Author: anomalyuk

Rationality and Republics in History

My pet theory of history is that the rationality, efficiency, openness and prosperity that we associate with modernity (and of course their many attendant problems) are not, as commonly supposed, the product of the rise of representative government, but rather of the rise of absolutist monarchy in the 16th and 17th centuries.

I have put the idea forward here and there, notably my Recap of the Fall of Monarchism post, but I cannot pretend to be enough of a historian to have a serious theory.

Nonetheless, I get the impression that I am not out of step with serious historians as much as with the popular narrative. As it happens, I have been reading (for silly reasons) some history of military strategy lately, and I just came across this:

Doubtless this sustained effort to systematize and order the structure of the army reflected what was taking place in other spheres. Throughout French political life traditional rights and confusions sanctified by long usage were being attacked in the interest of strengthening the central power. This cult of reason and order was not merely an authoritarian expedient, nor just an aesthetic ideal imposed by the prevailing classicism. Impatience with senseless disorder, wherever encountered, was one expression, and not the least significant expression, of the mathematical neorationalism of Descartes, of the esprit géométrique detected and recorded by Pascal. It was the form in which the scientific revolution, with its attendant mechanical philosophy, first manifested itself in France. And it resulted in the adoption of the machine—where each part fulfilled its prescribed function, with no waste motion and no supernumerary cogs—as the primordial analogy, the model not only of man’s rational construction, but of God’s universe. In this universe the cogs were Gassendi’s atoms or Descartes’ vortices, while the primum mobile was Fontenelle’s divine watchmaker. We often speak as though the eighteenth or the nineteenth century discovered the worship of the machine, but this is a half-truth. It was the seventeenth century that discovered the machine, its intricate precision, its revelation—as for example in the calculating machines of Pascal and Leibnitz—of mathematical reason in action. The eighteenth century merely gave this notion a Newtonian twist, whereas the nineteenth century worshiped not the machine but power. So in the age of Richelieu and Louis XIV the reformers were guided by the spirit of the age, by the impact of scientific rationalism, in their efforts to modernize both the army and the civilian bureaucracy, and to give to the state and to the army some of the qualities of a well-designed machine.

Henry Guerlac, “Vauban: The Impact of Science on War”, collected in “Makers of Modern Strategy from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age”, ed. Peter Paret, 1986

(Actually, that citation is more confusing, the essay was published in the earlier “Makers of Modern Strategy from Machiavelli to Hitler” in 1943, and republished in the 1986 version I am reading.)

Anyway, there we have it — representative government is not a cause but a (misplaced, in my view) response to the rise of rationalism that went with the shift from feudal to absolutist monarchy.

Entrepreneurship and Privilege

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The change in owner of the “richest man in the world” spot triggered some spluttering about inequality.

There was an interesting point emerged about the last three occupants: Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. While none of them inherited their great wealth, all of them came from families that were rich (but not super-rich).

There was a conservative narrative, “Isn’t equality of opportunity wonderful — the richest people in our society are self-made. Yay equality of opportunity”

The opposing socialist narrative was “Yes, anyone can be successful so long as they have parents who own an emerald mine or can lend them $200,000 to help start their business”

On the merits, I would say the socialists had the better of the argument. However, nobody seemed to notice how self-defeating that argument is for any kind of moderate socialism.

My reactionary narrative is, “if rich parents were a vital ingredient in creating Microsoft, Amazon and Tesla, surely we would all benefit enormously from there being more rich parents. Down with inheritance taxes”

I expect to see a bunch of reflex responses along the lines “Microsoft, Amazon and Tesla are Bad, Actually”. Yes, I’m taking a somewhat economistic attitude, and yes I could make a long list of bad things about Microsoft, Amazon and Tesla. There are long lists of good things, too. This piece is not relevant to arguments against any kind of capitalist economy. Within a capitalist context, I believe we all benefit if that economy produces more innovation and more efficiency. There are arguments against a capitalist economy, but none for “capitalism but with less entrepreneurship”.

