The silent school

The British education minister has praised a new school in London:

Pupils at the City of London Academy move between classrooms in line, while mobile phones and cash are both banned.

“Children were walking down the corridors in silence, in order, going to their classroom on time and getting straight on with their work,” said Mr Williamson.

So cash, talking and means of communication are banned from the school. That school now resembles a communist dictatorship even more than other schools do. The news story continues:

Figures from the Department for Education show the number of permanent exclusions in England due to physical assault on an adult has increased from 490 in 2012/13 to 845 in 2017/18.

To put this in context, the government threatens every school child and his parents with force through truancy laws. Parents can be criminally prosecuted, fined and imprisoned for truancy. So the government can threaten people with force for changing their minds about using its “services”, but if a child hits an adult in the school that is unacceptable. There is one rule for government officials who are allowed to initiate the use of force and another rule for the ordinary people. I think that nobody should be allowed to initiate the use of force, but I’m just one of the commoners so the British government would prefer that I fuck off and die in a fire.

The government also plans to impose a new regime of internet censorship to shut up the plebs. They want to turn the entire country into the equivalent of that silent school hallway where everyone is too terrified to say anything. In the light of all this I think the British government should adopt a motto that reflects their actual philosophy. I suggest the motto from Plato quoted at the start of Volume I of The Open Society and Its Enemies by Karl Popper:

The greatest principle of all is that nobody, whether male or female, should be without a leader. Nor should the mind of anybody be habituated to letting him do anything at all on his own initiative; neither out of zeal, nor even playfully. But in war and in the midst of peace—to his leader he shall direct his eye and follow him faithfully. And even in the smallest matter he should stand under leadership. For example, he should get up, or move, or wash, or take his meals .. only if he has been told to do so. In a word, he should teach his soul, by long habit, never to dream of acting independently, and to become utterly incapable of it.

Steele on Szasz

There is a book called Thomas S. Szasz: The Man and his Ideas edited by Schaler, Lothane and Vatz.

A libertarian called David Ramsay Steele contributed a chapter called “What follows from the non-existence of mental illness?”. This chapter is quite bad and Steele has been promoted on a libertarian podcast as an expert on Szasz, so I’m posting a criticism.

On p. 85 of the book, Steele writes:

Szasz evidently believed that there is a tight connection between the proposition that there is literally no such thing as mental illness and the proposition that all psychiatric coercion is wrong, or at least unjustified. Again and again he reveals that he assumes some such tight connection (1976, p. 189, 2010, pp. 267–268), but he never spells out an argument demonstrating this connection.

Steele has completely misunderstood Szasz’s argument. In Chapter 4 of “The Myth of Mental Illness” Szasz writes:

In my opinion, this sort of search for the biological and physical causes of so-called psychopathological phenomena is motivated more by the investigator’s craving for prestige and power than by his desire for understanding and clarity. I have suggested earlier that patterning his beliefs and behavior on the medical model enables the psychiatrist to share in the prestige and power of the physician. The same applies to the psychiatric and psychological investigator or research worker. Because theoretical physicists enjoy greater prestige than theoreticians of psychology or human relations, psychiatrists and psychoanalysts stand to gain from claiming, as they do, that, at bottom as it were, they too are in quest of the physical or physiological causes of bodily illnesses. This impersonation makes them, of course, pseudo-physicists and pseudo-physicians, and has many regrettable consequences. Yet, this imitation of the natural scientist has been largely successful, at least in a social or opportunistic way: I refer to the widespread social acceptance of psychiatry and psychoanalysis as allegedly biological—and hence ultimately physicochemical—sciences, and to the prestige of their practitioners based, in part, on this connection between what they claim they do and what other scientists do.

To put it bluntly, the idea that mental illness is a disease is a lie. Psychiatrists tell this lie to gain prestige and then use that prestige to persecute people they dislike and help people they like. Explaining that such claims are lies is a reasonable way to try to undermine the power of psychiatrists. Some mental patients also endorse this lie because they want to get out of criminal responsibility, or ask for help in a deniable way or for other purposes. Steele doesn’t bother to explain Szasz’s arguments about these issues let alone refute them, which makes his entire chapter irrelevant to any issue of any real importance.

