This interview is the third in a long series on culture and politics. The focus is on radical and marginalized politics and the cross-section of culture. Sometimes the interviews are from the left, but some will be from libertarian or even certain kinds of the right-wing thought. Most of those I interview consider themselves in some sort of radical tradition opposed to contemporary politics. Some of these people have opinions close to mine. Some are diametrically opposed.
Advocatus Diaboli is the voice behind Playing the Devil’s Advocate, which pledges to uphold “Dissent and Skepticism.” His blog is challenging on a variety of topics including science, academia, economics, skepticism, and culture. Recently, the advocate has even written on why Windows XP is the dominant operating system.
C.Derick Varn: You’re blog has a motto that says “Upholding Dissent and Skepticism?” What kind of skepticism? I find a lot what passes for skepticism is selective.
Advocatus Diaboli: Of course, that is the problem with skepticism today. It has, unfortunately, become just another word for preaching the gospel of so called “experts”. However these “experts” are neither all-knowing nor infallible.They are just greedy and pompous human beings who are closer to priests than thinkers. Come to think of it- religious priests never try to tell you that they are objective seekers of truth.
C.D.V.:Would you like to give some examples of this recently?
Advocatus Diaboli:I can give you two topical examples.
1. For decades, medical professionals have been preaching that high dietary fat intake was linked to coronary artery disease. However a number of drug trial failures in the last 5 years plus the overwhelming success of reduced carbohydrate diets has exposed their bullshit.
But the truly bizarre aspect of this saga is that high fat/low carb diets were known for decades to cause catabolism of body fat and large epidemiological studies have always suggested that high carb, not high fat, diets were behind the increase in metabolic diseases and coronary artery disease.
2. Take the recent outpouring of “experts” trying to prove that neutrinos do not travel faster than light. Do you know that both the general and special theory of relativity do not prohibit tachyons from existing. The existing theories merely say that you cannot accelerate a particle past the speed of light, but has nothing to say about particles that were born as tachyons.
The idea that neutrinos might be tachyonic has been around since the mid 1980s and one previous experiment gave values for their speed that were rather similar to the more recent and famous experiment. However there is no shortage of attention-whores in quackademia trying to take apart a very well done experiment. Seriously, neutrinos don’t care whether their behavior fits human models or not. It is human models that have to fit experimental data.
C.D.V.Which goes against the narrative that “science is always happy to be pointed to its errors” that you see parroted by many skeptics who don’t actually work in scientific academia. Another thing I have noticed about skeptics is that they tend to have a very establishment views on politics and tend to be either center-liberals or libertarians. Do you this politics is related to their larger mental posture?
Advocatus Diaboli:Quackademics are some of the most dogmatic and narrow minded people I have seen, and I have a PhD in an area of hard science. You are quite right about their political affiliations- both of which can only work in rigidly defined and imaginary mental worlds.
C.D.V.There seems to be a confusion in the popular skeptic’s movement about what science actually is and the do this with a knee jerk appeal to a hyper-relativist post-modernism that is supposedly afflicting modern culture. Ironically, I work in the Humanities and don’t see exactly what they are talking about. What I have seen are increasing claims to render morality or economics scientific in terms of evolutionary psychology or neurology. Do you think this is a meaningful trend?
Advocatus Diaboli:The main problem with quackademics is that the whole institution has become a corrupt, metrics obsessed ponzi scheme filled with petty minded people with delusions of self-importance.Evo-psychology is mostly vodoo because it tries to explain and rationalize observations, rather than make novel predictions which can be tested. Neurology, sadly, has also jumped the shark.. Do you know that you can elicit a fMRI signal, similar in magnitude to those used to supposedly read thoughts, by shouting at a dead fish. No really.
While the above mentioned artifacts can be avoided by using enough controls and doing extensive analysis you can bet that those who ‘want’ to show some results will either not do it or fudge the data.
Another example: Evo-pysch says that some men won’t get enough sex because they are beta, gamma or omega. However celibacy is essentially unknown among human hunter-gatherer groups and it seems that everyone gets laid a lot- unlike many other monkeys and apes.
C.D.V.That is fascinating. What do you think of Pinker’s new book?
Advocatus Diaboli:Well the effect that Pinker is talking about is due to two reasons- 1. Better, faster and cheaper communication make it hard to dehumanize your opponent or even rally your own group 2. Far fewer people are truly desperate and hence we don’t have to go down to that level.