The relevant argument is between fairness and the common good. It is not fair that Bill Gates was born rich and I wasn’t. It is good for all of us that someone young and ambitious was able to raise a modest amount of capital in the 1970s to make software for microcomputers. If the mechanism for making that happen was the inequality of birth, then in that instance it benefitted us.

Digging into that mechanism, the key fact is that it is hard to convince people to lend you money when you are twenty-two and have no track record. There are people who would be willing to do so if they knew all about you, but for a professional investor finding out all about you will take more time and money than is available to make a small investment. This is the exact problem that Paul Graham wrote about repeatedly for years before attempting to solve it with Y Combinator. Parents know their children far better than any venture capitalist could without spending thousands of dollars worth of work. If the parents are also investors, the impossible becomes possible.

There may be parallel mechanisms: the networking opportunities available to rich families, and the self-confidence that comes from being brought up in privilege. It might be more feasible to reproduce these benefits without sacrificing equality. But the concrete fact of being able to borrow six months to a few years of a basic working person’s income from family to take a risk seems to me to be the largest one, and no egalitarian policy can reproduce that. A funding bureaucracy will inevitably mirror existing VCs, and favour those with sales flair and longer track records.

I went a bit further on Twitter, suggesting that Britain’s economy might have benefited had the aristocracy not been deliberately impoverished by inheritance taxes. That’s admittedly a much more debatable proposition — the titled British have not been conspicuous for their entrepreneurship. But such was not always the case, I think: in the very early stages of the Industrial Revolution it was landowners that were investing in the inventors for steam-powered mining pumps and so forth.

In substance, my central argument here — that the privilege of wealth provides a unique opportunity to take risks — is identical to the one I made about science in 2010. That’s because real science of the most valuable kind is the same kind of risk as starting a business. There might be treasure here, and there probably isn’t. The only people who can devote serious resources to looking for it are those who can afford to lose them — to devote years of work to looking for something that was never there.

Who could have predicted this?

January 10, 2021


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More history dredged from my Twitter backup

Democracy, like all conventions of limited war, is fragile. It’s hard to establish and easy to destroy. One of my main concerns is that I think the principal check that keeps the US from degenerating into actual violence is the 75-year-old informational dominance of “responsible” broadcast and newspaper journalism. This system is dying. It is being replaced by people like Amanda Marcotte and Michelle Malkin. And their followers, if not them personally, seem to have enough pure, 24-karat hate stored up for ten or fifteen really juicy civil wars.

Without “Informational Dominance”, you get civil war.

In case anyone doesn’t recognise it that’s from Unqualified Reservations, 2007, The BDH–OV conflict.

NRx is anti-journalist, in that it identifies journalists as part of the ruling system. Without informational dominance of responsible journalism, the Modern Structure falls.

My last main post was coming to grips with that informational dominance being restored. I was reflexively against it, and the post was merely adjusting to the fact it is inevitable. Good thing, Bad thing? What does that even mean. it is a thing.

Obviously a key question for the future is, will the reestablishment of informational dominance succeed? I have been anticipating that it will — the deplatforming of Trumpism is going swimmingly. It will be curious if major Trumpist figures attempt to publish via non-US internet resources, and if the establishment is willing to reverse its principles to impose a “Great Firewall of America” to block it, and if large numbers of normies are willing to use VPN or related technologies to reach them anyway.

But Moldbug was right 14 years ago: if they cannot reestablish dominance, the system will fall.

Defining the Facebook Era

January 10, 2021


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This is just an addendum to the previous post — a few tweets from three years ago

My tweet reads,

Early 20th century politics was organised around printing presses. To be a party, you needed printing equipment. Today’s establishment is the group of people who got control of television. There’s no other worthwhile definition.

An earlier Tweet from Carl Miller said

Whatever the ‘mainstream’ is, it’ll never again have a monopoly on an ability to raising large amounts of money quickly, reaching millions of people, coordinating logistics on the ground. The money, experience and machinery of the political mainstream matters a lot less now.

Half my timeline is now trying to fight to keep that true. I think they’re going to lose.