Another quote from this chapter that represents the level of arguments offered by Steele is the following (p. 87):

Since Szasz accepts the common-sense medical view that many patterns of behavior and feeling were once observed and discussed (and even treated) without their neurological causes being known, and that these causes were later identified, he has to acknowledge that there are very likely some present-day patterns where the neurological cause is unknown, but where this cause will probably be discovered in the future (Szasz, 1997, 52).

Let’s have a look at the actual quote from Insanity: The idea and its consequences:

In view of the relatively unsophisticated state of pour understanding of neurophysiology and neuropathology, it is more than likely that there are diseases of the human brain, just as there are diseases of the human immune system, that have not yet been discovered. However, ordinary honesty, not to mention scientific integrity, requires that we distinguish between proven and putative diseases, lest we discover diseases by fantasy and fiat, and we do when we attach disease labels to disapproved behaviors such as gambling.

Steele has missed the point entirely. The problem is that if we say a behaviour is a result of a brain disease when we have no way of knowing that it is, then we will attribute choices to diseases in cases where no disease is relevant.

I could keep going, but I won’t. Szasz’s position isn’t that there is some fancy argument that’s supposed to lead from the idea that mental illness is a brain disease to involutary commitment. Rather, it is just a lie told by psychiatrists to legitimise involuntary commitment and other psychiatric practices. Szasz wrote an entire book called Psychiatry: The science of lies in which he made exactly this point. Looking for anything other than specious plausibility in arguments by psychiatrists is a mistake. Trying to refute psychiatric ideas as if they were strictly logical arguments would also be a mistake.

Psychiatrists are not the only people to make specious arguments that are either deliberate or negligent lies. Anyone looking for prestige or power may fall into this trap. This includes intellectuals writing authoritative sounding essays on subjects they don’t understand. David Ramsay Steele fell into this trap when writing his essay on Szasz.

Ruffalo on Szasz and civil commitment

In a recent Psychology Today article Mark Ruffalo, a psychiatrist in Tampa, alleges that Thomas Szasz who opposed involuntary psychiatric commitment and the idea of mental illnesses in fact supported involuntary commitment in a public interview:

Thus, I was surprised to come across a videotaped 1983 interview in which Szasz does just that. In his discussion with Jonathan Miller in an episode of Miller’s television series States of Mind, Szasz concedes that society should treat the gravely disturbed (“mad” or psychotic) person in the same way it treats the person who has been rendered unconscious by an accident, implying support for involuntary treatment in these cases. This is a rare admission for Szasz. To my knowledge, it may represent the only such statement he ever made publicly.

I have transcribed the exchange below, emphasizing the pertinent points. Readers can view the full video here.

Szasz’s remarks regarding society’s role in treating the gravely disturbed can be found around the 33-minute mark.

Miller: What do you do about those people who, in fact, are, for reasons which we needn’t discuss—either because of brain disorder or something else, some existential disorder—have become mad, and mad in a way which renders them incapable of asking for the help which, in fact, a profession might be able to give?

Szasz: What do we do about this? Well, we can have a conversation about this, obviously, and your question is, again, well-taken.… But again, let me first say, this is why psychiatry is so powerful—because it is so useful…. Now, whether it is as good a thing as we can possibly do or not is debatable. Obviously, many people think it’s the best we can do, and in many situations, it may be the best thing we can do…. To the extent to which people behave that way [mad], there is no great problem, and there is no great conflict between my views and those of traditional, ordinary, regular psychiatrists. Because these persons, then, should be treated more-or-less on the model of someone who has been hit by a taxi and is unconscious. The ordinary channels of medicine, science, compassion, and humanity should be mobilized and this person should be cared for and treated in whatever way makes sense to society, scientifically and humanly. There is no great problem.

