Why do People believe in Conspiracies?

What happens when one’s beliefs come in conflict with reality? Not a small conflict, like the shops closing earlier than expected, but a massive conflict, such as believing that a non-existent conspiracy is out to get you.

Both leftists and rightists have their pet conspiracies. I have conspiracy theories. Every now and then, a conspiracy theory turns out to be true, but usually they aren’t.

Here’s an interesting example of a non-political conspiracy theory: Obsessed Benedict Cumberbatch Fans Tried to Have Me Fired:

It started, as so many online flaps do, with a thoughtless tweet. A starstruck friend and I had bumped into the popular actor Benedict Cumberbatch and his pregnant wife, and I made a faintly ironic tweet about it. …

Then the replies started. “How do you know it was his wife?” “What’s his wife like?”


Members of the self-named “Skeptics” (a group of exclusively female Cumberbatch fans who believe that his wife is, variously: a prostitute, a hired PR girlfriend, a blackmailer, a con artist, a domestic abuser, mentally ill, and apparently the most brilliant criminal mastermind of all time, and that the marriage, his wife’s pregnancy, and very existence of their child have all been faked in a wide-ranging international conspiracy orchestrated by a 30-something British opera director in an attempt to force a naïve and helpless movie star to pretend to be married to her) had discovered me, and they were not impressed.

These sorts of fans are probably either 14 years old or actually low-level mentally ill.

In a way, I suspect that mental illness is far more common than we generally acknowledge.

If we define mental illness in evolutionary terms as something that interferes with survival and reproduction, then it is relatively rare. For example, depression–one of the most common mental illnesses–doesn’t interfere with female fertility, and at least in some studies, neuroticism is positively associated with having more children.

By contrast, if we define mental illness as including any significant disconnect from reality, then large swaths of people may be ill. People who are convinced that movie stars’ wives are fake, for example, may be perfectly adept at getting pregnant, but they are still delusional.

Here is another conspiracy theory: The Fetid, Right-Wing Origins of “Learn to Code”:

Last Thursday, I received the news that the HuffPost Opinion section—where I’d been opining on a weekly basis for a few months—had been axed in its entirety. … Dozens of jobs were slashed at HuffPost that day, following a round of layoffs at Gannett Media; further jobs were about to be disappeared at BuzzFeed. …

Then the responses started rolling in—some sympathy from fellow journalists and readers, then an irritating gush of near-identical responses: “Learn to code.” “Maybe learn to code?” “BETTER LEARN TO CODE THEN.” …

On its own, telling a laid-off journalist to “learn to code” is a profoundly annoying bit of “advice,” a nugget of condescension and antipathy. … the timing and ubiquity of the same phrase made me immediately suspect a brigade attack. My suspicions were confirmed when conservative figures like Tucker Carlson and Donald Trump Jr. joined the pile-on, revealing the ways in which right-wing hordes have harnessed social media to discredit and harass their opponents.

So the journalist does some deep sleuthing, discovers that people on 4Chan are talking about telling journalists they should learn to code, and decides that the entire thing is some coordinated troll attack for no other reason than trolls are gonna troll. Just like some movie stars inexplicably have fake girlfriends, so people on 4Chan inexplicably hate journalists.

Related: The Death of a Dreamer:

The day before the conference, Heinz had apparently been told he would be on for ten minutes rather than the three he’d been planning. To fill some of the time at the end, he decided to speak briefly about some of companies he’d partnered with who’d be using Cambrian Genomics technology. Welcoming one of these partners onstage, Gilad Gome of Petomics, he talked about the idea of changing the smell of faeces and gastric wind and using it as an alert that a person was unwell. “When your farts change from wintergreen to banana maybe that means you have an infection in your gut,” he said. He introduced Sweet Peach as a similar project. “The idea is to get rid of UTIs and yeast infections and change the smell of the vagina through probiotics,” he said. …

“These Startup Dudes Want to Make Women’s Private Parts Smell Like Ripe Fruit” ran the headline at Inc.com later that day. … Soon, the Huffington Post picked it up: “Two Science Startup Dudes Introduced a New Product Idea this Week: A Probiotic Supplement that Will Make Women’s Vaginas Smell Like Peaches.” Gawker called it a “waste of science” and said Sweet Peach “sounds like a C-list rom-com with a similarly retrograde view on the priorities of the contemporary human female.” Then, Inc.com weighed in again: “Its mission, apparently hatched by a couple of 11-year-old boys still in the ‘ew, girl cooties’ stage, is to make sure women’s vaginas smell ‘pleasant.’” Similarly negative stories began appearing in major news sources such as SalonBuzzfeed, the Daily Mail and Business Insider.

Long story short, all of the negative publicity resulted in public ostracism in his real life; funding for his company dried up; the company crashed; and he committed suicide.

Shit like this is why so many people hate journalists at magazines like HuffPo.

HuffPo journalists apparently think it’s fine to lie about a guy’s company and drive him to suicide, but think it is very concerning that some assholes told them to “learn to code.” (That said, a bullying campaign targeted at a bunch of people who just lost their jobs might also push someone over the edge to suicide.)

Over in reality land, the learn-to-code meme is far bigger than 4Chan and stems from society’s generalized attempt to replace outsourced manufacturing and other blue-collar labor with white collar jobs like coding. Earning a degree in computer science is, however, outside both the cognitive and physical resources of most laid-off factory workers. Indeed, as the information revolution progresses and society grows more complex, it is not unreasonable to expect that many people will simply not be smart enough to keep up. These are the losers, and there is nothing to be done for them but eternal bread and circuses, welfare and soma.

They commit suicide a lot.

It’s tempting to claim that being so out of touch with mainstream culture that you believe the “learn to code” meme sprang up ex nihilo is part of why these journalists got fired, but it’s far more likely they were just the latest victims of the contraction of print media that’s been going on for two decades.

People believe many other things that defy logic. The QAnoners fall more into the non-functional loony category, but the also-fanciful Russia Conspiracy is widely believed by otherwise levelheaded and normal liberals. The usually not too insane NY Times just ran an article claiming that, “As soon as black women could afford to buy mink coats, white society and white women said fur was all wrong.” Whew. There’s a lot implied in that statement.