The End of an Era

Tweetable link:

The Internet began somewhere around 1970

The World Wide Web began somewhere around 1990

Mass participation in the internet was reached a little before 2000

With that, anyone could communicate with anyone else, or with any group, easily and free of charge.

That did not mean that anyone could whip up ordinary people with ordinary interests into political hysteria like Black Lives Matter or QAnon. Ordinary people with ordinary interests would not pay attention to that stuff.

Facebook hit a billion users a bit after 2010. It is Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube that meant that anyone, if they pitched it just right, could reach a mass audience. And that sent politics insane.

The Trump presidency was a glorious carnival, but a carnival is all that it was. When the Saturnalia ends the slaves go back to work. I said when he was elected that it was a setback for neoreaction, and it probably was.

I got a lot wrong though. I did not expect the anti-Trump hysteria to endure. Facebook-era politics was too new, then, for me to have understood how it works.

The Facebook era of politics ends today. As with the Trump presidency, I will miss the fun and excitement. I miss eating a packet of biscuits a day too. But man was not meant to eat that much sugar, and democracy was not meant to exist with uncontrolled access to mass media. From the invention of journalism until the twenty-first century, ability to reach the public with your propaganda was power, and power had its say on who could do it. A decade of unconstrained mass media gave us Trump and Brexit and the Gilet Jaunes1, and it also gave us Open Borders, Trans Rights, Russiagate2 BLM, PornHub, and QAnon. It was destroying our society, and it was going to be stopped sooner or later.

We only really had one thing to say to the normies – that democracy was an illusion, and they were not in charge. I don’t think we need Twitter to tell them that any more. The events of the last week have exposed the relationship between government and media much more obviously than weird technical blog posts.

I spent the night bitching about the hypocrisy and dishonesty of the censors. I suppose I had to get it out of my system.

The pogrom will go a bit wider at first, but in the end I don’t think it will do more than roll back to 2005 or so. I do not expect to be censored, because I do not speak to voters. It was the frictionlessness of the Facebook news feed that pulled normies into these games — if you have to go out of your way to find me, then I am doing the regime no harm, and I expect to be ignored, at least if I get through the next few months.

This, of course, is also the system in China. And I admire the Chinese system. When I tried to imagine neoreactionary victory, I struggled a bit with how a monarchical regime could exist in a world of uncensored internet. I don’t have to worry now.

Some practical resilience steps are sensible. Back up everything. Try not to depend on the Silicon Valley giants (GMail is nice, but you’re not the customer you’re the product). It’s possible that something like RSS could make a comeback if it’s awkward enough to use that the normies aren’t included, but don’t chase after the holy grail of a censorship-resistant mass media because that’s a coup-complete problem. Keep your head down, keep the channels open. I had this blog working as a Tor hidden service once, I’ll revisit that but I don’t expect to need it.


December 29, 2020


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People die. Of old age, of illness, of accidents, of violence.

In some cases it’s good that the person died, but more often not.

On the whole though, people are OK with the idea that death happens, particularly to old people. At the margin, they’d prefer it happened less, and we do a lot of stuff to try and reduce deaths, but we don’t do everything we could.

There is a school of thought that this is a terrible scandal. The Fable of the Dragon Tyrant is the classic text. There is a chance we might be able to prevent aging and death — a slim chance, perhaps, but real — and it scores very low on the priorities used for resource allocation.

I instinctively shy away from that point of view. As a materialist, I don’t really have any sensible way of choosing ultimate priorities, but I still kind of feel like there might be some. And if there are, maximising human life seems almost as stupid as minimising pain and suffering.

In the same irrational, hand-wavy way, preserving the human race and human civilisation seems like a more plausible aim. The nice thing from a practical point of view about adopting a long-term goal like that, is that I don’t have to worry too much about the fine details of the goal. You achieve a long-term goal by enhancing the power of those who would advance the goal, whatever the goal is. I wrote about that ages ago, it’s called Instrumental Convergence. The reason that matters is that pursuing the abolition of death in the medium term, and the flourishing of civilisation in the long term, are at least arguably in conflict — there is plenty of mid-twentieth-century speculative fiction concerning the pitfalls of premature immortality.