C.D.V.Do you think his argument that this has to do with a strong central state is sound? It seems awfully teleological to me. I also think he’s frankly wrong about Hunter Gathers and most of the anthropologist I know say his categorizations are sloppy.
Advocatus Diaboli: Partly true.. but it has far more to do with increased levels of material prosperity.
C.D.V. Which you and I both seem to think is about to take a dramatic turn around. This brings me to another issue that you and I both work on. We’re both sort of loosely involved with the idea of a new, new left. What do you see as the problems of the left right ?
Advocatus Diaboli:Actually, there is no reason for human prosperity to go down, as long as the parasites can be killed. The left has to abandon ideological bullshit and focus on improving the lives of all people. Everyone except the parasites and their cheerleaders.
C.D.V. Oh. I agree that there is no reason that it has too. But it most definitely will at status normal levels.
Advocatus Diaboli: A good example: If you really want to improve the lot of poorer blacks in the USA, all the rhetoric and after-school programs won’t help if you cannot give them income security and a real chance to improve their lives. To put it another way- people won’t act better unless they have a realistic chance of a better life and something to lose. But poor people have little, or nothing, to lose.
C.D.V.: Definitely. It seems like liberal activists don’t want to look at class, but left activists don’t want to look at anything but a specific notion of it. But I think this does sort of bring me back to Pinker: it seems like the fear of ideology really seems to ignore that material conditions are changing and can change in a volatile way.
Advocatus Diaboli: Yes, a poor black person has far more in common with a poor white person.Conditions can change but complex systems are irreversible. Any attempt to reverse changes in such systems will result in unexpected consequences- to put it mildly. The AK-47 and RPG-7 forever neutered the ability of western countries to colonize and wage wars in other countries.
C.D.V.: That’s a very valid point. In fact, I have noticed how few people have really paid attention to power differentials in asymmetric warfare almost always drains the more powerful combatant.
Advocatus Diaboli: Look at this here.
C.D.V. Why do you think people ignore that costs game? It should have been obvious with the Soviets doing something similar. Plus waging war is pretty lucrative for many people.. you know the kind who like war but mysteriously disappear when they have to serve
Advocatus Diaboli:Because “we” are always special till “we” are not.
C.D.V.: It’s pretty much a confirmation bias then?
Advocatus Diaboli: More hubris than conformation bias.
C.D.V.: I have thought about the profit end of things for a while and I honestly think that was a move used to sort of move the lower working class in the South East us more friendly to the government by more or less bribing them through army bases functioning as a kind of Keynesian stimulus.
Advocatus Diaboli: yes.. but that works only as long as your real economy is growing.
C.D.V.: It’s a brilliant tactical bleeding scheme that seems to be ignored. Ironically I saw discussion of this sort of decline rapidly after the election of Obama. Why do you think that is>
Advocatus Diaboli:It is not Bin Laden’s brilliance, but a uniquely american strain of hubris, greed, overreaction and stupidity. I mean.. who spends trillions of dollars to go after people who live in sub-standard housing? Heck.. you could buy off every afghan for a fraction of that amount.
C.D.V.: In one of your recent blog posts, you said that Marx’s systemic critique of capitalism wasn’t radical enough. What exactly do you mean?
Advocatus Diaboli:Marx was born in the early 1800s and he only saw the first and second stage (1860s) of the industrial revolution. It is the third (after ww2) and the fourth stage (now) that have changed the rules and possibilities beyond what Marx could have imagined.\
While Marx foresaw automation of production and poverty in an environment of plenty, he did not foresee the effects of communication on the ability of human beings to organize in a manner unconstrained by what people has taken for granted. Even today many people do not understand or appreciate the full impact of vastly improved information access, ability to spread information and seed each others ideas.
Consider the communication we are having right now or the ability to read each other beliefs. For almost all of human history, such exchanges were inconceivable. Or consider the fact that you are in an Asian country right now doing something that is not related to killing or stealing from the natives. Do you realize that such possibilities have no real precedence in human history? For most of the time humans have existed on earth, only a very few people went to other places and interacted with the natives there.
C.D.V.: Do you think the left has missed the boat on this?
Advocatus Diaboli:Not quite, The Left has used new communication technology far more effectively than the right. BUT they have used it in the old context of power structure and hierarchies.Ask yourself- Aren’t you more cynical about traditional authority systems and their representatives than your parents- and likely every generation which has existed before you. But why? Could it linked to your ability to see and access information and communication that break the facade of “experts”, shamans and priests?