I have watched the relevant part of the interview and made the transcript below:

Miller: There are nevertheless the problems of helping the apparently helpless, the agonised, the distressed and those who are not merely agonised and distressed themselves, but those who agonise and distress their relatives, who, for reasons of their madness, whether you call it illness or not, are not in a position to offer themselves as plaintiffs in the way that a patient suffering from a physical disease is able to do. What do you do on the basis of philanthropy one the basis of helping in terms of kindness about such people? While I agree with you wholeheartedly that there is always the threat of the tyranny of the involuntary commitment of simply taking away someone’s liberty merely because you have denominated them one way rather than the other, what do you do about those people who are – for reasons which we needn’t discuss either because of brain disorder or something else some existential disorder – have become mad and mad in a way which renders them incapable of asking for the help which in fact a profession might be able to give?

Szasz: What do we do about this? Well, we can have a conversation about this obviously and your question is again well taken and I would like to say all sorts of things about it and will. But again let me first say that this is precisely why psychiatry is so powerful because it is so useful. I love to paraphrase Voltaire to say that if there were no god we would have to invent him. I believe that if there were no psychiatry we would have to invent it because psychiatry in fact comes in and does something in these existentially, humanly very difficult situations. Now whether it is as good a thing as we could possibly do or not is debatable. Obviously many people think it is the best we can do and in some situations it may be the best thing we can do. Now in some ways we have to break down the kind of phenomenon which you described because first of all you emphasised the helpless, the inability of the patient to act as their own agent seeking help. Now if we really take that seriously you see that is not a very that does not characterise the whole panoply of the situation but that is certainly one part of the group you are talking about. To the extent to which people behave that way, there is no grave problem and there is no grave conflict between my views and those of traditional, ordinary psychiatrists because these persons then should be treated more or less on the model of somebody who has been hit by a taxi and is unconscious. The ordinary channels of medicine, science compassion and humanity should be mobilised in this person should be cared for and treated in whatever way makes sense to society scientifically and humanly, there’s no great problem.

Miller: No I see that.

Szasz: But Doctor Miller, you know very well that this is a minute problem because what happens very often is, and there are such people, is that although they are helpless in many ways, and don’t seek help, the one thing they seem to want to know, and want to do, is to get out of a mental hospital as soon as they are taken there, that’s why they are locked, so that the people can’t walk out. So although they don’t quite know what to do with themselves they do know they don’t want psychiatry. Now but this is not really a representative sample.

Szasz then goes on to discuss Lady Macbeth whose problems he regards as more typical of psychiatric patients. Szasz is not completely explicit in this interview, but his position as I read it is the following. Some people are helpless and don’t seek help. Szasz’s position is that facilities should be available for such people to get help that resembles the help offered by psychiatrists in some respects. But those facilities shouldn’t lock up the people in their care. This has the merit of being consistent with other material Szasz wrote, such as his detailed discussion of how to reform the mental health field in Chapter 19 of Law, Liberty and Psychiatry. Whether or not Szasz’s position is good he isn’t supporting involuntary treatment of mental patients.

Ruffalo is trying to smear Szasz as a hypocrite rather than actually discussing his position with full and accurate quotes interpreted in the light of the rest of Szasz’s work. This is a common problem in discussion of Szasz’s work. His views are very different from those of other psychiatrists. Psychiatrists and supporters of psychiatry aren’t interested in stating his position correctly and discussing it rationally: they prefer lies and hostility.

Against “The Righteous Mind”

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (TRM) by Jonathan Haidt is a book that has been praised widely including by libertarians and conservatives.

Haidt is not explicitly insulting non-left-wing people or calling for them to be deplatformed, but this is the only good feature of TRM. TRM shares the same flaws as other psychology books: the author treats his moral philosophy as if it’s a factual description of the world while ignoring criticisms of his ideas. He describes libertarians, conservatives and lefties without explicitly explaining and discussing their ideas and pretends to be above the fray.

In the Introduction Haidt writes:

Moral intuitions arise automatically and almost instantaneously, long before moral reasoning has a chance to get started, and those first intuitions tend to drive our later reasoning. If you think that moral reasoning is something we do to figure out the truth, you’ll be constantly frustrated by how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you. But if you think about moral reasoning as a skill we humans evolved to further our social agendas—to justify our own actions and to defend the teams we belong to—then things will make a lot more sense.

