The fleas in Yuval Noah Harari’s ‘Sapiens’

Many scholars know that Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind is full of errors and inaccuracies, but from time to time I stumble upon smart people – academics, researchers, public intellectuals – praising the book. They should read some reviews first.

Actually, one may be enough. Charles C. Mann did a great job exposing some of the problems in the book in 2015, for the Wall Street Journal.

Nobody can be an expert about everything, and it’s not exactly surprising that Mr. Harari’s sweeping summations are studded with errors—there are always fleas on the lion, as a teacher of mine once told me. The question is whether there is a lion under the fleas. “Sapiens” is learned, thought-provoking and crisply written. It has plenty of confidence and swagger. But some of its fleas are awfully big.

[…]

There’s a whiff of dorm-room bull sessions about the author’s stimulating but often unsourced assertions. Or perhaps I should use a more contemporary simile: “Sapiens” reminded me occasionally of a discussions on Reddit, where users sound off about supposed iron laws of history. This book is what these Reddit threads would be like if they were written not by adolescent autodidacts but by learned academics with impish senses of humor. As I write, my daughter is glumly making flashcards full of names and dates for an AP Euro exam. I bet she wishes she had a textbook like “Sapiens.” Me? I’m not so sure. I like the book’s verve and pop but wish it didn’t have all those fleas.

His examples are great.

There is more here, from Max Roser (Twitter, Our World in Data):

A good example how ‘Sapiens’ works.

Harari makes his readers believe that a 20-year life expectancy for 45-year-olds means that foragers enjoyed good health.

In fact that suggests worse health than England in 1850 (when health there was by any standard absolutely miserable).

And:

Some popular books suggest that hunter-gatherers were healthy.

This historical study finds that 49% of children in the studied hunter-gatherer societies died during childhood:
https://sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1090513812001237

Is there competing evidence that suggests that the popular books are right?

Paul Graham:

The idea that hunter-gatherers lived wonderful lives and that we got cheated when we switched to agriculture is one of the dumbest ideas believed by smart people. I opened Sapiens, saw that, and immediately put it down.

Branko Milanovic on the boring lives of social scientists

In 2019, on his blog:

Recently I read, rather by accident than design, short lives of several contemporary economists. What struck me was their bareness. The lives sounded like CVs. Actually, there was hardly any difference between their CVs and their lives (to the extent that I could tell).

[…]

Can you have a boring life and be a first-rate social scientist? To some extent, probably yes. […] But I think it is unlikely: because it in human nature, however smart we may be, to understand certain things or to look at different and new aspects of an issue, only when we face the problem ourselves.

[…]

Orderly and boring lives are a privilege of rich and orderly societies. We all (perhaps except when we are 25) wish to lead such lives. But they are also very limited lives: the range of emotions and choices that we experience is narrow.

[…]

But if our life is a CV, can we understand human choices and human nature—a precondition for being a great social scientist? By asking that question, are we not asking whether well-behaved individuals in orderly and rich societies can really produce breakthroughs in social sciences. Or will their lessons remain circumscribed to orderly and rich societies only and to orderly and boring people, and not carry over to the rest of the world?

Slate Star Codex and the ‘New York Times’

Back in February, the New York Times published a story about Scott Alexander (Slate Star Codex). This generated some interesting comments, and my plan was to read all – or at least most – of them and publish some bits here. Unfortunately (or not – it probably wouldn’t be a good use of my time), things happened, and I didn’t have time to do so. Nonetheless, I’m posting a few quotes from three articles here.

Matthew Yglesias, “In defense of interesting writing on controversial topics” (Slow Boring):

But in progressive circles, it is common to observe the norm that because the struggle against racism and misogyny is important, it is impolite to dissent from an anti-racist claim or argument unless you have some overwhelmingly important reason for doing so.

