Predictions #1: Expertise, knowledge, and change.

In these previous posts I touched on the concept of expertise, and why it might be that increasing numbers of people are no longer willing to assume that nominal experts are operating in good faith. This has become even more obvious since, given the increasing prominence of both epidemiologists and critical race theorists in public life and the different challenges they each encounter when seeking to be taken seriously.

Empiricism and logic form a toolset which can be used to examine factual matters, impartial and perennial and replicable – around which ‘expertise’ might be gained and used. But this is not the only domain (or perhaps ‘magesterium’) in which experts really operate – most individuals also have some kind of personal ideology, moral intuition, or metaphysical belief which bleeds over. The credibility inherited from fidelity to the first context is often abused to empower altogether more subjective matters from the second context.

There is a difference between an expert on Marxism as an academic topic – someone who will understand the idiosyncratic ways in which adherents of that ideology use language, who will likely understand its history, and so forth – and someone who is a Marxist in terms of praxis when providing their expertise on all other matters. In computer science terms it’s the difference between reading source code in an IDE, and running the compiled binary on one’s own brain.

To those who understand the difference between facts and values, it is extremely easy to recognise these dishonesties when you see them. Unfortunately, I think the only way to gain this understanding is to find oneself consistently on the ‘wrong’ side of some social issue and then observe the category errors committed by one’s attackers. Some learn rapidly from this, others (Wheaton, Rowling, Linehan) do not.

The stance which I now find helpful when looking at these matters is to take the LessWrong/pseudo-Bayesian approach: deprioritising the individual’s associations and prior plaudits, and instead assigning increased respect and credibility to those who’re able to honour the inner core of the scientific method: making reliable predictions.

This post is not entirely an excuse to mock Paul Krugman again, but I’ll certainly not miss the opportunity.

For the uninitiated, Paul Krugman is an economics writer who is frequently called upon to produce viable-sounding reasons why any event or idea should be addressed with increases in government spending and market regulation. His talent in this field was sufficient to earn him the Nobel in 2008 for ‘New Trade Theory’, itself remarkable for its ability to plug invalid data into a framework of overtly false assumptions and still be taken seriously by journalists.

His other claims to infamy revolve around the most acute case of boomerism ever observed in a living being.

“The growth of the Internet will slow drastically, as the flaw in ‘Metcalfe’s law’ — which states that the number of potential connections in a network is proportional to the square of the number of participants — becomes apparent: most people have nothing to say to each other! By 2005 or so, it will become clear that the Internet’s impact on the economy has been no greater than the fax machine’s.”

– Paul Krugman, “Why Most Economists’ Predictions Are Wrong.”
Red Herring magazine, 1998

I regard the unfortunate context of this clanger to be an amusingly unselfaware coincidence rather than some big-brained ironic performance piece.

His mastery of tech only declined from there – as recently as January this year, he fell foul of a tech support scam which he decided was part of a far-right plot.

If one were to see no further than his inexplicable prestige and the sales figures associated with his many repetitive books, one could be forgiven for regarding Paul Krugman as an expert on economics. Only prior knowledge would prevent this, if those are the markers used.

Better, I’d argue, to remember what people say and then note whether it comes true or not. It doesn’t even matter why. They may have access to superior information, they might have a great analytical talent (conscious or otherwise), or they may be using an ideological model which is more congruent with the ways people really behave.

My own changes in political attitude, particularly over the last 7 years, were stimulated by this kind of reasoning. When one set of people are telling you that ‘A’ will happen and another set tells you it won’t, you’ll respond to whichever was correct. If ‘A’ happens, and the second group have some clever justification for why that proves their suggestions were right all along, you might consider taking them less seriously.

It’s difficult to express this without a specific example, but it’s also difficult to come up with a specific example without further compromising the ideologically generic tone I’m attempting to use in these writings.

Let’s say… you’ve met someone new, and there’s the possibility of a romance. You’re able to contrive a way to spend an afternoon with this person of interest as well as two of your trusted friends. You later speak to each friend, separately, to get their opinion of your prospect.
Let us further assume that neither friend is predictable as an optimist or pessimist – you can rely on getting their genuine take on this person, without them feeling obliged to portray a role of encouragement or cynicism or anything else.