The fact that the nutter who wants us to try to abolish old age, and the thinker who exquisitely defined and described Instrumental Convergence, are the same person is… I’ve no idea what it is, frankly. But it is so. I can’t just not notice it.

Anyway, my point in bringing up the “abolish death” position is not to refute it. These guys make their case, and they do it pretty well. That’s fine. I just observe that it is not mainstream. Nobody with power is adopting it, nobody with a large platform is calling for it. Most of us share the alternative position — the “Deathist” ideology — that people get old and die, and that’s something we have to accept. Pushing at the margin, living longer and healthier, is desirable, but even that not at the expense of everything else.

Also, we accept that accidents happen, that diseases happen. We do quite a lot to reduce them, but not everything we could, and if we did do everything we could, we might do worse in the long run, since we could be sacrificing future capability.

And taking this out of the realm of the precise, we are making all these decisions under great uncertainty. We don’t have all the information, and we are drawing conclusions from the information we do have. We don’t know the best way of extending life, we don’t know the best way of preventing accidents, we don’t have very much idea at all of the best way of increasing our future capability so as to be able to do a better job in the long run. These arguments are the normal stuff of theoretical politics.

Most importantly they are not just theoretical politics, they are practical politics. And in practical politics, you are not just working with incomplete information, you are working with adversarial information. Much of the information you are trying to make decisions from is crafted by your adversaries in order to push you towards the decisions they want.

This is just politics. That is what it is — trying to advance your goals, by cooperation and conflict, with very incomplete information, and in the face of adversarial disinformation. The mechanisms we use to make decisions are supposed to function in the face of this incomplete information and adversarial input.

This, incidentally, is why all moral thought experiments are worthless. Take your prisoners’ dilemmas, your trolley problems, and burn them. They have no applicability in a world where you don’t trust what you are told, and the more you rely on anything today, the less you can trust it tomorrow. Every “cognitive bias”, I strongly suspect, bottoms out as the experimental subject, consciously or unconsciously, going “but what if you’re lying?” We are built to fight for power and resources in an endless war of deception, not to play pretty mathematical games with rules.

In some fictional future where we’ve eliminated conflict, we can use all that logic. Fixing aging will happen first.

So my starting position, when looking at the pandemic and the response, is that this is still politics as usual. Yes, it’s a matter of life and death, but politics is always a matter of life and death.

(insert: Sailer claiming 2400 extra murders in the US in 2020. He has a theory as to the policy causes. It makes sense to me, but who knows? This is a normal political question)

To make policy for the pandemic, we have to weigh those deaths. We have to give them a value, and a finite value. We have to estimate the costs of the measures we take, in terms of other things we value besides saving lives. We can say half a million deaths is bad, and quarter of a million is less bad. We can say that quarter of a million in a year is bad, but it’s worse if all of them would otherwise have lived healthily for years, than if half of them would have died in the next three or four anyway.

Now if somebody else thinks the long-run impact of lockdowns and economic disruption are likely to be smaller than I do, or that the value of saving the lives of thousands of young people and tens of thousands of old people is higher than I do, that’s fine. I don’t have very firm positions anyway, and since I’m not a policy maker, don’t want to be, and would prefer not to even be a citizen of a democracy, it doesn’t matter at all. But I am disturbed by people I respect ranting about the inhumanity of doing this weighing.

(Of course, I’m also disturbed by people cherry-picking random tiny factoids and using them as if they decide the issue one way or the other. But that’s debate as usual.)

When I wrote today that Covid-19 was “a false alarm”, what I mean is we didn’t have to do anything this severe about it. Probably we have saved tens of thousands of lives1, and possibly it was worth it, but as a society and a civilisation we would have coped anyway. My baseline back in March of “this could be really bad” is death rates doubling. The estimates in the existing UK government “Pandemic Preparedness” plan were along those lines. We’ve seen maybe a sixth of that, and if we had followed the plan we might easily have seen half or two thirds. That still, to an ordinary person, would not change their life. The hospitals would have been full. If in a normal year one elderly relative dies, maybe two or three this year. If a person you know died of shocking disease of accident a couple of times a decade, it’s quite likely there would be one this year. Lots of extra deaths — many more even than Sailer attributes to changes in policing — but not an impact on normal life.