So everyone’s moral ideas are just excuses for what they want to do anyway. According to Haidt the unenlightened non-psychologists are fooled into thinking there are important objective differences between their worldviews.

Haidt claims there are six types of morality:

The central metaphor of these four chapters is that the righteous mind is like a tongue with six taste receptors. Secular Western moralities are like cuisines that try to activate just one or two of these receptors—either concerns about harm and suffering, or concerns about fairness and injustice. But people have so many other powerful moral intuitions, such as those related to liberty, loyalty, authority, and sanctity.

Haidt is implicitly assuming there are no moral explanations. All people do is mix different tastes. Trying to cram every idea into this model prevents him from considering arguments for or against different worldviews.

In Chapter Three Haidt writes:

The current triggers of the Fairness modules include a great many things that have gotten linked, culturally and politically, to the dynamics of reciprocity and cheating. On the left, concerns about equality and social justice are based in part on the Fairness foundation—wealthy and powerful groups are accused of gaining by exploiting those at the bottom while not paying their “fair share” of the tax burden. This is a major theme of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which I visited in October 2011 (see figure 7.5). On the right, the Tea Party movement is also very concerned about fairness. They see Democrats as “socialists” who take money from hardworking Americans and give it to lazy people (including those who receive welfare or unemployment benefits) and to illegal immigrants (in the form of free health care and education).

Everyone cares about fairness, but there are two major kinds. On the left, fairness often implies equality, but on the right it means proportionality—people should be rewarded in proportion to what they contribute, even if that guarantees unequal outcomes.

Haidt completely ignores moral explanations that the welfare state hurts welfare recipients by making them dependent on government and encouraging them to envy and hate other people: see the description of Starnesville in Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. Haidt also ignores explanations that say giving out welfare on the state’s behalf corrupts and harms welfare statists. For a description of this see the character of Catherine Halsey in The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, who starts working as a social worker and changes as a result (Part Two, Chapter 13):

In the last few years, with her uncle’s help, she had become an able social worker. She held a paid job in a settlement house, she had a small bank account of her own; she took her friends out to lunch, older women of her profession, and they talked about the problems of unwed mothers, self-expression for the children of the poor, and the evils of industrial corporations.

“But that’s not all. There’s something much worse. It’s doing something horrible to me. I’m beginning to hate people, Uncle Ellsworth. I’m beginning to be cruel and mean and petty in a way I’ve never been before. I expect people to be grateful to me. I…I demand gratitude. I find myself pleased when slum people bow and scrape and fawn over me. I find myself liking only those who are servile. Once…once I told a woman that she didn’t appreciate what people like us did for trash like her. I cried for hours afterward, I was so ashamed. I begin to resent it when people argue with me. I feel that they have no right to minds of their own, that I know best, that I’m the final authority for them. There was a girl we were worried about, because she was running around with a very handsome boy who had a bad reputation, I tortured her for weeks about it, telling her how he’d get her in trouble and that she should drop him. Well, they got married and they’re the happiest couple in the district. Do you think I’m glad? No, I’m furious and I’m barely civil to the girl when I meet her. Then there was a girl who needed a job desperately–it was really a ghastly situation in her home, and I promised that I’d get her one. Before I could find it, she got a good job all by herself. I wasn’t pleased. I was sore as hell that somebody got out of a bad hole without my help. Yesterday, I was speaking to a boy who wanted to go to college and I was discouraging him, telling him to get a good job, instead. I was quite angry, too. And suddenly I realized that it was because I had wanted so much to go to college–you remember, you wouldn’t let me–and so I wasn’t going to let that kid do it either….Uncle Ellsworth, don’t you see? I’m becoming selfish. I’m becoming selfish in a way that’s much more horrible than if I were some petty chiseler pinching pennies off these people’s wages in a sweatshop!”

Haidt also can’t deal with economic arguments against socialism and government intervention in the economy, which are relevant to why conservatives, libertarians and Objectivists see problems with the welfare state. All of the arguments I have mentioned are relevant to understanding the thoughts and feelings of welfare opponents, so Haidt’s book doesn’t work as an explanation of those thoughts and feelings. As a result, it won’t help lefty people understand the right well and it hasn’t done so.