C.D.V.:Fair point. Why do you think the narrative that the internet and mass communication has let to a decline in dialogue taken so much flight? I remember when Walter Cronkite died, so many where acting as if he personified creditability itself.
Advocatus Diaboli:Because that is what the “experts” would like you to believe. One more thing- the Internet is very different from traditional mass media.Cronkite was a good actor like every other famous anchor, journalist and leader. Traditional mass media is functionally one sided, the internet is not.
C.D.V. Do you think the pessimistic view is defeatist in character or enraged? I distrust gross generalizations, but in my earlier days on the internet irony was more of the tone. But it doesn’t seem to be that hip cynicism anymore. It seems more honest.
Advocatus Diaboli: Enraged, big bad technology has broken their ability to enslave people with recourse. And the internet has become a more honest and realistic representation of the world than it was in the late 90s, because it is now ubiquitous and not novel- at least for people like you or me.Though I am one of those who actually used Netscape 1.0 in my teens.
C.D.V.: What do you think of the Occupy movement?
Advocatus Diaboli:The OWS moment is the beginning of the process. It is the failure of moments like these that will make it hard for people to ignore the obvious and force them to act. That’s actually my opinion too. My other opinion is that since the 1930s, no one’s ass has even been on the line a little bit. Now the struggle is a lot less on principle and a lot more on obvious physical reality. However, I always watching economists spin this.
C.D.V.: That’s actually my opinion too. My other opinion is that since the 1930s, no one’s ass has even been on the line a little bit. Now the struggle is a lot less on principle and a lot more on obvious physical reality. However, I always watching economists spin this.
C.D.V.: Oh, of course. I probably know the answer to this, but what do you think about contemporary economics as a discipline?
Advocatus Diaboli: It exists to make astrology look respectable. Look at assumptions such as homo economicus, utility maximization etc. Look.. at its core economics makes one assumption- people require a job to spend money. The problem is- are there enough jobs to keep the ponzi scheme going?
C.D.V.: Economic rationality has always seemed obviously circular. I remember saying this in an macro-economics class when I was 19. My other thoughts is that classical economic paradigm, profits would go down as a result of competition. Boy was I surprised to learn that Marx said the same thing, but it was in classical economics. What people have missed is the expansion of capital prior to relatively recently was huge. What are some answers you see to that problem?
Advocatus Diaboli: Profits are not linked to competition. At least the big ones are not.
C.D.V.: How So?
C.D.V.: So profits are illusions of capital? They are essentially created by debt inflation?
Advocatus Diaboli:Ya.. in a nutshell. Though it is a bit more complicated than that.. but essentially, yes. Money is a shared delusion, in any case. So why should profit be any better?
C.D.V.: So this brings us back to the skeptics movement, why do you think they pick such low hanging fruit that is essentially apolitical?
Advocatus Diaboli: Because they have to advance their careers, feed themselves and win popularity contests.
C.D.V.: So its essentially the same sort of celebrity generation masking as activism in your view?
Advocatus Diaboli:Yes.. Ever wondered why celebrities are concerned for kids in some village in Africa when their local school board is a mess?
C.D.V.: That’s an obvious move of public relations. Cultural capital and what not.
Advocatus Diaboli: Ya.. it is about getting cheap and safe thrills, without disturbing the status quo.
C.D.V.: It always amazed me that people like Angelia Jolie can admire Ayn Rand and yet also try to do so much “charity” work.
Advocatus Diaboli: Because she, and celebrities in general, are disingenuous. They do not believe in anything and all their actions are about appearing important and gaining power. Their life is just a show.. and eventually it ends. Politicians, CEOs, managers, HR personal, doctors, lawyers etc are no different and most of them are attention and power whores.The funny thing is that they will eventually die just like the poorest and most unlucky person in the world. “In the end everything burns”
C.D.V.: All is vanity.t. So I suppose my last question would be what do you think people really understand the value of dissent?
Advocatus Diaboli: Most people don’t understand its value because they cannot see past their nose. The ones that do are usually too scared to admit it or too busy pretending otherwise.But the universe does not care about what people believe. It functions regardless of what we want, like or desire- but most people cannot get around to admitting that.
C.D.V. An old theme that never really seems to go away. Thank you for your time.
Advocatus Diaboli: Ok, Thanks and have a look at some of the links I have sent you. Bye.