Again, I’m not saying that saving those lives wasn’t worth it, or even that saving more might not have been worth it. I’m actually very happy that that wasn’t my call to make. I do think a person could justifiably feel that it wasn’t. This is normal politics.

The Plague Year Ends

December 29, 2020


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I kept no diary. The arguments online were so stupid I just got sick of them and checked out. The social history — well, I’m one of the lucky ones who just did my work from home instead of commuting to an office, and so the main impact on me was to become even more divorced from what the rest of the country is experiencing.

It’s slightly premature to be summarizing, but on the other hand I’d like to start committing to a few things before a standard narrative is established.

The big picture summary is that this was a false alarm. I wrote back in March that lockdowns were justified by the tail risks of the pandemic being really bad, but it’s clear with the hindsight we didn’t have then that they weren’t needed. In terms of spread and lethality, this is well within the parameters of the pandemic preparedness plans that had been worked out in advance and were ditched in March.

Again, we couldn’t have known that at the time. What we could and did know was that the “flatten the curve” slogan was bollocks. That was obvious as soon as you tried to put scales on the axes. If we needed to flatten we would still have a decade to go.

That’s moot of course because of the vaccines. It seems obvious that, having endured the reduction measures this far, we should continue them a couple more months to minimise the damage this winter, since by next winter it will be all over. (The extreme seasonality seems like a huge deal. Like, the virus doesn’t work in summer but we don’t know why not. Wouldn’t it be spectacularly useful to know? UV light? Vitamin D? Central heating turned off? How hard can it be?)

It seems obvious, but it might not be. I think to the global catastrophe I was closest to, the 2007 crash, where most of the damage was caused by the last few months of the fake boom. But I have no handle on the economic impact, I only mention the possibility.

As to the social impact — I can’t help thinking that it’s been a huge dose of realism. Disrupting a year’s schooling for a generation of children surely can’t be anything but positive: one of the biggest problems of our education system is that it trains its victims to believe that everything is under control and their job is just to fit in. A huge dose of chaos is exactly what I would have prescribed. The same goes for society at large. We can’t go on without asking big questions about what is essential or important, and what we can give up in an emergency. The pandemic should give us a much broader perspective on what is thinkable or possible. It might also shake a lot of people, like the schoolchildren, out of their general complacency. People (in Britain at least) who lived through World War II tend to be nostalgic about it. The economic damage aside, an injection of chaos and the unexpected into people’s lives might stimulate them and benefit them.

Even though this was a false alarm, anyone can see it might not have been. There are all sorts of possibilities. If we didn’t get natural immunity to the virus, for instance, it would have to fundamentally and permanently change our whole society. If it had been ten times more lethal, anyone bitching about their freedoms would have been blatantly insane. We would have had to weld doors shut China-style, or die. If it killed children the way it killed the elderly, we would have had to be much more effective, or we would lose a generation. The signs do not suggest that we would have coped with any of these worst-case scenarios very well. Possibly next time we will be more realistic.

We also need to think a bit better about death. But I doubt we will, and that’s worth another post anyway.


November 3, 2020


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Search: Hillary

Replace: Biden


That concludes Anomaly UK’s coverage of the 2020 US Presidential election

Gray Mirror and other updates

June 10, 2020


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I’ve been off Twitter for a couple of months. I’m bored with coronavirus, and more irritated than interested in aggregate. I expect I’ll be back, but not imminently.

This is another matter. We are promised twice-monthly fragments of a new Moldbug book. I am in.

As a bit of random context, here’s a bit of 2008 Moldbug, from the Open Letter (part 7). You might judge that it doesn’t add up to accurate prediction. But you can’t deny that recent events have validated its underlying model.

Second, let’s observe the relationship between the Cathedral and our old friend, “democracy.” Since 1933, elected politicians have exercised minimal actual control over government policy. Formally, however, they have absolute control. The Cathedral is not mentioned in the Constitution. Power is a juicy caterpillar. Maybe it looks like a twig to most of us birds, but Washington has no shortage of sharp eyes, sharp beaks, and growling bellies.