(While I can’t tell you what people in New York think of black women wearing fur, I can tell you that around here, the only concern is for the fur.)

And there are many conservatives who believe an equal number of silly things about vast conspiracies–be they run by the Jews or the Gays or whomever–but in general, conservative conspiracy theories don’t get as much attention from reasonable people. Conservative conspiracies are low-class.

Take, for example, the way Alex Jones was deplatformed for getting the Sandy Hook students and their families harassed. Infowars is considered low-class and disreputable. But The New York Times did the exact same thing to the Covington students and their families, resulting in harassment and death threats for them, yet the NY Times has not been deplatformed.

What makes a conspiracy low or high status, published in the NY Times or on Infowars, believed by people who are otherwise kind of crazy or otherwise fairly sane?

Centrists and moderates tend not to champion political conspiracies, probably because they basically like society the way it is. “There is great big conspiracy to make society a nice place!” is not an argument most people will bother with. People who are further toward the political extremes, however, are dissatisfied with much of the way society is run. These people need an explanation for why society is so awful.

“Satan” is the archetypal explanation. The Evil One leads people into evil, and thus there is sin in the world and we are fallen from our original state of utopian grace. Satan has the rhetorical advantage of generally not being associated with a real person, so people of even moderate persuasions can be convinced to rally against the abstraction of evil, but sometimes people get a bit too worked up and actual people are put in prison for witchcraft or devil worship. Our last serious witch-hunt was in the 1980s, when people became convinced that Satanists were operating an international daycare conspiracy to kidnap, rape, and torture people’s children.

Today’s Pizzagaters are disreputable, but the Satanic Daycare Conspiracy was pushed by completely respectable mainstream media outlets and supported by the actions of actual police, judges, prosecutors, etc. If you lived through the 80s, you’ve probably repressed your memory of this, but it was a totally real conspiracy that actually sent real people to prison.

Today’s atheists have had to invent less demonic adversaries. The far left believes that the world is run by a cabal of evil heterosexual patriarchal cis-gendered white male Christians. The alt-right believes the world is run by a cabal of scheming Jews. Both of these are conspiracy theories. (Moderates occasionally delve into non-political conspiracies, like the ones surrounding famous movie stars or vaccinations.)

These theories provide all-encompassing ways of understanding the world. People are inexplicably mean to you? It must be part of a conspiracy by “them” to “get” you. As people encounter new information, the ideology they already have shapes how they react, either incorporating it as corroborating evidence or discarding it as worthless propaganda put out by their enemies.

Unfortunately, this makes conspiracies difficult to disprove.

A conspiracy will be considered reputable and believed by otherwise sane and level-headed people if it comes from an already trusted source, like the New York Times or 60 Minutes. It is normal to trust a source you already trust. After all, humans, even intelligent ones, are incapable of knowing everything society needs to know to keep functioning. We therefore have systems of trust and verification set up–such as medical degrees–that let us know what other people know so we can draw on their knowledge. If a plumber says that my plumbing is busted, it is probably in my interest to believe them. So it goes all the way up society–so if trusted people on CNN or in the government think Trump colluded with the Russians, then a reasonable person concludes that Trump colluded with the Russians.

A conspiracy will be considered disreputable and will appeal more to mentally unstable people if it requires first rejecting an established, trusted source. It is easy to believe a false thing by accident if someone you trust states it first; it requires much more work to first justify why all of the trusted sources are saying an untrue thing. This is therefore much easier if you are already paranoid, and distrusting everyone around you is usually a bad idea. (But not always.)

Of course this does not tell us how a source becomes trusted in the first place, but it does suggest that a false idea, once spread by a trusted source, can become very pernicious. (Conversely, a true idea, spread by a false source, will struggle.) The dominance of Cultural Marxism in universities may simply be a side effect of leftist conspiracies being spread by people whom society (or universities) see as more trustworthy in the first place.

(I suppose the fact that I usually don’t believe in conspiracy theories and instead believe in the power of evolution–of species, ideas, cities, civilizations, the sexes, families, etc–to explain the world as it is, might be why I generally see myself as a moderate. However, this leaves me with the task of coming up with a conspiracy theory to explain why evolutionary theories are not more widely accepted. “Meta-conspiracy theorist” sounds about right.)

(My apologies if this post is disorganized; it’s late.)

Guest Post: How the Winds Change, by Zephyr


Hello, everyone! Today we have a guest post, How the Winds Change, about social signaling, the Federal Government, the Cathedral, and Title IX–and how these things may change:

After the election we’ve seen a lot of liberals express the fear that LGBTQ people and Muslims and other minorities will be rounded up and become victim to horrible things, as this blog has noted. It’s kind of a weird paranoia. Even if Trump was as evil as they say, liberals still have a solid 47% of the populace opposed to him – even up to 90% in their cities. How would you get the people on board with stigmatizing minorities when so, so many people oppose it? In order to enact this sort of draconian social change, you’d really need the masses to buy into it.

I think this fear comes from social justice advocates realizing, somewhere deep down, that their hold on the Cathedral is in some ways quite tenuous. There are a lot of true believers, but there are even more people just along for the ride, who see the best way to get status is to play along with progressive orthodoxy. If the best way to get status and to protect your position becomes “follow the Trump party line,” then those activists currently in the vanguard could find themselves losing a lot of their influence.

The government can do that. Usually in the culture wars the government is a passive beast, something to be fought over and not really a driver of people’s opinions. This is particularly true in liberal democracy, which used to be one of the best things about the US democracy. But, the government has a lot of money, and a lot of power, and if it wants to start really, seriously swaying the elites, status-seeking people will follow it.

Here’s an example. How many of you have heard of the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights? Not many of you probably, as it’s a fairly small office. It’s headed by the Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights. No one famous, not someone you see in endless clickbait articles or cable news debates. She doesn’t even have her own Wikipedia page! She’s just in charge of making sure that schools that receive federal funds (mostly universities) are in compliance with civil rights laws.