The first friend tells you that they are concerned at various red flags, while the second is not worried – and either denies the first friend’s observations when asked, or provides alternative explanations/excuses for the seemingly alarming behaviour.

A relationship develops, and misery unfolds in precisely the manner predicted by the first friend. Would you not trust them more in future, and perhaps resent the second friend’s naivite?

Alternatively, a relationship develops which results in a happy marriage with many wonderful children and memories and that sort of thing. Would you not trust the second friend more throughout this time, and perhaps encourage the first friend to revise their own attitudes?

This all seems obvious when stated in such ways, but it really does seem to be the case that people do not enact these practices unless they’ve had at least one emotionally jarring experience involving misplaced trust in a knowledge-authority.

Respect for expertise is not an absolute, it requires trust and will be withdrawn when that trust is broken. Some may take more of a pummelling than others, particularly if the experts are careful to flatter or make martyrdom appeals first – but even then, credibility is finite.

If the same friend introduces you to 5 partners, all of whom turn out to be thieves or worse, you’ll eventually realise that your friend is not a very good one. The same standard must be extended to other relationships, whether in employment or governance or anything else.

With all that said, I’ll take my own plunge into Krugmanite hubris by attempting to put my rhetorical money where my mouth is. I have a few ideas on where we’re heading, generally more pleasant ones than you’ll hear elsewhere – but as ever, the degree to which this is true will depend on what you value.

Prediction: Changes in consumption patterns.

Online ordering will become increasingly normalised for groceries, perhaps becoming the default at every level of society rather than an indolent middle-class affectation. Physical stores for specialist goods were on life-support even before Corona-chan struck; during the last 3 years Clas Ohlson and Maplin both vanished and I now need to go all the way to Scan in Bolton for any computer-related item worth having. (The only computer-related items worth having sold by Currys PCWorld are STEAM gift cards, and they’re only useful when trying to flip One4All gift cards into usable currency)

The tech exists for smooth drone delivery in cities already, but regulation hasn’t caught up to this potential. Perhaps the new waves of demand will expedite this change. I hoped we’d get Fifth Element style balcony visits within my lifetime, now that’s looking increasingly plausible. Despite having spent a solid month playing the game ‘Satisfactory’, I’m still not sufficiently familiar with supply chain logistics to know how specialised each node would need to be – or whether there’d be much scope for choice in the last-mile-fulfilment space. For better or worse, we may be looking at a new natural monopoly.

The average weekly shop might be too heavy for non-military quadrocopters, but why should such a volume remain the standard? Once overheads have fallen sufficiently, I can imagine a generic form of Prime Air bringing small numbers of items along in minutes – not days. I don’t think many people will want to automate this to the full level of self-ordering using smart fridges and the like, especially given the then-exasperating but now-welcome side effect of Remoaning and Orange Man Bad – the very delayed cultural realisation that personal data is important and should be protected.

Advertising has been in crisis for some time, and some elements will become entirely redundant – the nuance of aisle layouts in supermarkets, the phenomenon of placing tempting low-price items in the checkout queue – neither has a direct equivalent when using a website or app. It’s much easier to override an indulgence-urge when a known delay is involved, even a 15 minute one. Putting a photo of some Rolos next to the ‘shopping basket’ icon isn’t the same thing. Even for those not directly affected by job losses and other forms of forced parsimony, I believe we’ll get better at knowing what we want most as opposed to what we want now – not to the level of full asceticism, but at least a kind of deferred hedonism. It’d be a start.

Prediction: Further decline in the credibility of public-sector education.

The current situation, with parents gaining an unprecedented degree of awareness into the ever-more radical nature of modern curricula, provides a perfect storm for the overdue cultural conflict between bottom-up cultural values and top-down narrative interference.