We can see the answer when we look at the fate of politicians who have attacked the Cathedral. Here are some names: Joseph McCarthy. Enoch Powell. George Wallace. Spiro Agnew. Here are some others: Ronald Reagan. Richard Nixon. Margaret Thatcher.

The first set are politicians whose break with the Cathedral was complete and unconditional. The second are politicians who attempted to compromise and coexist with it, while pulling it in directions it didn’t want to go. The first were destroyed. The second appeared to succeed, for a while, but little trace of their efforts (at least in domestic politics) is visible today. Their era ends in the 1980s, and it is impossible to imagine similar figures today.

What we see, especially in the cases of McCarthy and Powell (the recent BBC documentary on Powell is quite good) is a tremendous initial burst of popularity, trailing off into obloquy and disrepute. At first, these politicians were able to capture large bases of support. At least 70% of the British electorate was on Powell’s side. This figure may even be low.

But Powell—Radio Enoch aside—never had the tools to preserve these numbers and convert them into power. Similar majorities of American voters today will tell pollsters that they support Powellian policies: ending immigration, deporting illegals, terminating the racial spoils system. These majorities are stable. No respectable politician will touch them. Why? Because they cannot afford to antagonize the Cathedral, whose policies are the opposite.

Oops — a few paragraphs later. If this is accurate, we might be in trouble

Devotees of the Inner Party and the Cathedral are deeply convinced that the Outer Party is about to fall on them and destroy them in a new fascist upheaval. They often believe that the Outer Party itself is the party of power. They can be easily terrified by poll results of the type that Powell, etc., demonstrated. There are all kinds of scary polls that can be conducted which, if they actually translated into actual election results in which the winners of the election held actual power, would seriously suck. That’s democracy for you.

But power in our society is not held by democratic politicians. Nor should it be. Indeed the intelligentsia are in a minority, indeed they live in a country that is a democracy, indeed in theory their entire way of life hangs by a thread. But if you step back and look at history over any significant period, you only see them becoming stronger. It is their beliefs that spread to the rest of the world, not the other direction. When Outer Party supporters embrace stupid ideas, no one has any reason to worry, because the Outer Party will never win. When the Inner Party goes mad, it is time to fear. Madness and power are not a fresh cocktail.

Holy shit. Still re-reading Open Letter. There is a lesson in this: if you are paying attention to current affairs, your time would be better spent reading Moldbug, even if you’ve read it before. 2008, remember:

there is another way to succeed in the Outer Party. This might be called the Huckabee Plan. On the Huckabee Plan, you succeed by being as stupid as possible. Not only does this attract a surprising number of voters, who may be just as stupid or even stupider—the Outer Party’s base is not exactly the cream of the crop—it also attracts the attention of the Cathedral, whose favorite sport is to promote the worst plausible Outer Party candidates. As usual with the Cathedral, this is a consequence of casual snobbery rather than malignant conspiracy, but it is effective nonetheless. It is always fun to write a human-interest story about a really wacky peasant, especially one who happens to be running for President.

Politics and Ignorance

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We are at a very interesting stage in the Coronavirus crisis.

Most of the big important questions are still not answered.

How many people will it kill if left unchecked? Anywhere from about 0.1% to about 10% of the population.

How long until we have a vaccine? Anywhere from six months to never.

Will it die out once enough people are immune, or stick around for ever, or come back from time to time as it mutates? Don’t know.

How much effect does intensive hospital treatment have on the death rate? Definitely some. Maybe a lot. Don’t know.

Will we have treatments that will significantly reduce the death rates? Don’t know.

Will it have similar impact all over the world, or is its geographic range restricted? Don’t know.

What does it take to stop it spreading out of control? Can it be done by just being careful, wearing masks in public, and quarantining detected cases, or do all group activities need to be drastically curtailed? Not sure.

In spite of this, governments need to act. Policies need to be made, and, with all this democracy malarkey, people are getting attached to policy proposals and arguing very strongly for one or another. In fact, people often are getting more strongly and emotionally attached than usual, I assume because this more obviously is a life-or-death issue than most political questions.