In addition to obscuring understanding Haidt’s approach requires harming the side that is in the right on any particular issue. To avoid taking a side he has to avoid stating their arguments. He also has to avoid stating arguments from the wrong side that make them look bad. The effect of this attempt at neutrality will bias the discussion toward the wrong side.

Haidt’s book has some of the same problems with explaining lefty ideas and motives. But Haidt is biased toward the left, as illustrated by passages like this:

Liberalism seemed so obviously ethical. Liberals marched for peace, workers’ rights, civil rights, and secularism. The Republican Party was (as we saw it) the party of war, big business, racism, and evangelical Christianity. I could not understand how any thinking person would voluntarily embrace the party of evil, and so I and my fellow liberals looked for psychological explanations of conservatism, but not liberalism. We supported liberal policies because we saw the world clearly and wanted to help people, but they supported conservative policies out of pure self-interest (lower my taxes!) or thinly veiled racism (stop funding welfare programs for minorities!). We never considered the possibility that there were alternative moral worlds in which reducing harm (by helping victims) and increasing fairness (by pursuing group-based equality) were not the main goals.

So in Haidt’s view righties don’t care about reducing harm or increasing fairness because they didn’t support left wing coercive government policies that claimed to address these problems. But some right wing people think the state is one of the main reasons for a lot of the harms and unfairness in the world. The policies suggested by the left would give the state more power that it would use to harm people unfairly.

More from the Introduction:

A slave is never supposed to question his master, but most of us can think of times when we questioned and revised our first intuitive judgment. The rider-and-elephant metaphor works well here. The rider evolved to serve the elephant, but it’s a dignified partnership, more like a lawyer serving a client than a slave serving a master. Good lawyers do what they can to help their clients, but they sometimes refuse to go along with requests. Perhaps the request is impossible (such as finding a reason to condemn Dan, the student council president—at least for most of the people in my hypnosis experiment). Perhaps the request is self-destructive (as when the elephant wants a third piece of cake, and the rider refuses to go along and find an excuse). The elephant is far more powerful than the rider, but it is not an absolute dictator.

Haidt’s model of decision making is wrong. In reality, a person chooses some particular option when he makes a choice. That option is picked according to some standard even if the standard isn’t stated. That standard is doing the work in that decision. A man might make a choice to have bareback sex with a woman despite the risk of getting her pregnant or catching a STD because he is not willing to resist his desire to have sex if he is very horny. He has chosen to value being horny and to interpret his horniness as an indication that he should have sex. The strength of his sensations of horniness wouldn’t lead to sex if he chose to interpret them differently, as a sign of being sinful, say. In addition he could choose not to get into situations that he knows will result in him being horny if he didn’t want to be horny, as many married men do. So Haidt is actually picking his positions according to an unstated and uncriticised standard.

Many people are praising and quoting TRM because they think it gives them some understanding of people with different political views and preferences. It doesn’t. Pretending that TRM is a solution to current controversies or contributes much toward solving them is a very serious mistake. The only way to solve a controversy in any lasting way is critical discussion.

Proportional representation

A person called James Manuell has tweeted that proportional representation (PR) is like the market and first past the post (FPTP) is like a protectionist duopoly so we should adopt PR:

This tweet is wrong.

The state is not a market of any kind. The state is a monopoly on the legitimate use of force that is held by some particular group of people at any particular time. If you defend yourself or others, the government might sometimes  your use of force was legitimate. But often they won’t. Sometimes the government acts appropriately. But the government might just as well turn around and decide to destroy your life cuz government officials happen to feel like doing that. And if you want any compensation or admission of wrongdoing good luck with that because you’ll need a lot of luck. If enough people happen to like you, then you might be okay, but in most cases if the government takes a dislike to you then you are totally fucked.

