil producers who have always lost money.

Why is oil demand falling? Because the oil powered machines that produce and deliver almost all of the things we use and eat are slowing down, which means economic growth is slowing or possibly declining.

What happens if economic growth stops or declines? Our banking system becomes fragile because the design of our debt backed fractional reserve monetary system requires growth to function.

Put more simply, money and debt retain value, and credit remains plentiful, only in the presence of economic growth.

Why are credit and debt important? Because our standard of living depends on them. For example, today you can save 5% of the price of a house, get credit for 95% in the form of a mortgage, and immediately enjoy 100% of the house. Your mortgage, in turn, funds someone else’s retirement portfolio. Without plentiful credit, most people will not enjoy their own home, or car, or iPhone, and most people will not be able to retire.

I explained the importance of growth and why we can’t have it forever in more detail here.

How have our leaders responded? Canada announced an emergency interest rate cut yesterday in the hope of stimulating economic growth. Our prime minister is planning to spend more printed money to stimulate growth.

Will it work? Does providing alcohol to an alcoholic work? Yes, for a while, unless he’s already too drunk, but doing so makes his bottom more painful.

How do you know when an alcoholic is too drunk? You offer him free liquor and he does not drink.

How do you know when an alcoholic has not yet bottomed out? He kills his hangover the next day with a drink.

How do you know when it’s too late to save an alcoholic? He dies from an overdose.

How do you know when an alcoholic is clean? He decides to promote and vote for a birth lottery.

<Edit Mar 8>

I’m going to go out on a limb and say the correction has begun that those of us with defective denial genes have anticipated since the rocket scientists that lead us “fixed” the too much debt crisis in 2008 with more debt. They’ll try again this time but I suspect the alcoholic is too drunk to drink. I don’t know if the drunk will respond if they try extreme measures like intravenous white lightning. Assuming he doesn’t, my guess is 20-50% of paper wealth will vaporize in this step down. There are more steps to follow in coming years until the alcoholic bottoms out when his preferred drink, oil, is gone. There’d be much less pain for all if he’d sober up now.

Denial is Proportional to the Unpleasantness of the Reality

screaming girl with tightly shut eyes

More evidence that intelligence and education do not reduce reality denial, and that the strength of denial is proportional to the unpleasantness of the reality, as Varki’s Mind Over Reality Transition theory predicts.

Two hundred scientists were recently surveyed on their perceptions of global risks.

https://futureearth.org/initiatives/other-initiatives/grp/the-report/

Top risks by likelihood:
1. Extreme weather
2. Biodiversity loss
3. Water crises
4. Climate change
5. Urban planning
6. Man-made disasters
7. Involuntary migration
8. Food crises
9. Asset bubbles
10. Illicit trade

Top risks by impact:
1. Extreme weather
2. Climate change
3. Water crises
4. Biodiversity loss
5. Food crises
6. Man-made disasters
7. Urban planning
8. Natural disasters
9. Involuntary migration
10. Interstate conflict

Notice that depletion of affordable fossil energy does not make their list.

Notice also that fossil energy scarcity will worsen every single one of the risks they are worried about, except maybe climate change, and a good argument can be made that oil scarcity will in fact worsen climate change because we will probably burn anything and everything to survive.

Notice also that all actions (except rapid population reduction) to mitigate any of the risks the scientists are worried about requires surplus wealth that only abundant affordable fossil energy can generate.

Notice also that depletion of affordable fossil energy is a problem today for every country in the world, not a vague future risk, nor a risk for future generations, nor a risk that effects only a subset of less fortunate countries. Affordable fossil energy depletion is at the core of global social unrest caused by growing wealth inequality and falling standards of living, unsustainable runaway government debt that threatens monetary stability, and a dangerous asset bubble that threatens a collapse rather than a decline.

Notice also that fossil energy depletion (and climate change) is the only risk that we can’t do anything about, except make do with less, and rapidly reduce our population.

Notice also that most scientists believe we can keep our lifestyles and reduce the threat of their top risk, climate change, by switching from fossil energy to renewable energy, which is a thermodynamic impossibility.

Notice also that fossil energy depletion is the only risk that has 100% certainty.

The only reality more certain and more unpleasant than fossil energy depletion is our mortality, which I’ve previously discussed.

That’s why fossil energy depletion is not on the risk list of our best and brightest.

The strength and ubiquity of human reality denial is amazing!

h/t Alex Smith @ Radio Ecoshock

P.S.  This talk by engineer Jean-Marc Jancovici, which I posted a couple years ago here, is one of the best explanations of why everything I said above about the depletion of affordable fossil energy is true. In 90 minutes Jancovici demolishes pretty much everything the idiot professions of economics and central banking believe.