I am not (yet) really attached. Given all this ignorance, policy choice is very sensitive to estimates of the probable answers to all the open questions, as well as being sensitive to all the values and principles that make other political questions controversial. With a few exceptions, I don’t think any government has acted in a way I can say is very bad. The exceptions are very widespread — all governments were caught underprepared. Most governments ought to have been quicker to impose restrictions on movement of people into the country — by far the most efficient way of protecting from any infectious disease is to stop it getting in. But once we hit the pandemic phase, I can see good arguments for any policy we have seen, from doing very little and letting it run its course, to temporarily shutting down all non-essential activity until we know more. It might even turn out that the optimal policy is to let it rip, falsify the statistics, and pretend that it’s gone away (as some are accusing the Chinese government of doing). Governments actively discouraging masks seems almost definitely a bad idea, and the tendency to let the perfect be the enemy of the good is obstructing execution of policy in the matter of equipment, treatments and testing. But beyond that most governments have responded in reasonable ways.

Where I am getting a bit excited is where people, in attempting to argue for one policy or another, are claiming that facts are established that really aren’t.

The big one is the impact on hospitals. I wrote on March the 12th that what we were expecting was:

The government view is that [Italy] is just the beginning. It is going to get that bad. And then it is going to get worse. And then it is going to carry on getting worse. What they are concerned with is just how much worse it’s going to get.

That’s still probably the most likely projection: currently the UK is getting about 6000 confirmed cases per day, that could well go up tenfold: we could have a million people sick at once and there’s no reasonable way to put them in hospitals and treat them, so mostly they will be on their own.

But we absolutely do not know that. No population we know of has reached that stage, not even the Diamond Princess cruise ship.

What is getting me upset is that some people are saying this is already happening. I’m pretty sure it isn’t. It’s a reasonable projection, based on our limited knowledge, but I’ve seen no evidence anywhere has actually got to that yet, and there should be evidence. I’ve had arguments on twitter with people claiming a few breathless TV news reports from Italian towns prove it, but TV news is always stripped of context and presented to give a strong impression. Certainly, a few hospitals have been reduced to states of chaos, but that actually happens from time to time. Britain’s health service is notorious, but I’m sure it’s not the only one where a much smaller shock than that which we are anticipating from the peak of the pandemic can temporarily throw a single hospital into chaos.

(I’m also getting upset by people saying “the pandemic is a nothingburger”, but that is not generally coming from people I otherwise respect).

This really does bring up the parallel with climate science. Because it was once in the same place. My view is that the original modelling of the greenhouse effect in the 1980s was good science, and the idea that rising CO2 concentrations could affect the climate in a very damaging way was very much worth worrying about. But by say 1990 that is where we were. We had some models, some very questionable historical data, and a threat that demanded we take precautions and find out more.

Then it got political. The oil companies, very unwisely, tried to get the idea dismissed. Anti-capitalists got very excited about a reason to suppress industrial civilisation. And everyone claimed the facts supporting their position were known. In reality, we still didn’t know anything.

Over the last 30 years, the alarming climate models have been completely invalidated, the paleoclimatology claiming that current conditions are unprecedented has been debunked, but none of it matters because it is now simply a political question. People lined up on one side or the other of the open scientific questions because their enemies were on the other side, and no new information would have shifted them. Most strikingly, there are people claiming that the climate has already changed by so much that it is obvious to direct personal experience, when the officially measured change in average temperature over a human lifetime is way below what anyone could actually notice.

That’s what the claim that COVID-19 is already causing health system collapse reminds me of. Now, if it does get to that point in the next 4 or 8 weeks, which of course is quite likely, then it doesn’t matter. Some people just anticipated it. But what if it doesn’t? How do we persuade somebody that it isn’t going to happen, when they’ve been defining themselves politically by the claim that it happened already? The big question in climate, the only one now that really interests me, is what it will take for the alarmists to give in. If the Coronavirus fizzles out, which as of today is still a possibility, what will it take for people to admit it?

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