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Saturday, January 10, 2009

Which crackpot cult to join

What!! STILL there???.... by law_keven from flickr (CC-SA)

I was once young and naive and thought that smart people can think for themselves, and don't believe in crackpot ideas. Some pretended to, but just because that's how they made money. The Internet proved me very very wrong - it turns out that many otherwise smart people believe in the most outrageous things, and actively spread them and argue about them on the Internet.

It's not just that their ideas are weird or wrong. Eliezer Yudkowsky's Friendly AI stuff is almost certainly wrong, but at least it's original and it makes a really great blog read. Most crackpots on the Internet are not only wrong and stupid, but they're the same few kinds of crackpots everywhere. If I had a nickel for every peakoil aynrandist wake-up-sheeple comment thrown at me I'd buy them another Internet so they can leave ours.

I know the basics of crackpottery science. There are memes that infect people's brains, and the particularly outrageous ones like religions also serve as pretty good in-group vs out-group indicators, and maybe mildly wrong memes somehow protects against infection by even worse memes and so on and so on, but couldn't you people at least follow some better cult? Ayn Rand? Peak oil? 9/11? Haskell monads? What's wrong with you!

I know a blog post won't make anyone leave their current cult once they're sucked in, but here's a list of a few better cults, so maybe future generations are at least better crackpots than the current one.

Linus Pauling

Crackpottery spreads better with a good guru, and there are fewer 20th century figures more notable than Linus Pauling. The guy won not just one but two Nobel Prizes, and was one of the first researchers of quantum chemistry, biochemistry, and modern genetics. He was also one of the leading activist for world piece and nuclear disarmament. There's really not much more you can ask from a leader, and he sure beats someone who writes about economy without any clue about either writing or economy, am I right?

So what's the cult? Pauling believed that the key to good health is taking massive amounts of vitamins and other micronutrients, like many grams a day of vitamin C (most scientists believe 100mg is enough to prevent vitamin C deficiency). He lived 93 years, so maybe there's something to it. I mean, Ayn Rand somehow didn't build a great financial empire in spite of her "insight" into economy and human nature, so ten years above average should count for something.

So back to vitamins. Research is pretty consistent at showing they don't work, but they also don't seem to harm you, so why not try taking some?

Pros: Your guru will be far more awesome than anybody else's. It might just have some tiny effect on your health, even if you live just one month longer that's worth something, isn't it? Maybe learning about all the vitamins will make you stop eating so much junk food.

Cons: You might spend a few more bucks on supplements, but they're pretty cheap these days. If you really overdo vitamin C you can get diarrhea, but this will only happen at over 100x the usual amounts. If you overdo some other vitamins you can get into more serious problems, but Pauling didn't advocate taking too much of those, so just follow the guru and you'll be fine.

Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins is one of the most eloquent gurus you could possibly follow, and his ideology is pretty simple - there is no God. Ok, that's not all of it - everybody knows there is no God, even the Catholics, the religion is just a fancy social ceremony they follow.

Dawkins' real point is that religion is not only false but also evil. Everything any religious organization does is pure wrongness and suffering, so they should be fought, primarily by writing blog posts on how all religion is evil. For some bonus points you can also buy a flying spaghetti monster t-shirt. Never mind that most of the suffering attributed by Dawkins to religion is simply basic human tendency to hate out-groupers, and in absence of religion humans have a proven track record of killing and otherwise hurting each other based on language, skin color, political ideology, programming language, or even favorite chariot team and I'm totally not making this last one up.

Pros: You save one hour a week by not attending Mass (or equivalent of your choice). You will have more eloquent guru than anybody else. The cool people are atheists much more often than lame people, so if you're openly atheist people might think you're cool too, at least before they come to know you better.

Cons: You won't be able to win any public elections in United States. You will piss off all religious people, and if you're persistent enough even the mildly religious ones. Well, that might as well be considered a pro.

Aubrey de Grey

Not much impressed by popping vitamin pills and blogposting that there is no God? Fear not, there's a cult for you too. Aubrey de Grey intends to cure the entire aging and make people live forever - young and healthy. Well, he's not much of a biological researcher, he's a computer programmer with a funny beard, even funnier than Stallman's.