But with this administration, the Assistant Secretary of this office cares a lot about progressive social change. And she believes very strongly that sexual assault in our culture is a major problem, and she wants to raise awareness of it (backed by a White House Task Force) . This is no grand conspiracy, this is one person caring about a cause a lot, with only a little bit of federal power behind them, all out in the open.

Now, if found in violation of their civil rights requirements, a university could lose Title IX funding, which is a lot of money. But that sort of hammer can only be used so much, and it’s not even clear how you could prove harassment on campus was the fault of the university in such an investigation.

So instead, the OCR has taken a much more ambiguous approach. Whenever a sexual assault investigation on campus is in the news, they would send a Dear Colleague letter to the university, announcing it was investigating their response. Eventually, the OCR publicly released a list of 55 schools under investigation for how they handle sexual assault accusations.

There is no way that the federal government could pull Title IX funding from 55 major institutions. As a whole the threat was entirely a paper tiger. But whooo boy, no university wants to be on that List. No admissions counselor wants to explain to student’s parents what that List means. No fundraising officer wants to explain to alumni why they are on this List of schools under investigation, before asking them for five figure donations.

So the school does everything they can to comply with the OCR, and make clear they are on the right side of history. In practice, this means putting the rights of the accused last, the rights of the victim second, and the interests of the OCR first. It also means a lot of campus publicity that isn’t shown to reduce sexual assault, but looks like they are doing something.

You may have noticed that within feminism, the problem of “sexual assault on college campuses” has received a ton of attention. Part of the reason for that is universities falling over themselves to appease this office with its vague requirements. As the old saying goes “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

That’s the system. The government vaguely threatens people who get a lot of money from them. Those people with a lot of money jump in line. Other elites look to the people with money as sources of moral authority and take their cues from them. And the masses worry about what the elites are chattering about so much. This is pretty much the definition of the Cathedral after all.

Ordinarily the US government isn’t very involved in the culture wars, so the cultural opinions of the elite are unlikely to turn on a dime. But as we’ve seen, with some issues the federal government does get involved. And I think a lot of the social justice fear is that a Trump administration will get much more actively involved in trying to sway opinion on his issues.

First of all, they’ll stop doing what the current OCR is doing. They may even do the reverse, and starting making a list of schools who they think have been too hard on defendants. Then other bureaucrats in their various niches can begin pursuing investigations designed to “raise awareness” of their pet issue. And before you know it, all the high status intellectuals in your society are apologizing for their past stances and trying to sound like they agreed with Donald Trump all along.

It’s a pretty frightening image, and a good wake up call to just how much power the government has to bend the course of our moral culture when it wants to. No political group on either side should be comfortable with this.

Is Capitalism the only reason to care about Intelligence? pt 2

Continuing with yesterday’s discussion (in response to a reader’s question):

  1. Why are people snobs about intelligence?
  2. Is math ability better than verbal?
  3. Do people only care about intelligence in the context of making money?

1. People are snobs. Not all of them, obviously–just a lot of them.

So we’re going to have to back this up a step and ask why are people snobs, period.

Paying attention to social status–both one’s own and others’–is probably instinctual. We process social status in our prefrontal cortexes–the part of our brain generally involved in complex thought, imagination, long-term planning, personality, not being a psychopath, etc. Our brains respond positively to images of high-status items–activating reward-feedback loop that make us feel good–and negatively to images of low-status items–activating feedback loops that make us feel bad.

The mental effect is stronger when we perform high-status actions in front of others:

…researchers asked a person if the following statement was an accurate description of themselves: “I wouldn’t hesitate to go out of my way to help someone in trouble.” Some of the participants answered the question without anyone else seeing their response. Others knowingly revealed their answer to two strangers who were watching in a room next to them via video feed. The result? When the test subjects revealed an affirmative answer to an audience, their [medial prefrontal cortexes] lit up more strongly than when they kept their answers to themselves. Furthermore, when the participants revealed their positive answers not to strangers, but to those they personally held in high regard, their MPFCs and reward striatums activated even more strongly. This confirms something you’ve assuredly noticed in your own life: while we generally care about the opinions of others, we particularly care about the opinions of people who really matter to us.

(Note what constitutes a high-status activity.)

But this alone does not prove that paying attention to social status is instinctual. After all, I can also point to the part of your brain that processes written words (the Visual Word Form Area,) and yet I don’t assert that literacy is an instinct. For that matter, anything we think about has to be processed in our brains somewhere, whether instinct or not.

Better evidence comes from anthropology and zoology. According to Wikipedia, “All societies have a form of social status,” even hunter-gatherers. If something shows up in every single human society, that’s a pretty good sign that it is probably instinctual–and if it isn’t, it is so useful a thing that no society exists without it.

Even animals have social status–“Social status hierarchies have been documented in a wide range of animals: apes,[7] baboons,[8] wolves,[9] cows/bulls,[10] hens,[11] even fish,[12] and ants.[13]” We may also add horses, many monkey species, elephants, killer whales, reindeer, and probably just about all animals that live in large groups.

Among animals, social status is generally determined by a combination of physical dominance, age,  relationship, and intelligence. Killer whale pods, for example, are led by the eldest female in the family; leadership in elephant herds is passed down from a deceased matriarch to her eldest daughter, even if the matriarch has surviving sisters. Male lions assert dominance by being larger and stronger than other lions.

In all of these cases, the social structure exists because it benefits the group, even if it harms some of the individuals in it. If having no social structure were beneficial for wolves, then wolf packs without alpha wolves would out-compete packs with alphas. This is the essence of natural selection.

Among humans, social status comes in two main forms, which I will call “earned” and “background.”

“Earned” social status stems from things you do, like rescuing people from burning buildings, inventing quantum physics, or stealing wallets. High status activities are generally things that benefit others, and low-status activities are generally those that harm others. This is why teachers are praised and thieves are put in prison.

Earned social status is a good thing, because it reward people for being helpful.

“Background” social status is basically stuff you were born into or have no effect over, like your race, gender, the part of the country you grew up in, your accent, name, family reputation, health/disability, etc.

Americans generally believe that you should not judge people based on background social status, but they do it, anyway.