[…]

In the (liberal, coastal, urban, very political) circles that I travel, everyone (especially parents) knows and acknowledges that men and women are, on average, different in ways that end up mattering for the distribution of outcomes. But everyone also believes that sexism and misogyny are significant problems in the world, and that the people struggling against those problems are worthy of admiration and praise. So to leap into a conversation about sexism and misogyny yelling “WELL ACTUALLY GIOLLA AND KAJONIUS FIND THAT SEX DIFFERENCES IN PERSONALITY ARE LARGER IN COUNTRIES WITH MORE GENDER EQUALITY” would be considered a rude and undermining thing to do. This is just to say that most people are not rationalists — they believe that statements can be evaluated on grounds beyond truth and falsity. There is suspicion of the guy who is “just asking questions.”

[…]

The pure vision of the rationalists and the belief that statements could or should be read devoid of context or purely literally strikes me as untenable. But I think that in the Trump era, journalism as a whole has tilted too far in Lowrey’s direction, with too much room-reading and groupthink and not enough appreciation of the value of annoying people with inconvenient observations.

[…]

I think contemporary society is willing itself into a state of incredible stupidity by wanting to evaluate the worthwhileness of reading something purely on the basis of whether or not it’s correct.

[…]

But even more so, social media incentivizes the wrong kind of reading. Today you read someone from a rival school of thought in order to find the paragraph or sentence that, when pulled out of context and paired with a witty Twitter quip, will garner you lots of little hearts.

[…]

That said, the way you learn things and get smarter is to read strong writers and try to understand what they’re saying — not by trying to pick it apart for clout or finding ways to caricature and snark about it. Instead, try to understand what it is the writer is saying and why people believe that.

Will Wilkinson, “Grey Lady Steel Man” (Model Citizen):

The level of contempt for the New York Times is unwarranted, ideological, and totally out of control. Yeah, the place has plenty of problems. It’s a massive bureaucratic institution that is, thanks to its incredible reach and the nature of its mission, inevitably at the center of the national and global conversation about issues that people are literally killing each other over. (That’s often the story!) It gathers and publishes an epic amount of information at a furious pace in a way that requires thousands of thorny judgment calls every single day. So yeah, it’s gonna fuck up. Because it is massively influential, people are going to be pissed off by those fuck-ups — all the time.

This can lead to a radically distorted picture, since the astonishing amount of stellar, expert reportorial and editorial judgment embodied in each and every edition is completely invisible. The New York Times (and the Post and the Journal) nails difficult judgment calls like Stephon Curry nails threes. But just imagine if ESPN only ever showed clips of the superhuman, laser-guided mayor of downtown shooting airballs and clanking it off the side of the backboard. It happens! Well, that’s what’s going on here. So I’m going to pound the table and insist, once again, that the New York Times ranks among our best and most valuable institutions devoted to the rapid discovery and dissemination of relevant and/or interesting truths about the human world — news.

Believe it or not (but you should believe it), the culture of the Times (and similar outfits) is profoundly committed to objectivity, verifiable fact and unbiased reporting. (When I write fact-heavy opinion pieces for the Times, they get fact-checked, which is not pretty rare.) Does it suffer from bias? Of course it does! It is produced by humans. Is it hampered by a lack of viewpoint diversity? Of course it is! Sorting and self-selection dynamics push all sorts of professions in the direction of cultural and ideological homogeneity. However, the same dynamic affects informal, leisure-time affinity groups, like the SSC community, in spades.

The professional culture of New York Times is _far _more concerned to correct for the biases of self-selection than the culture that’s evolved around Scott Siskind’s blogs, for the simple and obvious reason that it has a powerful rubber-hitting-the-road incentive to care.

[…]

Reporting is a hard job devoted in large measure to ferreting out truths that the subjects of the story you are writing are actively trying to conceal. I think it’s important to emphasize that there is simply no sense — none! — in which people who like to talk about epistemology on the Internet are more committed to objectivity and truth than experienced reporters who, in the service of truth, navigate mazes of lies, gaslighting, spin, bullshit and threats for a living.

Good points. It’s interesting how wrong Scott Alexander and some of his fans can get when they talk about journalism.

