Luboš Motl, and some thoughts on monopolies

I had the pleasure of reading some blog posts of Luboš Motl on present day academia. I first learned of him when I was a clueless undergrad. He seemed like this insanely smart theoretical physicist. Of course back then I was dumb and in awe of everything, so what else could I think? I know that he pissed off so many people that he was forced from resign from his tenure track position at Harvard physics in string theory. His academic work I am of course nowhere close to qualified to comment on, but people have said it’s first rate, and I’ll take their word. I even thought the guy was crazy. My very smart friend, in some online interaction with him, was scoffed off with: “You don’t understand vectors!” That guy later characterized the hypothetical combination of Luboš and this other guy I know, a PhD student in string theory, who is quite academically elitist and also so in terms of expecting good values and a fair degree of cultural/historical knowledge, as “a match made in heaven.” I also recall a commenter on Steve Hsu’s blog remark that Luboš has Aspergers syndrome or something like that. Anyhow, this time when reading the blog of Luboš, I no longer felt a sense of awe but rather a strong sense of clarity and reasonability in his thinking. He can be quite abrasive in some other contexts maybe, such as in his campaign against the climate change advocates (oh, on that I recently learned Freeman Dyson is also on the same side as Luboš on this one), but I believe it arises purely out of positive intentions on his part for the future of humanity, which many view as on a course of decline.

So the blog posts of Luboš read by me most memorable were on Scott Aaronson and feminism, a proposal for more political brainwashing requirements at Harvard, and Terence Tao’s silly mathematization of why Trump is not fit to be president respectively. On the first, I never knew Scott had followed the current feminist bandwagon. On the second, I’ve become more repulsed by and concerned with what I would characterize as absurd political notions (not matching with objective facts) held by many of elite school credentials, a sign that our elite selection is failing. On the third, I can’t believe Tao, a mathematician, would try to artificially mathematize a political matter. I would think that a mathematician would know better that substance trumps presentation in science.

Another friend of mine with a math PhD told me to my surprise a few years ago that now, we see many great scientists marginalized. I used to have the naive view that hard science fields like math and theoretical physics were almost entirely meritocratic and of a culture tolerant and supportive of independent, rational thinking and dismissive of the disingenuous marketing the norm in the business world, but now I increasing am doubting that, not that I deny at all that those fields are far better than the softer, less g-loaded areas of STEM, let alone non-technical subjects. It’s kind of sad that even mathematicians in high places like Aaronson and Tao are promoting such behavior with their prominent positions. So that friend of mine might be right on his somewhat of a verdict that the scientific community is in a catastrophic state right now.

I would say this is much owing to the scarcity of positions. Tenure is such a rare commodity nowadays that one who obtains it so often uses it to advance their political agenda, and sadly on that, it seems the bad guys are winning. Direct, honest, objective guys like Steve Hsu are few and fewer. Of course, different groups fighting for their own interests, for advancement of their own, be it their ethnic group, their political party, or their field of study, is deeply embedded in human nature and a necessity for survival. We now see in academia what in hyperbole are religious wars between different fields, different schools of thought, often in a manner that defies the so-called freedom of expression and thought that the university is in its ideal supposed to be for.

What I have just written holds within the theme of civilizational decline. On the matter of preservation of Western (white) civilization, my white American friend raised Christian remarked:

IDK the new divide is not “white vs nonwhite” it’s more like “people who have civilization worth preserving vs everyone else”

On that I asked with a chuckle: “what about Jews?” And he was like:

They have a country they should go there where they can’t parasitize everyone else

On that I recalled that my friend, another math PhD student, regards Jews more as a social class than as an ethnicity. He does have a point since as far as I know, the distinctiveness of Jews as an ethnic group is blurry in that they were this group in the Middle East with a religious culture of their own their seldom mixed with others despite often living amongst them. There, the leaks were more outwards with Jews converting to Christianity and thereby leaving permanently.

However, upper classes, especially ones in intellectual ability, within an ethnic group are still largely identified with and respected by the majority as emblematic of the group at large in some sense, which would contradict the aforementioned interpretation. I see that ordinary whites still view upper class whites as their own, as do ordinary Chinese with respect to intellectually elite Chinese, yet no other group really identifies with Jews the same way as far as I can tell.

Let me reiterate again that I, with many Jews I much respect and also some I talk to who have been major influences on me, am not anti-Semitic. Not that anti-X can be viewed as a binary variable. Lobos also said that in contrast, sex can be because there are X and Y chromosomes, so wise men think alike. 😉

I have commented before that

“Anti-Semitism” has become this political buzzword now. It basically is equivalent to anti-Jewish. So what? Many people in the world are also anti-Chinese, or anti-American, or anti-German, or anti-(any ethnic group or country), so what, they have the right to be, so long as they do not infringe too much. Also, keep in mind that anti-X is not binary; it’s very complex. Just like you almost never like or dislike everything about a person, you also can like certain things about a particular culture or people or country, and not like certain things.