Interestingly, high-status people are not generally violent. (Just compare crime rates by neighborhood SES.) Outside of military conquest, violence is the domain of the low-class and those afraid they are slipping in social class, not the high class. Compare Andrea Merkel to the average German far-right protester. Obviously the protester would win in a fist-fight, but Merkel is still in charge. High class people go out of their way to donate to charity, do volunteer work, and talk about how much they love refugees. In the traditional societies of the Pacific Northwest, they held potlatches at which they distributed accumulated wealth to their neighbors; in our society, the wealthy donate millions to education. Ideally, in a well-functioning system, status is the thanks rich people get for doing things that benefit the community instead of spending their billions on gold-plated toilets.

You may recall from “Slate Star Codex finds Aristocracy, doesn’t notice,” the quoted descriptions of social status among birds in “Contra Simler on Prestige,” (from Kevin Simler’s Social Status: Down The Rabbit Hole):

The Arabian babbler … spends most of its life in small groups of three to 20 members. These groups lay their eggs in a communal nest and defend a small territory of trees and shrubs that provide much-needed safety from predators.

When it’s living as part of a group, a babbler does fairly well for itself. But babblers who get kicked out of a group have much bleaker prospects. These “non-territorials” are typically badgered away from other territories and forced out into the open, where they often fall prey to hawks, falcons, and other raptors. So it really pays to be part of a group. … Within a group, babblers assort themselves into a linear and fairly rigid dominance hierarchy, i.e., a pecking order. When push comes to shove, adult males always dominate adult females — but mostly males compete with males and females with females. Very occasionally, an intense “all-out” fight will erupt between two babblers of adjacent rank, typically the two highest-ranked males or the two highest-ranked females. …

Most of the time, however, babblers get along pretty well with each other. In fact, they spend a lot of effort actively helping one another and taking risks for the benefit of the group. They’ll often donate food to other group members, for example, or to the communal nestlings. They’ll also attack foreign babblers and predators who have intruded on the group’s territory, assuming personal risk in an effort to keep others safe. One particularly helpful activity is “guard duty,” in which one babbler stands sentinel at the top of a tree, watching for predators while the rest of the group scrounges for food. The babbler on guard duty not only foregoes food, but also assumes a greater risk of being preyed upon, e.g., by a hawk or falcon. …

Unlike chickens, who compete to secure more food and better roosting sites for themselves, babblers compete to give food away and to take the worst roosting sites. Each tries to be more helpful than the next. And because it’s a competition, higher-ranked (more dominant) babblers typically win, i.e., by using their dominance to interfere with the helpful activities of lower-ranked babblers. This competition is fiercest between babblers of adjacent rank. So the alpha male, for example, is especially eager to be more helpful than the beta male, but doesn’t compete nearly as much with the gamma male. Similar dynamics occur within the female ranks.

And from Jim’s Blog, “A Lost Military Technology“:

In the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, wealthy private individuals substantially supported the military, with a particular wealthy men buying stuff for a particular regiment or particular fort.

Noblemen paid high prices for military commands, and these posts were no sinecure.  You got the obligation to substantially supply the logistics for your men, the duty to obey stupid orders that would very likely lead to your death, the duty to lead your men from in front while wearing a costume designed to make you particularly conspicuous, and the duty to engage in honorable personal combat, man to man, with your opposite number who was also leading his troops from in front.

A vestige of this tradition remains in that every English prince has been sent to war and has placed himself very much in harm’s way.

It seems obvious to me that a soldier being led by a member of the ruling class who is soaking up the bullets from in front is a lot more likely to be loyal and brave than a soldier sent into battle by distant rulers safely in Washington who despise him as a sexist homophobic racist murderer, that a soldier who sees his commander, a member of the ruling classes, fighting right in front of him, is reflexively likely to fight.

(Note, however, that magnanimity is not the same as niceness. The only people who are nice to everyone are store clerks and waitresses, and they’re only nice because they have to be or they’ll get fired.)

Most people are generally aware of each others’ social statuses, using contextual clues like clothing and accents to make quick, rough estimates. These contextual clues are generally completely neutral–they just happen to correlate with other behaviors.

For example, there is nothing objectively good or bad for society about wearing your pants belted beneath your buttocks, aside from it being an awkward way to wear your pants. But the style correlates with other behaviors, like crime, drug use, and aggression, low paternal investment, and unemployment, all of which are detrimental to society, and so the mere sight of underwear spilling out of a man’s pants automatically assigns him low status. There is nothing causal in this relationship–being a criminal does not make you bad at buckling your pants, nor does wearing your pants around your knees somehow inspire you to do drugs. But these things correlate, and humans are very good at learning patterns.

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Likewise, there is nothing objectively better about operas than Disney movies, no real difference between a cup of coffee brewed in the microwave and one from Starbucks; a Harley Davidson and a Vespa are both motorcycles; and you can carry stuff around in just about any bag or backpack, but only the hoity-toity can afford something as objectively hideous as a $26,000 Louis Vutton backpack.

All of these things are fairly arbitrary and culturally dependent–the way you belt your pants can’t convey social status in a society where people don’t wear pants; your taste in movies couldn’t matter before movies were invented. Among hunter-gatherers, social status is based on things like one’s skills at hunting, and if I showed up to the next PTA meeting wearing a tophat and monocle, I wouldn’t get any status points at all.

We tend to aggregate the different social status markers into three broad classes (middle, upper, and lower.) As Scott Alexander says in his post about Siderea’s essay on class in America, which divides the US into 10% Underclass, 65% Working Class, 23.5% Gentry Class, and 1.5% Elite:

Siderea notes that Church’s analysis independently reached about the same conclusion as Paul Fussell’s famous guide. I’m not entirely sure how you’d judge this (everybody’s going to include lower, middle, and upper classes), but eyeballing Fussell it does look a lot like Church, so let’s grant this.

It also doesn’t sound too different from Marx. Elites sound like capitalists, Gentry like bourgeoisie, Labor like the proletariat, and the Underclass like the lumpenproletariat. Or maybe I’m making up patterns where they don’t exist; why should the class system of 21st century America be the same as that of 19th century industrial Europe?

