You Aren’t A Vulcan, But a Squishy and Ideological Human

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Scientific rationality is one of the foundations of western civilization.  The discovery of the natural laws  behind the useful work done by a diesel engine, the electron clouds propagating through conductors, and the modus operandi of a virus, has given the  geopolitical upper hand to North America and Western Europe.  So it comes to no surprise that many have attempted to use a similar methodology to uncover the fundamental laws that regulate the human world.

Although this rationalist method of parsing the human world  is intimately coupled with the spirit of anglo-saxon capitalism, with economic marginalism (e.g. Hayek, Samuelson, etc.) being its first coherent expression – there has been a recent, growing rationalist  movement that attempts to bring this perspective to the  culture wars.   Some examples of these  platforms are   the popular blog  Slate Star Codex, and the publication Quilette.   An important animus behind this upsurge is  a reaction against  the  sociological  theories of the Left, such as  structural theories on gender and racial discrimination. Many of these rationalists, instead postulate that the perceived empirical disparities (e.g. gender wage gap,  racial inequality, lopsided  gender and racial ratios in STEM etc.) between races and genders are connected to biological-essentialist variables such as sexual reproductive strategies, or the differences in IQ among races.

It’s hard for me to discuss in a  completely detached and charitable manner these theories, because of my ethnicity, leftist leanings, and utter contempt for  Vulcan-wannabe dudes with shitty STEM degrees.  However I will try to use  peer-reviewed articles that are popular among them  in order to argue that ultimately, their  “rationalist” methodology is fundamentally wrong.  The outline of my argument is as follows:   (i) the only thing these papers  demonstrate is an empirical correlation not causation.  (ii) The reason why they cannot demonstrate causality is that the problems they are dealings have many variables that are extremely hard to isolate. (iii) Because of the large epistemic uncertainty in the casual links, politics become unavoidable. (iv)  Because of politics, this rationalist project collapses, and their vulcan-like rationality becomes a political ideology amongst others.

A good example is the often cited paper by Schmitt et al.   The main thesis is that personality differences between women and men seem to widen in more gender equal countries.  The paper finds a moderate correlation between personality sexual dimorphism and gender equality.  However, what is generally referred is one of the conclusions, which argues that personality dimorphism is not enforced by  stringent  policing in gender equal countries. Rather,  gender equality lets  sexual dimorphic traits diverge into their natural equilibrium. In other words, free societies let women and men express their intrinsic, gendered personality traits that are a function of darwinian processes.

I’ve seen many “rationalist” sources refer to this paper either explicitly or implicitly. It’s seen as one of the most powerful attack against feminist points, such as how certain gendered disparities, like  lopsided ratio of women in some STEM fields,   or the lack of females in certain leadership positions, are product of sociological  and structural factors such as socialization and sexual harassment.  The “rationalist” argues that policies aimed at making certain fields like STEM more sexually diverse, or increasing the number of women in leadership positions, are  misguided and potentially counterproductive.  Very recently, a study also showed that  percentage of women in STEM fields seems to actually decrease as a function of equality,  where in relatively unequal country such as Algeria, about 41 percent of STEM workers are women. This study seems to vindicate the previous study of Scmitt et al.

I am not going to question the methodology behind these studies, but I feel necessary to point out that quantifying things like “personality traits” and “gender equality”, and also aggregating them, is probably not  trivial and riddled with assumptions. However,  even without questioning the methodology, and taking at face value these empirical relations, the papers at most demonstrate the existence of empirical correlations and nothing more. One could try to hypothesize a multiple of causes, including a biological-essentialist link, but ultimately,  these studies only demonstrate a correlation between two empirical measurements, and nothing else.   This is the old adage of correlation does not imply causation.  Here is a very funny site showing all sorts of spurious correlations, such as the relationship between suicides by strangulation and government spending on science. A better way to understand this problem is to imagine a situation where two variables are correlated: A and B.  There are actually four plausible causal explanations for this correlation: (1) A causes B, (2) B causes A, (3} A and B are caused by some variable C,  or (4) the correlation is only a spurious coincidence. Therefore an empirical correlation, while an important result in itself, is not sufficient proof to establish causation.