And one funny bit by Scott Sumner, “Understanding middlebrow” (The Money Illusion):

The NYT has 7.5 million subscribers, mostly progressives in the 90-99% range. These people feel very smart, and they are in fact smarter than 90% of the population. So there’s no point bemoaning the fact that the NYT is not about to tell it’s readers that, “Actually, we provide middlebrow news analysis, and if you want brilliant inspired analysis you need to read blogs like SlateStarCodex.”

Yes, the NYT story is awful in all the ways that are currently being discussed by its critics, but the fundamental problem is inescapable. Any time a powerful middlebrow entity (which wrongly thinks it’s highbrow) evaluates an actual highbrow entity, you will end up with a mixture of resentment and incomprehension. This case is no different. It’s just how things work.

Scott Alexander should view this story as a badge of honor. “My insights are so subtle that even the NYT was in over its head trying to figure me out.”

That reminded me of Bertrand Russell in A History of Western Philosophy:

A stupid man’s report of what a clever man says is never accurate, because he unconsciously translates what he hears into something that he can understand. I would rather be reported by my bitterest enemy among philosophers than by a friend innocent of philosophy.


Previously:

California is ‘symbolically liberal, but operationally conservative’

Ezra Klein, in the New York Times:

California has the highest poverty rate in the nation, when you factor in housing costs, and vies for the top spot in income inequality, too. […] California is dominated by Democrats, but many of the people Democrats claim to care about most can’t afford to live there.

There is an old finding in political science that Americans are “symbolically conservative” but “operationally liberal.” Americans talk like conservatives but want to be governed like liberals. In California, the same split political personality exists, but in reverse: We’re often symbolically liberal, but operationally conservative.

[…]

This is a crisis that reveals California’s conservatism — not the political conservatism that privatizes Medicare, but the temperamental conservatism that stands athwart change and yells “Stop!” In much of San Francisco, you can’t walk 20 feet without seeing a multicolored sign declaring that Black lives matter, kindness is everything and no human being is illegal. Those signs sit in yards zoned for single families, in communities that organize against efforts to add the new homes that would bring those values closer to reality. Poorer families — disproportionately nonwhite and immigrant — are pushed into long commutes, overcrowded housing and homelessness. Those inequalities have turned deadly during the pandemic.

“If you’re living eight or 10 people to a home, it’s hard to protect yourself from the virus,” Senator Wiener told me. “Yet what we see at times is people with a Bernie Sanders sign and a ‘Black Lives Matter’ sign in their window, but they’re opposing an affordable housing project or an apartment complex down the street.”

[…]

There is a danger — not just in California, but everywhere — that politics becomes an aesthetic rather than a program. It’s a danger on the right, where Donald Trump modeled a presidency that cared more about retweets than bills. But it’s also a danger on the left, where the symbols of progressivism are often preferred to the sacrifices and risks those ideals demand.

Sam Altman on being right and misunderstood

The strength of being misunderstood”:

The most impressive people I know care a lot about what people think, even people whose opinions they really shouldn’t value […]. But what makes them unusual is that they generally care about other people’s opinions on a very long time horizon—as long as the history books get it right, they take some pride in letting the newspapers get it wrong.

You should trade being short-term low-status for being long-term high-status, which most people seem unwilling to do. A common way this happens is by eventually being right about an important but deeply non-consensus bet. But there are lots of other ways–the key observation is that as long as you are right, being misunderstood by most people is a strength not a weakness. You and a small group of rebels get the space to solve an important problem that might otherwise not get solved.

Did Michel Foucault lose the left and win the right?

Ross Douthat thinks so. In the New York Times:

The place of Foucault in 2021 is not just a matter of academic interest; his changing position tells us a great deal about recent evolutions of both the left and the right.

[…]

If Foucault’s thought offers a radical critique of all forms of power and administrative control, then as the cultural left becomes more powerful and the cultural right more marginal, the left will have less use for his theories, and the right may find them more insightful.