There’s one more discussion of class I remember being influenced by, and that’s Unqualified Reservations’ Castes of the United States. Another one that you should read but that I’ll summarize in case you don’t:

1. Dalits are the underclass, … 2. Vaisyas are standard middle-class people … 3. Brahmins are very educated people … 4. Optimates are very rich WASPs … now they’re either extinct or endangered, having been pretty much absorbed into the Brahmins. …

Michael Church’s system (henceforth MC) and the Unqualified Reservation system (henceforth UR) are similar in some ways. MC’s Underclass matches Dalits, MC’s Labor matches Vaisyas, MC’s Gentry matches Brahmins, and MC’s Elite matches Optimates. This is a promising start. It’s a fourth independent pair of eyes that’s found the same thing as all the others. (commenters bring up Joel Kotkin and Archdruid Report as similar convergent perspectives).

I suspect the tendency to try to describe society as consisting of three broad classes (with the admission that other, perhaps tiny classes that don’t exactly fit into the others might exist) is actually just an artifact of being a three-biased society that likes to group things in threes (the Trinity, three-beat joke structure, three bears, Three Musketeers, three notes in a chord, etc.) This three-bias isn’t a human universal (or so I have read) but has probably been handed down to us from the Indo-Europeans, (“Many Indo-European societies know a threefold division of priests, a warrior class, and a class of peasants or husbandmen. Georges Dumézil has suggested such a division for Proto-Indo-European society,”) so we’re so used to it that we don’t even notice ourselves doing it.

(For more information on our culture’s three-bias and different number biases in other cultures, see Alan Dundes’s Interpreting Folklore, though I should note that I read it back in highschool and so my memory of it is fuzzy.)

c5933(Also, everyone is probably at least subconsciously cribbing Marx, who was probably cribbing from some earlier guy who cribbed from another earlier guy, who set out with the intention of demonstrating that society–divided into nobles, serfs, and villagers–reflected the Trinity, just like those Medieval maps that show the world divided into three parts or the conception of Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory.)

At any rate, I am skeptical of any system that lumps 65% of people into one social class and 0.5% of people into a different social class as being potentially too-finely grained at one end of the scale and not enough at the other. Determining the exact number of social classes in American society may ultimately be futile–perhaps there really are three (or four) highly distinct groups, or perhaps social classes transition smoothly from one to the next with no sharp divisions.

I lean toward the latter theory, with broad social classes as merely a convenient shorthand for extremely broad generalizations about society. If you look any closer, you tend to find that people do draw finer-grained distinctions between themselves and others than “65% Working Class” would imply. For example, a friend who works in agriculture in Greater Appalachia once referred dismissively to other people they had to deal with as “red necks.” I might not be able to tell what differentiates them, but clearly my friend could. Similarly, I am informed that there are different sorts of homelessness, from true street living to surviving in shelters, and that lifetime homeless people are a different breed altogether. I might call them all “homeless,” but to the homeless, these distinctions are important.

Is social class evil?

This question was suggested by a different friend.

I suspect that social class is basically, for the most part, neutral-to-useful. I base this on the fact that most people do not work very hard to erase markers of class distinction, but instead actively embrace particular class markers. (Besides, you can’t get rid of it, anyway.)

It is not all that hard to learn the norms and values of a different social class and strategically employ them. Black people frequently switch between speaking African American Vernacular English at home and standard English at work; I can discuss religion with Christian conservatives and malevolent AI risk with nerds; you can purchase a Harley Davidson t-shirt as easily as a French beret and scarf.

(I am reminded here of an experiment in which researchers were looking to document cab drivers refusing to pick up black passengers; they found that when the black passengers were dressed nicely, drivers would pick them up, but when they wore “ghetto” clothes, the cabs wouldn’t. Cabbies: responding more to perceived class than race.)

And yet, people don’t–for the most part–mass adopt the social markers of the upper class just to fool them. They love their motorcycle t-shirts, their pumpkin lattes, even their regional accents. Class markers are an important part of peoples’ cultural / tribal identities.

But what about class conflicts?

Because every class has its own norms and values, every class is, to some degree, disagreeing with the other classes. People for whom frugality and thrift are virtues will naturally think that people who drink overpriced coffee are lacking in moral character. People for whom anti-racism is the highest virtue will naturally think that Trump voters are despicable racists. A Southern Baptist sees atheists as morally depraved fetus murderers; nerds and jocks are famously opposed to each other; and people who believe that you should graduate from college, become established in your career, get married, and then have 0-1.5 children disapprove of people who drop out of highschool, have a bunch of children with a bunch of different people, and go on welfare.

A moderate sense of pride in one’s own culture is probably good and healthy, but spending too much energy hating other groups is probably negative–you may end up needlessly hurting people whose cooperation you would have benefited from, reducing everyone’s well-being.

(A good chunk of our political system’s dysfunctions are probably due to some social classes believing that other social classes despise them and are voting against their interests, and so counter-voting to screw over the first social class. I know at least one person who switched allegiance from Hillary to Trump almost entirely to stick it to liberals they think look down on them for classist reasons.)

Ultimately, though, social class is with us whether we like it or not. Even if a full generation of orphan children were raised with no knowledge of their origins and completely equal treatment by society at large, each would end up marrying/associating with people who have personalities similar to themselves (and remember that genetics plays a large role in personality.) Just as current social classes in America are ethnically different, (Southern whites are drawn from different European populations than Northern whites, for example,) so would the society resulting from our orphanage experiment differentiate into genetically and personalityish-similar groups.

Why do Americans generally proclaim their opposition to judging others based on background status, and then act classist, anyway? There are two main reasons.

  1. As already discussed, different classes have real disagreements with each other. Even if I think I shouldn’t judge others, I can’t put aside my moral disgust at certain behaviors just because they happen to correlate with different classes.
  2. It sounds good to say nice, magnanimous things that make you sound more socially sensitive and aware than others, like, “I wouldn’t hesitate to go out of my way to help someone in trouble.” So people like to say these things whether they really mean them or not.

In reality, people are far less magnanimous than they like to claim they are in front of their friends. People like to say that we should help the homeless and save the whales and feed all of the starving children in Africa, but few people actually go out of their way to do such things.

There is a reason Mother Teresa is considered a saint, not an archetype.