And you know what - the way biotechnology is progressing it might even work some day. World without aging sounds even better than world without religion doesn't it? So far it's a total failure even on mice, with the longest living mice being simply calorie-restricted but maybe someday.

Pros: You can brag about having the best goal of all crackpots - it's even better than revealing that Mossad was behind 9/11. If it somehow works everyone will know, and you not only get the bragging rights, but you get bragging rights for the next 5 billion years, until Sun dies! Isn't that cool?

Cons: You'll have really creepy guru. It's going to really suck if they find out how to keep people young forever a week after you die.

Raymond Kurzweil

Eternal youth is not enough? Raymond Kurzweil says we're all going to be happy human-AI hybrid living in post-scarcity economy of singularity or whatever. I'm getting buzzword overload from all that. Vaguely conceived "growth" will accelerate, until we grow at infinite number of percents a day, and then singularity happens and everyone lives happily ever after as an upload.

Well, the growth doesn't really seem to be accelerating much. Of Kurzweil's many predictions for 2009 he made in 1999 pretty much none turned out to be right. Just listen to some - "In communications, translate telephone technology is commonly used. This allow you to speak in English, while your Japanese friend hears you in Japanese, and vice-versa", or "The majority of texts is created using continuous speech recognition, or CSR (dictation software). CSRs are very accurate, far more than the human transcriptionists, who were used up until a few years ago", or "Heptic technologies are emerging. They allow people to touch and feel objects and other persons at a distance. These force-feedback devices are wildly used in games and in training simulation systems. Interactive games routinely include all encompassing all visual and auditory environments", or "Jesus returns to judge the world and to establish the Kingdom of God". Oh sorry, the last one is from a different crackpottery, but they're pretty much equally accurate.

Pros: You can play with electronic gadgets all day and still believe you're doing the world a favor. Technology is progressing, so some of this stuff might come true eventually, just don't give any dates in your predictions and stay vague enough so that when something similar happens you can claim you predicted it.

Cons: Your guru gives out too many dates and details in his predictions, so others will make fun of you every time they don't come true. If you want to be hardcore enough you will need to use speech recognition instead of a keyboard, and with the software we have now half of the phrases recognized will be fuck you stupid machine just go to Amazon and order me a damn keyboard.

Richard Stallman

I probably don't have to advertise rms. He believes all software should be free, and to look at a web page he sends email to a demon which runs wget and mails the page back to him. It is very efficient use of his time.

To follow RMS you will write Free Software using Emacs on Debian (at least it's not GNU/Hurd these days), preferably in Lisp, but he's OK with you using C if you really have to. You will not use any proprietary software, like Flash, or any computer games. You will correct everyone who uses phrases like "Open Source" or "Intellectual Property".

Pros: You might actually write some useful software and do something good for humanity. Emacs is not the worst possible editor, and writing some software improves your CV.

Cons: You will forever have to fight with drivers for your wireless card. Everybody will make fun of your guru's beard and hygiene.

Paul Graham

Paul Graham is so good Arc is just Blub for him. He writes web startups in Lisp and sells them to Yahoo during dotcom boom. He also thinks the same trick is going to work even in financial recession - because every time is the best possible time to start a startup.

He's a bit like Ayn Rand in his belief that economic success is the best measure of person's value, but at least he can write, and actually made a successful company and helped a few others. He believes that if you try to make a startup you will spend all your time chasing successive rounds of investment and most likely fail or with any luck sell it to Google with investors getting 95% of the money, and at the same time that it's a totally awesome way of building a company, unlike let's say bootstrapping, which just cannot possibly work.

Pros: It might get you rich, and you can create something cool on the Internet. Your guru will have a pretty decent blog.

Cons: You might have to work 100 hours a week for years, mostly chasing investors not coding, and then investors take all your money, and Yahoo decides to rewrite your beautiful Lisp program in C++ for lulz.

Barack Obama

Barrack Obama is your new bicycle. He brought hope and change into the world of despair, and the new era of world peace, prosperity, and justice is starting on January 20th.