[…]

To be provocative, you could say that the French philosopher was a satanic figure in multiple senses of the term: personally a wicked hedonist who rejected limits on adult appetites (whether or not the Tunisia allegations are true, Foucault explicitly argued for the legitimacy of pederasty) and philosophically a skeptical accuser, like the Satan who appears in the Book of Job, ready to point the finger at the cracks, cruelties and hypocrisies in any righteous order, to deconstruct any system of power that claims to have truth and virtue on its side.

In turn, that makes his work useful to any movement at war with established “power-knowledge,” to use Foucauldian jargon, but dangerous and somewhat embarrassing once that movement finds itself responsible for the order of the world. And so the ideological shifts of the pandemic era, the Foucault realignment, tells us something significant about the balance of power in the West — where the cultural left increasingly understands itself as a new establishment of “power-knowledge,” requiring piety and loyalty more than accusation and critique.

[…]

You could imagine a timeline in which the left was much more skeptical of experts, lockdowns and vaccine requirements — deploying Foucauldian categories to champion the individual’s bodily autonomy against the state’s system of control, defending popular skepticism against official knowledge, rejecting bureaucratic health management as just another mask for centralizing power.

But left-wingers with those impulses have ended up allied with the populist and conspiratorial right. Meanwhile, the left writ large opted instead for a striking merger of technocracy and progressive ideology: a world of “Believe the science,” where science required pandemic lockdowns but made exceptions for a March for Black Trans Lives, where Covid and structural racism were both public health emergencies, where scientific legitimacy and identity politics weren’t opposed but intertwined.

The impulse to establish legitimacy and order informs a lot of action on the left these days. The idea that the left is relativistic belongs to an era when progressives were primarily defining themselves against white heteronormative Christian patriarchy, with Foucauldian acid as a solvent for the old regime. Nobody watching today’s progressivism at work would call it relativistic: Instead, the goal is increasingly to find new rules, new hierarchies, new moral categories to govern the post-Christian, post-patriarchal, post-cis-het world.

To this end, the categories of identity politics, originally embraced as liberative contrasts to older strictures, are increasingly used to structure a moral order of their own: to define who defers to whom, who can make sexual advances to whom and when, who speaks for which group, who gets special respect and who gets special scrutiny, what vocabulary is enlightened and which words are newly suspect, and what kind of guild rules and bureaucratic norms preside.

Paul Graham: ‘What I worked on’

His thoughts on life choices, education, prestige, and other subjects.

Though I liked programming, I didn’t plan to study it in college. In college I was going to study philosophy, which sounded much more powerful. It seemed, to my naive high school self, to be the study of the ultimate truths, compared to which the things studied in other fields would be mere domain knowledge. What I discovered when I got to college was that the other fields took up so much of the space of ideas that there wasn’t much left for these supposed ultimate truths. All that seemed left for philosophy were edge cases that people in other fields felt could safely be ignored.

[…]

Computer Science is an uneasy alliance between two halves, theory and systems. The theory people prove things, and the systems people build things. I wanted to build things. I had plenty of respect for theory — indeed, a sneaking suspicion that it was the more admirable of the two halves — but building things seemed so much more exciting.

The problem with systems work, though, was that it didn’t last. Any program you wrote today, no matter how good, would be obsolete in a couple decades at best. People might mention your software in footnotes, but no one would actually use it. And indeed, it would seem very feeble work. Only people with a sense of the history of the field would even realize that, in its time, it had been good.

[…]

I wanted not just to build things, but to build things that would last.

One day I went to visit the Carnegie Institute, where I’d spent a lot of time as a kid. While looking at a painting there I realized something that might seem obvious, but was a big surprise to me. There, right on the wall, was something you could make that would last. Paintings didn’t become obsolete. Some of the best ones were hundreds of years old.

[…]

[T]he most important thing I learned, and which I used in both Viaweb and Y Combinator, is that the low end eats the high end: that it’s good to be the “entry level” option, even though that will be less prestigious, because if you’re not, someone else will be, and will squash you against the ceiling. Which in turn means that prestige is a danger sign.