In real life, not only does magnanimity has a cost, (which the rich can better afford,) but if you don’t live up to your claims, people will notice. If you talk a good talk about loving others but actually mistreat them, people will decide that you’re a hypocrite. On the internet, you can post memes for free without havng to back them up with real action, causing discussions to descend into competitive-virtue signalling in which no one wants to be the first person to admit that they actually are occasionally self-interested. (Cory Doctorow has a relevant discussion about how “reputations economies”–especially internet-based ones–can go horribly wrong.)

Unfortunately, people often confuse background and achieved status.

American society officially has no hereditary social classes–no nobility, no professions limited legally to certain ethnicities, no serfs, no Dalits, no castes, etc. Officially, if you can do the job, you are supposed to get it.

Most of us believe, at least abstractly, that you shouldn’t judge or discriminate against others for background status factors they have no control over, like where they were born, the accent thy speak with, or their skin tone. If I have two resumes, one from someone named Lakeesha, and the other from someone named Ian William Esquire III, I am supposed to consider each on their merits, rather than the connotations their names invoke.

But because “status” is complicated, people often go beyond advocating against “background” status and also advocate that we shouldn’t accord social status for any reasons. That is, full social equality.

This is not possible and would be deeply immoral in practice.

When you need heart surgery, you really hope that the guy cutting you open is a top-notch heart surgeon. When you’re flying in an airplane, you hope that both the pilot and the guys who built the plane are highly skilled. Chefs must be good at cooking and authors good at writing.

These are all forms of earned status, and they are good.

Smart people are valuable to society because they do nice things like save you from heart attacks or invent cell-phones. This is not “winning at capitalism;” this is benefiting everyone around them. In this context, I’m happy to let smart people have high status.

In a hunter-gatherer society, smart people are the ones who know the most about where animals live and how to track them, how to get water during a drought, and where that 1-inch stem they spotted last season that means a tasty underground tuber is located. Among nomads, smart people are the ones with the biggest mental maps of the territory, the folks who know the safest and quickest routes from good summer pasture to good winter pasture, how to save an animal from dying and how to heal a sick person. Among pre-literate people, smart people composed epic poems that entertained their neighbors for many winters’ nights, and among literate ones, the smart people became scribes and accountants. Even the communists valued smart people, when they weren’t chopping their heads off for being bourgeois scum.

So even if we say, abstractly, “I value all people, no matter how smart they are,” the smart people do more of the stuff that benefits society than the dumb people, which means they end up with higher social status.

So, yes, high IQ is a high social status marker, and low IQ is a low social status marker, and thus at least some people will be snobs about signaling their IQ and their disdain for dumb people.


I am speaking here very abstractly. There are plenty of “high status” people who are not benefiting society at all. Plenty of people who use their status to destroy society while simultaneously enriching themselves. And yes, someone can come into a community, strip out all of its resources and leave behind pollution and unemployment, and happily call it “capitalism” and enjoy high status as a result.

I would be very happy if we could stop engaging in competitive holiness spirals and stop lionizing people who became wealthy by destroying communities. I don’t want capitalism at the expense of having a pleasant place to live in.

Part 3 tomorrow.


Is Capitalism the only reason to care about Intelligence?

Trophonius--ὃν οἱ θεοὶ φιλοῦσιν, ἀποθνῄσκει νέος.
Trophonius–ὃν οἱ θεοὶ φιλοῦσιν, ἀποθνῄσκει νέος.

Before we get started, I want to pause in memory of Henry Harpending, co-author (with Greg Cochran) of The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution and the blog West Hunter.

ὃν οἱ θεοὶ φιλοῦσιν, ἀποθνῄσκει νέος — he whom the gods love dies young. (Meander)

Harpending wasn’t particularly young, nor was his death unexpected, but I am still sad; I have enjoyed his work for years, and there will be no more. Steve Sailer has a nice eulogy.

In less tragic HBD-osphere news, it looks like Peter Frost has stopped writing his blog, Evo and Proud, due to Canadian laws prohibiting free speech. (There has been much discussion of this on the Frost’s posts that were carried over on Unz; ultimately, the antisemitism of many Unz commentators made it too dangerous for Frost to continue blogging, even though his posts actually had nothing to do with Judaism.)

Back to our subject: This is an attempt to answer–coherently–a friend’s inquiry.

  1. Why are people snobs about intelligence?
  2. Is math ability better than verbal?
  3. Do people only care about intelligence in the context of making money?

We’re going to tackle the easiest question first, #2. No, math ability is not actually better than verbal ability.

Imagine two people. Person A–we’ll call her Alice–has exceptional verbal ability. She probably has a job as a journalist, novelist, poet, or screenwriter. She understands other people’s emotions and excels at interacting verbally with others. But she sucks at math. Not just suck; she struggles counting to ten.

Alice is going to have a rough time handling money. In fact, Alice will probably be completely dependent on the other people around them to handle money for them. Otherwise, however, Alice will probably have a pretty pleasant life.

Of course, if Alice happened to live in a hunter-gatherer society where people don’t use numbers over 5, she would not stand out at all. Alice could be a highly respected oral poet or storyteller–perhaps her society’s version of an encyclopedia, considered wise and knowledgeable about a whole range of things.

Now consider Person B–we’ll call her Betty. Betty has exceptional math ability, but can only say a handful of words and cannot intuit other people’s emotions.

Betty is screwed.

Here’s the twist: #2 is a trick question.

Verbal and mathematical ability are strongly correlated in pretty much everyone who hasn’t had brain damage (so long as you are looking at people from the same society). Yes, people like to talk about “multiple intelligences,” like “kinesthetic” and “musical” intelligence. It turns out that most of these are correlated. (The one exception may be kinesthetic, about which I have heard conflicting reports. I swear I read a study somewhere which found that sports players are smarter than sports watchers, but all I’m finding now are reports that athletes are pretty dumb.)

Yes, many–perhaps most–people are better at one skill than another. This effect is generally small–we’re talking about people who get A+ in English and only B+s in math, not people who get A+ in English but Fs in math.