Oh wait, he agrees with Bush and McCain on pretty much everything - he supports occupation of Afghanistan, surge and pretty much indefinite stay in Iraq, unsupervised bailout of banks, car makers and everybody else, Israeli genocide in Gaza, criminalization of marijuana possession, telecom immunity, offshore drilling, embargo against Cuba, and pretty much everything Bush stands for except for stem cell research. But worry not - he flip flips a lot, so he may yet align himself with your favorite views.

Pros: At least he's not Bush, and it's hard to imagine anyone worse than Bush. Maybe he'll fix a few things and you'll blame everything else on Republican opposition, or whatever. And at least stem cell research will be legal.

Cons: You will be making excuses for him for the next 4 to 8 years, and even neocons will be laughing at you. Finally disgruntled, you'll volunteer for Republican candidate in 2016, also campaigning on platform of hope and change, just like every politician since ancient Greece.

Choose your own crackpot cult

World will be a better place if instead of reading the same tired conspiracy theories over and over again, I could learn about a new crackpot cult each day. Wake up sheeple, you can think for yourself! Or if not, at least get more original theories, for example the ones I just presented, but Internet is full of other interesting crackpot cults if none of them interests you.

If you know any other cool crackpot cults people could join please list them in comments section below, just please no more Ayn Rand, ok?


Ben said...

Funny list. But a few corrections about de Grey. Yes he was once a computer programmer and engineer, but he has a phd in biology from Cambridge and is the head of an organization which directs and funds biological research. Sure, he's not without his critics, but he's actually pretty highly regarded in general and his credentials are certainly nothing to sneer at.

Call me a cultist if you like, but it'd be a mistake to write this guy off. He may be wrong, but he's no quack. He's a perfectly legit scientist with some pretty good ideas.

taw said...

I don't know if you can tell from the post but I like all the guys I wrote about, and I think there's a seed of truth in every cult including theirs (and even in Ayn Rand's cult, oh God I hate them).

De Grey argues that rejuvenation is possible in theory, and it seems reasonable enough. He also argues that if we show robust mice rejuvenation it would cause a boom in human rejuvenation research, and I think that's also very likely.

However he also promised mice rejuvenation to come real soon now, but it doesn't seem to be coming at all. Growth hormone knockout and calorie restriction are completely not what de Grey is proposing, and these are the only things what work on mice right now, none of his 7 things do anything about rejuvenating mice.

So as far as I can tell all the facts are against him for the time being. I would sign up for the cult if facts were different, but I'm too much of an empiricist for it.

Ben said...

That's fair. But then I don't think De Grey, however vocally optimistic he may be, ever promised results by 2009. His proposals are still speculative in that they are yet to be cohesively implemented in the lab, but hey - that's science. Give him time and we'll see what he can do. In the meantime, consider me to be a cautious optimist. I hopes he succeeds, but think that even if he doesn't he's still doing an awful lot to further research in this area. It's fair to say I respect the guy.

Divided Mind said...

Great summaries, I love them! But I don't understand what made you save Eliezer from the same scrutiny. He's as much a fun crackpot as all the others listed here.

Divided Mind said...

(Also, the "post comments rss" link doesn't work.)

taw said...

Divided Mind: Eliezer doesn't seem to have any cult followers yet, even on blog. I don't know anybody who believes that FAI is a serious business other than him, and even if his followers exist they never comment-spammed anything I read.

I didn't even know about existence of the "post comments rss" link, so that wouldn't be the first thing broken on Blogger ;-)

Divided Mind said...

Hey, I am an Eliezer fanboy! FAI FTW!

taw said...

Divided Mind: Then I already won, as you belong to a very original cult ;-)

By the way Robin Hanson and Eliezer had a pretty good flamewar on everything that's wrong with FAI around Nov-Dec 2008 on and I don't want to repeat it here.

It went for twenty posts or so, so I won't link them all, if you're EY's fanboy you know where to find them.

afke said...

I have read them, of course; but they are quite lengthy and you seem to have a natural talent for writing witty and accurate short summaries ;)

Divided Mind said...