[…]

One day in late 1994 […] there was something on the radio about a famous fund manager. He wasn’t that much older than me, and was super rich. The thought suddenly occurred to me: why don’t I become rich? Then I’ll be able to work on whatever I want.

Meanwhile I’d been hearing more and more about this new thing called the World Wide Web. Robert Morris showed it to me when I visited him in Cambridge, where he was now in grad school at Harvard. It seemed to me that the web would be a big deal. I’d seen what graphical user interfaces had done for the popularity of microcomputers. It seemed like the web would do the same for the internet.

If I wanted to get rich, here was the next train leaving the station.

[…]

I knew that online essays would be a marginal medium at first. Socially they’d seem more like rants posted by nutjobs on their GeoCities sites than the genteel and beautifully typeset compositions published in The New Yorker. But by this point I knew enough to find that encouraging instead of discouraging.

One of the most conspicuous patterns I’ve noticed in my life is how well it has worked, for me at least, to work on things that weren’t prestigious. Still life has always been the least prestigious form of painting. Viaweb and Y Combinator both seemed lame when we started them. I still get the glassy eye from strangers when they ask what I’m writing, and I explain that it’s an essay I’m going to publish on my web site. Even Lisp, though prestigious intellectually in something like the way Latin is, also seems about as hip.

It’s not that unprestigious types of work are good per se. But when you find yourself drawn to some kind of work despite its current lack of prestige, it’s a sign both that there’s something real to be discovered there, and that you have the right kind of motives. Impure motives are a big danger for the ambitious. If anything is going to lead you astray, it will be the desire to impress people. So while working on things that aren’t prestigious doesn’t guarantee you’re on the right track, it at least guarantees you’re not on the most common type of wrong one.

[…]

[…] I worked hard even at the parts I didn’t like. I was haunted by something Kevin Hale once said about companies: “No one works harder than the boss.” He meant it both descriptively and prescriptively, and it was the second part that scared me. I wanted YC to be good, so if how hard I worked set the upper bound on how hard everyone else worked, I’d better work very hard.

One note:

[12] There is a general lesson here that our experience with Y Combinator also teaches: Customs continue to constrain you long after the restrictions that caused them have disappeared. […]

Which in turn implies that people who are independent-minded (i.e. less influenced by custom) will have an advantage in fields affected by rapid change (where customs are more likely to be obsolete).

‘On the experience of being poor-ish, for people who aren’t’

The Resident Contrarian:

A few years back, my wife was at a baby shower hosted by a friend by a mutual acquaintance. In a conversation with the hostess, my wife learned they were in a tough financial position – they were always broke, and no amount of budgeting seemed to help them get ahead; they had cut every cost they could and things were just getting worse and worse. She admitted to my wife that she just felt like she was sinking further and further underwater, and didn’t see any way out for her or her family.

Note: The hostess and her husband were both doctors. They had a combined income somewhere upwards of $200,000 a year, and as the conversation developed my wife learned that their problems started and stopped with the hostess not being able to save quite as much as she’d like once the payments on their very nice house and current-year cars were made. At the time she leaned on my wife for emotional support over finances, our family of four’s income was less than $30,000 a year.

You should know the hostess wasn’t mean-spirited in the least, and we liked her then and continue to do so. But she did have a kind of tunnel vision I’ve since noticed is increasingly common: If you came from a family that did pretty well financially, went to college and then immediately started to do pretty well yourself, it’s hard to get any kind of context for what life is like at lower income levels. This isn’t a matter of the relatively-wealthy being dumb or insensitive; it’s just legitimately difficult to get a handle on what it’s like in a life you’ve never lived, and often being legitimately confused as to why anyone would opt to make less money instead of improving their lot with training and education.

In that spirit, I’d like to offer my services as a sort of has-been-poor guide, to fill you in on what it’s like on the other side of the tracks.