As long as we have a state, you have to take account of the fact that it is a monopoly. Any electoral system that doesn’t do that is bad. That system has to allow voters to remove bad parties and policies, otherwise such parties and policies are entrenched permanently. PR fails to do this because it almost always leads to coalition government. The third party gets to be the kingmaker and determine who is in government. And the third party can never be removed from power. Nor can any policy they support ever be revoked. If we had PR the Liberal Democrats would be in power permanently and we would never be allowed to leave the EU. FPTP produces coalitions less often and enables parties and policies to be removed from power. See The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch, Chapter 13 for more explanation of these points.

If you want a market in defence and court services, then you need anarcho-capitalism: multiple competing groups providing court and defence services. A person pretending that our current system is a market or can be made like one by a change in electoral rules is badly mistaken.

Time to pretend

Time to pretend (TTP) is a pop song by a band called MGMT. The song has over 300,000 hits on YouTube, so it is quite popular. I’m going to look at the video and the lyrics and look at the ideas it presents.

The video is very colourful but it doesn’t really have much to do with the lyrics. It serves two purposes. People who just like looking at colours and cats and memes will just like watching the video without needing to give it any more thought. People who think of themselves as more sophisticated will think it looks over the top and will congratulate themselves as being in on the joke. The lyrics also have two interpretations.

Let’s look at the lyrics of the first verse:

I’m feeling rough, I’m feeling raw

I’m in the prime of my life

Let’s make some music, make some money

Find some models for wives

I’ll move to Paris, shoot some heroin

And fuck with the stars

You man the island and the cocaine

And the elegant cars

There are a couple of ways of interpreting these lyrics. Some people might hear the lyrics and think they present a desirable lifestyle: travel, drugs, fucking beautiful women and that sort of thing. A person living like that might sometimes feel bad, e.g.- hangovers, but think that is a price worth paying. Other people might say that the lyrics are satirising and exaggerating that lifestyle, and congratulate themselves on being smarter than the people who just like drugs and sex. The lyrics don’t say which view MGMT actually takes. The lyrics are written to be ambiguous and to allow both interpretations.

The lyrics for the next verse say:

This is our decision, to live fast and die young

We’ve got the vision, now let’s have some fun

Yeah, it’s overwhelming, but what else can we do?

Get jobs in offices and wake up for the morning commute?

Forget about our mothers and our friends

We’re fated to pretend

To pretend

We’re fated to pretend

To pretend

In this verse, MGMT contrast the rock and roll lifestyle with having a normal job and family. MGMT leave it ambiguous which lifestyle they prefer. At the end of the verse they say they’re fated to pretend. They’re admitting that the idea that the rock and roll lifestyle is glamorous and wonderful is a pretence. They are providing a way for people with ordinary jobs and families to pretend that they could have a rock and roll lifestyle where they have fun and no responsibilities. MGMT don’t mention any third alternative, like having your own business or doing philosophy partly because they don’t really understand such ideas and partly because most of the potential audience wouldn’t understand or like such ideas.

Some people will interpret the verse differently as mocking the rock and roll lifestyle as a lonely and boring pretence at having fun. Actually having relationships with family and friends is better than the rock and roll lifestyle as it is usually portrayed.

There is another point to note.  MGMT say they are “fated to pretend”, which implies that they don’t have a choice about whether to pretend. But they start the verse by saying “This is our decision”. This is an admission that MGMT and the audience could take responsibility for improving their lives, but they prefer to pretend that they have no choice but to live the way they do.

I’m not going to go through the rest of TTP because the rest of the song is similar to what I’ve discussed so far. TTP is a sophisticated presentation of a philosophical package deal. Your alternatives are either to be an irresponsible, drug taking rock star or have a normal life and a family. In reality, you could develop a better life than either of these alternatives but that requires thinking and taking responsibility, which most people don’t want to do. The standard pattern of having a job and a family exists for a reason: it’s a way of living that most people can tolerate and doesn’t require much innovation. Sex, drugs and rock and roll lifestyles are harder to maintain and tolerate and involves deliberately disabling your ability to think through drugs and so on a lot of the time in order to keep going.