Baffled parent: “What was that teacher talking about, son?”
Zoomer: “They said that there’s not really any such thing as men and women, and that gender roles were created by colonialism”
Baffled parent: “…huh?”
Zoomer: “Don’t worry. I called them a bracketed cuck, and sent the letter ‘N’ four hundred times instead of the homework.” *alt-tabs back to Twitch*
Baffled parent: “…ok?…”

Regarding the tertiary level, it’s been an open secret in SME recruitment for some time now that degree requirements are vague suggestions at best. If the current excesses prove sufficient to tip even the mainstream off to the idea that our academic institutions are no longer fit for purpose vis-a-vis the fearless pursuit of truth, all the better.

Ideally, the private sector will then step in and fill the gap – offering accreditation appropriate to the requirements of each involved party, and with much more of an incentive to care about long-term results. A government failing its pupils will simply create more low-intelligence voters, it’d not be under existential threat while the two-party system itself remained. A private company failing its pupils and their future prospects would be disfavoured by the following intake, not to mention its own shareholders. Competition and the profit motive tap human quirks to produce beneficial results; anticapitalism is the denial of real people’s true perception of value – what they actually do want – in favour of a happy-sounding theory relating to what they ‘should’ want. As determined, presumably, by ‘experts’.

Prediction: Another realignment of community structures.

We had frenzied rites, then we had churches, then we had schoolyard trench-humour which transitioned quite neatly into quotidian workplace solidarity.

In all of these contexts, physical presence and nonverbal communication had an ingroup reinforcement element. There was a level at which the apparent purpose of each gathering was arbitrary and incidental; people would get what they needed from each other in terms of social energy based on proximity, with the pretexts for such being interchangeable.

I’ve already observed a slight decline in goodwill and comprehension among colleagues I didn’t already know well. People are less willing to read even medium-length emails to determine what’s needed. People jump, half-paranoid, to the most worrying possible interpretation of an event – presumably because the cues I’d normally emit to suggest sanguinity are suppressed or absent over Microsoft Teams video calls.

I consider myself very fortunate to have been already primed for a solitary existence, and as such less drastically affected by the comparatively minor lifestyle changes. I’ve not been ‘out out’ since Feb, though will be doing a few things over the next couple of weeks. What I’ve been seeing over the disappointingly drone-free balcony since our own 4th July is people trying too hard, shouting too loud, getting themselves and each other into silly situations. Hopefully they’re just getting confinement out of their systems, and will settle down by the time doughy homebodies like me are inclined to venture out.

Nightlife is not everyday life, however, and runs on different rules with a different pace. We are still adapted, whether genetically or by upbringing or by a combination or the two, to seek out low-stakes companionship for its own sake – to a greater or lesser extent depending on personality and temperament. I predict three types of response if this habit remains disrupted for many more months:

Pivot to radical individualism/emotional independence
The recycling of already stable purpose-driven group structures into purpose-agnostic social support networks

I’ve been working on the first for several years, while some are so addicted to attention that the second seems inevitable. The third, however, could manifest in interesting ways depending on who does what first.

It’s difficult to know what news, if any, will have long-term solidity or significance. Amid all the laser-powered peaceful protests, this opinion was published in response to a US Supreme Court decision to deny a Church’s application to reopen on the same terms as a Casino.

While my constitutional knowledge is extremely limited, I’m inclined to agree with Gorsuch and Kavanagh on this one. The logic is nonsensical – it’s clearly partisan, and indeed probably unconstitutional, to hold these public spaces to different standards. I would sympathise with the casino if the situation were reversed, which the religionists involved may not – but it raises a certain question, which was anticipated by the satire site Babylon Bee some weeks ago:

How far will self-declared progressives go in using shallow topical pretexts to amplify their goals and harm the apparent enemies of same?

The idea of ‘parasitising’ an institution is not new – see the excellent and prescient for much more. What might things look like, however, when these tactics are used out of personal loneliness rather than for overt political ends?

If the alleged Conservative and Unionist Party in the UK were not so deeply attached to its sentimental wartime narrative, it might have thought a little about the pros and cons of forcing socially-minded people into de facto speakeasies.

I predict that those who can handle the apparently necessary cessation of casual daily social contact will be stronger for it, either through introspection and the old-school Great Work, or by recapturing the sense of high-trust organic community which has eluded most urbanites for about a century. Either could be trouble for those who currently feel in charge.

“Do you feel in charge?”

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