This reminded me of these great (and sad) Reddit threads:

Public toilets in the United States

Nicholas Kristof, in the New York Times:

Here’s a populist slogan for President Biden’s infrastructure plan: Pee for Free!

Sure, we need investments to rebuild bridges, highways and, yes, electrical grids, but perhaps America’s most disgraceful infrastructure failing is its lack of public toilets.

John Cochrane, on his blog:

Now, put on your economist hat. Or even put on your reporter hat. Ask the question why are there no public toilets in America?

[…]

Because it’s illegal to charge for toilets. There were once abundant public toilets in America, as there are in many other countries. And you pay a small fee to use them.

[…]

The absence of pay toilets is in fact a delightful encapsulation of so much that is wrong with American economic policy these days. Activists decide free toilets are a human right, and successfully campaign to ban pay toilets. For a while, existing toilets are free. Within months, upkeep is ignored, attendants disappear, and the toilets become disgusting, dysfunctional and dangerous. Within a few years there are no toilets at all. Fast forward, and we have a resurgence of medieval diseases that come from people relieving themselves al fresco. […]

You will jump to “what about people who can’t afford to pay?” as House did, consuming the majority of her article that should instead have been about practicalities. This too is a great teachable moment. One of the top 10 principles of economics is, don’t silence prices in order to transfer incomes. That dictum is particularly salient here because we’re literally talking about quarters. Let’s add: especially, ludicrously small amounts of income. Is it really wise to silence the incentive to create, provide, and maintain clean safe toilets, in order to transfer a few dollars of income to the less fortunate?

Maybe, you say. But look how well requiring toilets to be free has worked out. Before, a person experiencing homelessness had to beg for a nickel to use a toilet. Now there are no toilets. They are worse off than if we had pay toilets and them no money. And, really, does your and my life need to be so screwed up, does the government have to interfere in a business’ desire to provide a clean restroom and make a little money, and your and my desire to pay a small fee to relieve a bursting bladder, because of the problem of transferring a few dollars’ income?

[…]

Like so many problems in the US, this one can be solved with one simple policy: Get out of the way. Allow businesses to build, maintain, and charge for toilets. Allow people to pay for a service so dearly needed. If we can’t free a market for a service that literally costs 25 cents, heaven help the rest of the economy.

‘Why do members of the political elite insist that they’re not?’

Samuel Goldman in the New York Times:

America’s most powerful people have a problem. They can’t admit that they’re powerful.

[…]

And it’s not only politicians. Business figures love to present themselves as “disrupters” of stagnant industries. But the origins of the idea are anything but rebellious.

[…]

[T]he problem of insiders pretending to be outsiders cuts across party, gender and field. The question is why.

Part of the explanation is strategic. An outsider pose is appealing because it allows powerful people to distance themselves from the consequences of their decisions. When things go well, they are happy to take credit. When they go badly, it’s useful to blame an incompetent, hostile establishment for thwarting their good intentions or visionary plans.

Another element is generational. Helen Andrews argues that baby boomers have never been comfortable with the economic, cultural and political dominance they achieved in the 1980s. “The rebels took over the establishment,” she writes, “only they wanted to keep preening like revolutionaries as they wielded power.”

[…]

It is hard to change deeply rooted cultural tendencies. But there are strategies that might help us reconcile the performance of disruption with the demands of responsibility.

[…]

We should judge public figures by the arguments they make and the results they deliver, not whether they eat caviar, kale or capocollo.

Next, we need to learn from historical figures who embraced Weber’s “ethic of responsibility.”

[…]

Finally, we need to be honest: America has a de facto ruling class. Since World War II, membership in that class has opened to those with meritocratic credentials. But that should not conceal the truth that it remains heavily influenced by birth. […] Admitting the fact of noblesse might help encourage the ideal of oblige.

But there’s a limit to what can be accomplished by exhortation. Ultimately, the change must come from the powerful themselves. Just once, I’d like to hear a mayor, governor or president say: “Yes, I’m in charge — and I’ve been trying to get here for my entire life. I want you to judge me by how I’ve used that position, not by who I am.”