The issue of causation is very deep and has lead to centuries old discussions in the sciences and philosophy.  For example, the Scottish philosopher David Hume argued that there is no logically consistent way of assuming causation from correlation. However,  my argument isn’t really as absolute, but more practical in an everyday sense. Studies, like the ones I referred above, deal with problems that are too multivariate to convincingly establish a biological argument by just a mere correlation.  In the case of physics and the hard sciences, causation is usually proven through experimentation that isolates all the irrelevant variables, or if lab experiments are not possible, through computational simulations where all the important variables and physical laws are plugged into a computer code.

In the case of other “softer” sciences, such as bio-informatics, social sciences, etc. that deal with complex, multivariate problems that cannot be dissected by controlled experiments,  the important variables are isolated through  statistical techniques that try to take take into account all the relevant parameters.  For example,  here is  a very easy to understand paper that argues against the book of  IQ and the Wealth of Nation, by disproving  the idea that that some biologically detemined  lower IQ of the  “non-white” races leads to underdevelopment in their respective countries, by using a simple multiple regression analysis that takes other variables beyond IQ into account.  Furthermore, in many cases, especially studies with political consequences,  even sophisticated statistical techniques are not enough to establish causation beyond reasonable doubt, given that there is always the possibility of unknown variables not being accounted for.  A famous example is the history of the cigarette-lung cancer link, where it took decades of different types of studies, from lab experiments, to questionnaire based correlations, to establish a causal link. This weakness was obviously abused by tobacco conglomerates, but the point is that even the scientists hired by these tobacco companies at some point began to accept the validity of the evidence, since various research trajectories triangulated into the cancer-cigarette connection.

Now lets go back to the previous statement on how sexual dimorphism in gender egalitarian countries implies an inherent, biologically hard-wired tendency that makes  men in average more interested in engineering than women.    This causal link is almost completely impossible to establish beyond doubt, at least with the known experimental and scientific techniques. This problem is incredibly much more complex than the subject of the cancer-tobacco link.  This complexity arises due to the existence of many social variables interfacing with the career choice of women that are extremely hard to take into account.  For example,  it is obvious that in the most gender, unequal limit, there wouldn’t be almost any women in engineering jobs  (e.g. England in the 19th century)! It is only in today’s particular configuration that this correlation seems to be valid, which already shows the existence of  hidden socio-economic variables that affect these studies.

The inability to establish causal links beyond reasonable doubt in many socio-economic problems (e.g. economics) is actually well defined mathematically.   For example, in the case of mathematical physics, the Holy Grail for all these vulcan-like rationalists, the problems that can be solved are extremely limited in scope.   Poincare showed in the late 19th century the exact solution  for the trajectories of more than  two interacting bodies is mathematically non-integrable.  In the 1960s, Lorenz  discovered that despite the sophistication of computers, many multivariate problems, such as the one of simulating the weather,  become intractable after a certain point due to chaos.  These uncertainties are not even a matter of not properly accounting for all relevant variables, but are embedded in the mathematical structure.  So it is quite arrogant to argue with  confidence that a couple of mere empirical correlations are enough to disprove the lived experience of many female students and STEM workers, which point at discouragement from peers, lack of role-models, unwelcoming workplaces etc.

Given the existence of large amount of noise, chaos, and “hidden” variables in socio-economic systems, there cannot be a pure rationalist and “scientific” way of tackling these problems.  The existence of this epistemic uncertainty therefore gives rise to politics in a much more stronger sense, than when dealing with simpler, “mathematical’ problems.   Therefore the cry of “centrists”, “classical liberals”, “rationalists”, Jordan Peterson, etc. of feminism, leftism, etc. being ideological is a case of pot calling the kettle black. Given the epistemic opacity of socio-economic problems, this claim of rationality is simply a bed-time story – a shallow aesthetic consideration for soul-less logical chopping and boring prose. Instead, they have agendas, not unlike the “irrational” leftists and feminists. In fact, if I were uncharitable, I could claim it isn’t reason that animates them, but some burning resentment for women, minorities, feminists etc. invading their spaces.  I am not ashamed of admitting  my own agendas as well, and that’s why this blog is explicitly partisan, and not written in the spirit of some shitty analytic philosophy paper.