The effect may be more pronounced for people at the extremes of high-IQ–that is, someone who is three standard deviations above the norm in math may be only slightly above average in verbal, and vice versa–but professional authors are not generally innumerate, nor are mathematicians and scientists unable to read and write. (In fact, their professions require constantly writing papers for publication and reading the papers published by their colleagues.)

All forms of “intelligence” probably rely, at a basic level, on bodily well-being. Your brain is a physical object inside your body, and if you do not have the material bits necessary for well-being, your brain will suffer. When you haven’t slept in a long time, your ability to think goes down the tubes. If you haven’t eaten in several days (or perhaps just this morning), you will find it difficult to think. If you are sick or in pain, again, you will have trouble thinking.

Healthy people have an easier time thinking, and this applies across the board to all forms of thought–mathematical, verbal, emotional, kinesthetic, musical, etc.

“Health” here doesn’t  just include things we normally associate with it, like eating enough vegetables and swearing to the dentist that this time, you’re really going to floss. It probably also includes minute genetic variations in how efficient your body is at building and repairing tissues; chemicals or viruses you were exposed to in-utero; epigenetics, etc.

So where does this notion that math and science are better than English and feelings come from, anyway?

A. Math (and science) are disciplines with (fairly) objective answers. If I ask you, “What’s 2+2?” we can determine pretty easily whether you got it correct. This makes mathematical ability difficult to fudge and easy to verify.

Verbal disciplines, by contrast, are notoriously fuzzy:

  riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend 1
of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to 2
Howth Castle and Environs. 3
    Sir Tristram, violer d’amores, fr’over the short sea, had passen- 4
core rearrived from North Armorica on this side the scraggy 5
isthmus of Europe Minor to wielderfight his penisolate war: nor 6
had topsawyer’s rocks by the stream Oconee exaggerated themselse 7
to Laurens County’s gorgios while they went doublin their mumper 8
all the time: nor avoice from afire bellowsed mishe mishe to 9
tauftauf thuartpeatrick: not yet, though venissoon after, had a 10
kidscad buttended a bland old isaac: not yet, though all’s fair in 11
vanessy, were sosie sesthers wroth with twone nathandjoe. Rot a 12
peck of pa’s malt had Jhem or Shen brewed by arclight and rory 13
end to the regginbrow was to be seen ringsome on the aquaface. 14
    The fall (bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonner- 15
ronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthur- 16

So. A+ or F-?

Or how about:

I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror. Damn my hair – it just won’t behave, and damn Katherine Kavanagh for being ill and subjecting me to this ordeal. I should be studying for my final exams, which are next week, yet here I am trying to brush my hair into submission. I must not sleep with it wet. I must not sleep with it wet. Reciting this mantra several times, I attempt, once more, to bring it under control with the brush. I roll my eyes in exasperation and gaze at the pale, brown-haired girl with blue eyes too big for her face staring back at me, and give up. My only option is to restrain my wayward hair in a ponytail and hope that I look semi presentable.

Best-seller, or Mary Sue dreck?

And what does this mean:

Within that conflictual economy of colonial discourse which Edward Said describes as the tension between the synchronic panoptical vision of domination – the demand for identity, stasis – and the counterpressure of the diachrony of history – change, difference – mimicry represents an ironic compromise. If I may adapt Samuel Weber’s formulation of the marginalizing vision of castration, then colonial mimicry is the desire for a reformed, recognizable Other, as a subject of a difference that is almost the same, but not quite. Which is to say, that the discourse of mimicry is constructed around an ambivalence; in order to be effective, mimicry must continually produce its slippage, its excess, its difference. (source)

If we’re going to argue about who’s smartest, it’s much easier if we can assign a number to everyone and declare that the person with the biggest number wins. The SAT makes a valiant effort at quantifying verbal knowledge like the number of words you can accurately use, but it is very hard to articulate what makes a text so great that Harvard University would hire the guy who wrote it.

B. The products of science have immediately obvious, useful applications, while the products of verbal abilities appear more superficial and superfluous.

Where would we be today without the polio vaccine, internal combustion engines, or the transistor? What language would we be writing in if no one had cracked the Enigma code, or if the Nazis had not made Albert Einstein a persona non grata? How many of us used computers, TVs, or microwaves? And let’s not forget all of the science that has gone into breeding and raising massively more caloric strains of wheat, corn, chicken, beef, etc., to assuage the world’s hunger.

We now live in a country where too much food is our greatest health problem!

If I had to pick between the polio vaccine and War and Peace, I’d pick the vaccine, even if every minute spent with Tolstoy is a minute of happiness. (Except when *spoilers spoilers* and then I cry.)

But literature is not the only product of verbal ability; we wouldn’t be able to tell other people about our scientific discoveries if it weren’t for language.

Highly verbal people are good at communication and so help keep the gears of modern society turning, which is probably why La Griffe du Lion found that national per capita GDP correlated more closely with verbal IQ scores than composite or mathematical scores.

Of course, as noted, these scores are highly correlated–so the whole business is really kind of moot.

So where does this notion come from?

In reality, high-verbal people tend to be more respected and better paid than high-math people. No, not novelists–novelists get paid crap. But average pay for lawyers–high verbal–is much better than average pay for mathematicians. Scientists are poorly paid compared to other folks with similar IQs and do badly on the dating market; normal people frequently bond over their lack of math ability.

“Math is hard. Let’s go shopping!” — Barbie

Even at the elementary level, math and science are given short shrift. How many schools have a “library” for math and science exploration in the same way they have a “library” for books? I have seen the lower elementary curriculum; kindergarteners are expected to read small books and write full sentences, but by the end of the year, they are only expected to count to 20 and add/subtract numbers up to 5. (eg, 1+4, 2+3, 3-2, etc.)

The claim that math/science abilities are more important than verbal abilities probably stems primarily from high-math/science people who recognize their fields’ contributions to so many important parts of modern life and are annoyed (or angry) about the lack of recognition they receive.

To be Continued.


Feminism is a status game

I’ve posted before about my theory that feminism is about high-status people vs. low-status men.

I was thinking today a bit more about status.

Now, there exist feminist concerns that are not status-oriented, such as rape and assault. Feminism is vast; it contains multitudes. We will lay these aside for the moment to focus on status.