Many people with a standard family life do a substantial amount of sex and drugs to make their lives tolerable. So the distinction between the sex, drugs and rock and roll lifestyle and normal family life isn’t as sharp as people like to pretend. The differences between those lifestyles are a matter of degree rather than a qualitative difference since they are both set up so that people can enact them with as little thought as possible.

Criticising Taleb’s Precautionary Principle Paper

Nassim Nicholas Taleb has written an essay about his own variant of the precautionary principle (PP). I’m going to point out some problems with the essay and Taleb’s variant of the PP and then criticise Taleb’s argument against genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

In Section 1 Taleb writes:

The PP states that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing severe harm to the public domain (such as general health or the environment), and in the absence of scientific near-certainty about the safety of the action, the burden of proof about absence of harm falls on those proposing the action. It is meant to deal with effects of absence of evidence and the incompleteness of scientific knowledge in some risky domains.

In Section 2.2 Taleb writes:

The purpose of the PP is to avoid a certain class of what, in probability and insurance, is called “ruin” problems [1]. A ruin problem is one where outcomes of risks have a non zero probability of resulting in unrecoverable losses. An often-cited illustrative case is  that of a gambler who loses his entire fortune and so cannot return to the game. In biology, an example would be a species that has gone extinct. For nature, “ruin” is ecocide: an irreversible termination of life at some scale, which could be planetwide. The large majority of variations that occur within a system, even drastic ones, fundamentally differ from ruin problems: a system that achieves ruin cannot recover. As long as the instance is bounded, e.g. a gambler can work to gain additional resources, there may be some hope of reversing the misfortune. This is not the case when it is global.

In The Beginning of Infinity Chapter 9, David Deutsch writes:

Blind optimism is a stance towards the future. It consists of proceeding as if one knows that the bad outcomes will not happen. The opposite approach, blind pessimism, often called the precautionary principle, seeks to ward off disaster by avoiding everything not known to be safe. No one seriously advocates either of these two as a universal policy, but their assumptions and their arguments are common, and often creep into people’s planning.

Deutsch then criticises the PP at some length. I’m not going to reproduce the entire criticism, but I’ll explain the basic point. The PP assumes that new innovations will make the world worse and so that current knowledge is basically okay and not riddled with flaws that might lead to the destruction of civilisation. But our knowledge is riddled with flaws that might destroy civilisation. Human beings are fallible so any piece of knowledge we have might be mistaken. And those mistakes can be arbitrarily large in their consequences because otherwise we would know we were right every time we made a decision above the maximum mistake size. In addition, we can be mistaken about the consequences of a decision so a mistake we think is small might turn out to be a large mistake. The only way to deal with the fact that our knowledge might be wrong is to improve our ability to invent and criticise new ideas so we can solve problems faster. Taleb doesn’t address any of these points in his paper. He doesn’t refer to BoI. Nor do any of the arguments in his paper address Deutsch’s criticisms of the PP.

Taleb also makes an argument criticising the use of GMOs (Section 10.3):

The systemic global impacts of GMOs arise from a combination of (1) engineered genetic modifications, (2) monoculture—the use of single crops over large areas. Global monoculture itself is of concern for potential global harm, but the evolutionary context of traditional crops provides important assurances (see Figure 8). Invasive species are frequently a problem but one might at least argue that the long term evolutionary testing of harmful impacts of organisms on local ecological systems mitigates if not eliminates the largest potential risks. Monoculture in combination with genetic engineering dramatically increases the risks being taken. Instead of a long history of evolutionary selection, these modifications rely not just on naive engineering strategies that do not appropriately consider risk in complex environments, but also explicitly reductionist approaches that ignore unintended consequences and employ very limited empirical testing.

Biological evolution doesn’t limit harmful impacts of species. Variations on genes arise as a result of mutation and any particular gene either manages to copy itself or not. The knowledge created in genes is just as fallible as the knowledge created by human beings. So there is no particular reason why a species should not evolve that would cause a disaster. This has happened in the past. For example, the black death killed somewhere between 30 and 60 per cent of Europe’s population. We should develop the knowledge of how to manipulate genes partly so we can try to stop events like that from happening in the future.