I heartily believe that every group can be openly examined for their behavior as a collective. There is nothing wrong with that, and racist stereotypes are there for a reason after all. Pertaining to a specific one, Anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists (or most like cynical realists) might think that Jews want to absorb every competent group into their order so that they can have smart people working for them instead competing against them, and of course they will share power mostly amongst themselves.

Obviously, if you want to gain leverage over someone absorb him into your system make him dependent on you. We see this in international relations all the times. For example, in military technology, US and USSR created their own independent ecosystems, and many smaller countries had to more or less choose one or the other. There is a similar phenomenon in the software industry, with a very small number of widely used languages and frameworks. We’ve seen that many businesses are stuck with Microsoft once they use it for a while, and then there is a chain effect across the entire market.

We also see that Jews are also on top of arguably the premier credentialist hierarchy that is the Ivy League, with their accounting for arguably half or more of its presidents and senior administrators, and now people sort of need it to advance their career in America and even some other places, from which comes inevitably owing to our nature the political game of allotment of these scarce credentialist resources. Lately, Asians have realized by now that they can’t let Jews control too much of its distribution, favoring groups it fears not at the expense of those who pose more of a threat to themselves. On this, I have written that US higher education was and still is somewhat of a tool for cultivating (pseudo)-elite Chinese within an ecosystem wherein Jews have disproportionate influence. Chinese are a unique group in that they are intelligent, large, and a civilization and culture that emerged and evolved almost entirely independently of outsiders. (On the other hand, it is the modern science that Chinese are increasingly excelling at that is, in contrast, purely a product of Western civilization.) For this reason, Chinese have been very difficult if not impossible to absorb into any other system. Historically, even though the Mongols and Manchus had conquered China militarily, culturally they were much more absorbed into China than the other way round.

I believe cultural diversity (globally, not within every single country) is beneficial if not necessary for the overall health of human civilization. Referring back to the putative degraded state of US academia, Alain Connes, a French Fields Medalist, thinks the collapse of the Soviet science system, was catastrophic for science, since the USSR was a crucial counterweight to America. It was during the Cold War that was the golden period for STEM in America too, with Apollo 11 a climax. Now, with everybody absorbed into the American system sociologically, people are far less inclined to work on new things and instead play it safe in existent research programs, especially with grants and tenure-track, whereas in USSR in the research institutes, which he believes produced the best science, everyone basically had tenure from the start. That was quite an new and interesting perspective when I first saw it, and now, knowing more, I can see why he thinks that. Also, I think with China and Chinese, the mentality used to be, from the beginning of the reform and opening up, primarily one of how to gain approval from and integrate into what is globally prestigious along the (US-led) status quo, with say a sizable contingent obsessed with Ivy League, but that is taking a turn in the recent years now that China is far richer and more advanced than before. Still, one can say there was still back then a minority but one large enough to produce effect of talented people in China who thought all that prestige worship was silly and persisted in what they were doing to the extent that they gradually built more critical mass that while formerly much ignored by outsiders is now attracting ever more attention.

I’ve noted that different political factions and ethnic groups competing for resources for themselves will always be a thing, and one can think of scientific disciplines and schools of thought as political factions in some sense, which are in some cases even largely segregated by ethnic groups, with different countries having their own distinctive schools in various scientific disciplines. Sometimes, being too influenced by what others are doing and how others are thinking detracts from independent inquiry. Science in the long-term historical perspective values those who create new fields which turn out to be important. I have certainly seen the perspective that problem solvers in existent fields are a dime a dozen and it’s the theory builders who blaze new trails who are the real geniuses, one that resonates with me. For instance, the Greeks were the founders of the pure mathematics, and it was the step they took that was the more difficult and revolutionary, with Chinese civilization’s not having done so.

Politically in analogy, I admire the USSR for their having blazed a radically new trail that though ultimately unsuccessful, drastically altered the course of the 20th century and gave much to humanity in science and technology and the arts. Since China very successful today is in some sense an inheritor of the Soviet legacy, it surely hasn’t died out and is even rejuvenating. In contrast, I read on the Chinese QA site Zhihu an answer stating the proposition that after Qin Shihuang unified China in 212 BC, he forcibly made everything uniform across the whole country, burning books and burying scholars not in order with the official line of thought, enough that China as a civilization made little headway in intellectual thought for the next two millennia. Intellectuals only followed what was already there and could not escape it to create any tradition radically different, until superior forces without eventually forced change within.

The conclusion we can draw from all this is that monopoly of a form that discourages radically new ideas and development of alternative systems is detrimental to the advancement of human civilization.

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