One of the things that makes me distrustful of feminism is the way extended family members attempt to use it to create marital discord between my husband and myself in order to get their way during disputes. Advertising does this, too, so I’ll use an example from advertising.

Family harmony and functioning require that husbands and wives agree on how the family’s money is spent, and that neither spouse spends recklessly or excessively. It is often simplest if one spouse has primary responsibility for setting the budget, paying the bills, etc. Sometimes, as in Japan, this is primarily the women; sometimes it is primarily the men. These arrangements are pure necessity: budgetary disorganization or reckless spending lead to financial problems like the electricity bill not getting paid.

Feminism promotes the idea that women should be in control of their own finances, which has been picked up by the advertising industry and promoted as the idea that spending money on whatever the hell you want is an act of female empowerment because you are defying your evil, patriarchal husband’s demands that you stick to a reasonable budget. You deserve it! (whatever “it” is.)

To be fair, advertisers do the exact same thing to men, albeit with slightly different language. You deserve a break today! A Big Mac! Cigarettes! Cars! Whatever it is, it isn’t some unneeded luxury advertisers for which are trying to convince you to fork over your hard-won budget dollars, but something you fundamentally deserve to have.

I get this a lot. “You deserve new clothes!” No, my current clothes are just fine; I am not dressed in rags. I buy new clothes when I need them and spend discretionary budget money on books, games, and other things for the children.

“You deserve a night out! Let’s go downtown and socialize with strangers!” No, I have no particular desire to act like a 20-something singleton cruising the bars. I certainly do not “deserve” to have someone else watch over my kids for me. Nor do I “deserve” to go to a restaurant; food is food. There is no sense in paying extra just so I can eat it outside my house.

“You deserve a vacation!” Fuck no. I hate travel.

“You deserve to sit in the front of the car instead of the back!” I sit in the back so I can supervise the distribution of ketchup packets when we get french fries. This is not a goddam status competition; I just want to make sure ketchup doesn’t go everywhere.

“You are not doing X that I want you to do! It must be because of your husband! He is poisoning you against me! You need to stop letting him boss you around! Stand up to him and let him know you are doing X because you deserve it, girl!”

At this point, I’m like OMFG, let’s just bring back patriarchy and then I can just redirect all of this bullshit at my husband and be like, “Sorry, I don’t make those decisions, that’s his department, so sorry, can’t help you at all! Bye-bye!” Okay, maybe that would be cruel to him, but it would at least spare me.

But none of these decisions were made because of political or patriarchal leanings. They’re all things we decided because they made practical sense for us to do them that way, or because I happen to have a personal preference in that department. The attempt to use feminist arguments a a wedge to make me spend more money or otherwise do things I dislike is, ultimately, an attempt to poison marital harmony by setting me against my husband.

But let’s get back to status.

Status is a shitty game. Chances are, you’ll lose; for 99.999% or so of people, there’s always someone higher status than themselves. Sure, you might have been good at sports in highschool, but in college you discovered that you suck and hundreds of people are much better than you. You might have been good at math in middle school, but come college, you discover that you do not have what it takes to get a degree in math. Or maybe you were skilled enough to get a degree in art, only to discover that people like you are a dime a gross and eating beans out of cans.

It is extremely hard in our modern world to be tops in any industry. It is hard to be tops in your neighborhood. It is hard to be tops in your church. It is hard to be top anything, anywhere, period.

Now rewind your clock to 1900 or so. Most people lived in small, rural farming communities, in which most people had the exact same occupation: farmer. “Status” in your community was directly tied to your ability to be a good farmer, or if you were a woman, a good farm wife. Do you plow your fields well? Work hard? Get the harvest in on time? Treat your neighbors decently and not stumble home drunk in the evenings? Then you were probably regarded as a “good” farmer and had reasonable status in your community. Did you keep the house clean, tend the garden, mend the clothe, watch the children, cook good meals, and preserve food for the winter? Then you were a “good” farm wife.

It’s a hard life, but they were tasks that mere mortals could aspire to do well, and whatever your status, it was obviously derived from the physical execution of your duties. You can’t fake getting in the harvest or cooking a good meal.

I reject–based on lack of evidence–the theory that 1800s farming societies viewed women derrogatorily. Farmsteads could not function without their female members (just as they could not function without men), and farm families spent long hours with no one but each other for company. Under these circumstances, I suspect that people generally valued and appreciated each other’s contributions, rather than engage in dumb fights over whether or not women were good at plowing.

Then came industrialization. People moved off the farms and into cities. Factory work replaced plowing.

While there are bad factory workers, there are no great ones. Working harder or faster than your fellows on the factory line does not result in better widgets or superior performance reviews, because the entire factory is designed to work at the exact same pace. Working faster or slower simply doesn’t work.

Factory work is, in many respects, more pleasant than farm work. It is less labor-intensive, you don’t have to shovel manure, you don’t have to work in inclement weather, and you’re less likely to starve to death due to inclement weather.

But there are many critiques arguing that factory work is inhuman (in the literal sense) and soul-deadening. The factory worker is little more than a flesh-and-blood robot, repeatedly performing a single function.

The farmer may look upon a stack of hay or newborn calf and feel pride in the work of his hands; the farm wife may look likewise on the food stacked in her cellar or her healthy children. But the factory worker has nothing he can point to and say, “I made this.” Factory work levels everyone into one great big undifferentiated mass.

War is perhaps the exception to this rule; those who band together to build tanks and planes to save their homelands do seem to feel great pride in their work. But merely making flip-flops or cellphones does not carry this kind of noble sentiment.

Outside of war, the factory worker has little status, and that he has is determined almost entirely by what others wish to pay him. There are therefore two ways for the factory worker to gain status: the country can go to war, or the worker can get a better-paying job.

Women have generally opted for “better jobs” over “more wars.”

Questions like “Why aren’t there more women in STEM?” or more generally, “Why aren’t there more women in profession X?” along with all the questions about equal pay all seem predicated on a quest for higher status, or at least on the idea that if women aren’t equal in any field, it’s a sign of people devaluing women (rather than, say, women just not being particularly interested in that field.)