Whoops, sorry, wrong account. That was me above.

taw said...

Divided Mind/afke: Was it your trolling sock puppet account? ;-)

Divided Mind said...

Ssshhh, don't blow my cover now. ;)

LJ said...

The Ruby/Rails cult appears to have faded, but now functional languages cult have taken their place: Lisp, Haskell, Scheme, Clojure, etc

Anonymous said...

"Eliezer doesn't seem to have any cult [sic] followers yet [...] I don't know anybody who believes that FAI is a serious business other than [Eliezer Yudkowsky] [...]"

Oh, they exist. You know there's a Singularity Institute, right?

It's hard to tell what you mean by the word cult. Eliezer's writings have seriously changed who I am (the rationality stuff much more than the Singularity stuff), and I have actually donated to the SIAI--I cannot say but that I might qualify as a "cult follower" in your book.

I suppose I can't in good conscience publish this comment without the obligatory link.

taw said...

Z. M. Davis: Eliezer's cult would be "people who believe FAI is the biggest problem facing humanity and can't stop talking about it on the Internet". I don't know of any other than Eliezer. Generic singularity / transhumanist stuff is already represented here by de Grey and Kurzweil, no need to add every single one of them, especially since singularity / transhumanist folk doesn't seem to have formed distinct camps with sharp boundaries yet.

Xianhang Zhang said...

What? No Stephan Wolfram?

taw said...

Xianhang Zhang: You're right, how could I possibly forget about Stephen Wolfram! He's surely a crackpot, not sure how many followers he has.

Do you think he's better than ones I listed? Blog about that and I put a link to that in this post.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for telling the truth about Obama...

Anonymous said...

Lol. You are outrageously stupid!

nonzero said...

I understand the point you're trying to get across, but calling some of these people crackpots, and the groups who participate in conversations around these ideas as cults, is going too far. Can you honestly equate Kurzweil to, say, Jim Jones? Can you even compare the 'new atheists' like Richard Dawkins to, say, the pope and the catholic church? Now there's a cult, and its much more dangerous.

Again, I agree with your sentiment, and you'd have done better if instead of writing this post you'd simply linked to True Believers .

taw said...

nonzero: I very much can compare them - that's in fact what I did here.

From your Catholic-bashing I guess you subscribe to at least some of the cults. Notice how two worst mass murderers in history are both atheists, and the third wasn't particularly religious either. What's a few molested altar boys compared to hundred million+ murdered people?

nonzero said...

re: taw

And apparently you subscribe to the cult of calling anyone with a particular opinion that you disagree with a member of a cult.

A cult is not the same as a set of beliefs. I believe in most of what the 'new atheists' believe in, though I disagree with some of their methods (but not all). That does not make me a part of a cult. I think for myself and if I happen to come to conclusions that overlap significantly with a group I'll be happy to say I hold the same ideology/worldview. I don't blindly follow any one person, group, or set of beliefs, and what I do believe in can change as new evidence or better arguments are evaluated.

As for the tired examples of Mao and Stalin, they may have been anti-religious, but they were certainly not humanists, and the 'new atheists' are first and foremost secular humanists. I did not say atheists are automatically good people, but the thought process that people use to reason out of religions will tend to make you a more reflective and thoughtful individual. Mao and Stalin were bad, and regardless of their metaphysical beliefs they would have found ways to exploit in/out groups and other human biases for their power grabs. As for the Catholic church, it upholds a brand of morality that puts the divine (whatever that is) above the humane, a prime example of which is the Pope's policy to forbid condoms in Africa. It perpetuates a false sense of authority that imprisons the minds of its members. For someone who holds 'thinking for yourself' in such high regard I'm disappointed that you don't see this point.

Anonymous said...

If you had demonstrated an ounce of politeness and respect towards some of the extremely bright people you mock, I would have refrained from calling you blunt minded. However, you should know that you seem in fact, downright blunt minded. Maybe having someone tell you this, you can make an effort to see and feel beyond your "happy with being an advanced animal" status-quo. Maybe not, your writing does not imply a positive prognosis. Saludos