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Socialism Versus Economic Growth: the Human Being Is Not Infinitely Hackable

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I am for the rational planning of the world economy in order to fulfil social need (e.g. free time, housing, healthcare, transportation, education etc.), including the minimization of the work day until its eventual abolition.  This would require consolidating current scientific and technological capacity towards the goal of serving these needs.  Yet, I feel this usage of scientific rationality for socialist means is often mistakenly coupled with the idea of  unconstrained economic growth.   In the last couple of years, this idea of growth has become  a  tension in the Left between the so called “de-growthers” and the “prometheans“, the former wish to contract the economy in order to avoid ecological catastrophe while the latter argues that continued growth and progress are necessary for socialism. The debate is quite muddled, and often it is not really related to technical disagreements in political program relating to economic growth, but instead, to fuzzier aesthetic and ideological concerns between the ecologists and the futurists.  On one hand you have quasi-luddites who privilege the local and small over the global and cosmopolitan, and rail against GMOs, and nuclear power. On the other side, you may have sci-fi  “communist” types that want to pave the Earth and colonize Mars.

Much of these debates about growth are anchored around ecology and malthusianism – the idea that planetary constraints demand that humanity downsizes and consumes less.  However, as a socialist, I am not invested in the tension between  mass consumption and an impersonal natural world that I have no affinity with. Rather, I am interested in the liberation of humanity from toil, alienation and material misery.   I therefore  believe that the idea of unconstrained growth is  at best confused from the perspective of a socialist, or at worst, actually detrimental to to the objectives of liberating humanity from quasi-forced labor (wage labor,  peasant labor , slavery, etc.).  This leftist anchor around growth leads me to argue  in this piece the following: (i) growth as a metric for socialism is undefined, (ii) if we measure growth as increased productive capacities then it is antithetical to socialism (productionism), (iii) productionism  has a human limit, given that human beings  can only be optimized into productive workers at the cost of incredible physical and psychological violence.

Growth, from the perspective of  these left debates, is definitely undefined, given that economic growth is usually conceptualized in the context of capitalism. Since GDP  growth is the   telos of capitalism  – the expanding of capital through  reinvestment of profit and exploitation of labour, economic growth is a very well defined process within the market and in that sense, it is a “positive” thing.    For example,  the competency of a politician, whether “left” or “right” is at least partly judged by how much did the GDP grew under their tenure.   In the context of social democrats operating within capitalism and the nation-state, GDP growth is important because the satisfaction of social need is  the side-effect of a  growing economy that can generate new jobs  and more tax revenue. However the fulfilment of social need is not the end goal of capitalism, just the potential byproduct of profit.  In contrast, the telos of socialism is not capital growth, but the rational satisfaction of social need.    Therefore the concept of economic growth in the context of socialist economics becomes undefined.  One cannot use a metric defined in relation to the expansion of capital to judge  the progress of a society that is focused in satisfying needs related to housing, healthcare, education, reduction of the work day, and transportation. Socialist progress cannot be meaningfully quantified in a metric such as GDP, especially in the maximum program of socialism, which would abolish money and private property.

A more universal metric for growth, as opposed to GDP, may be a productionist metric – a function of how much of a particular industrial output is created. This was more or less the metric used for planning in the USSR , under the famous Five Year Plans.  Through a method called “material balances”, the planning agency of the USSR, the Gosplan, would survey all the available raw materials/natural resources, turning them into inputs  that where “balanced” with industrial outputs.  Given the absurdly high production outputs required by, for example, the first Five Year Plan, which demanded the accelerated expansion of heavy industry at the cost of famines, terror,  and slave labor, one could label the USSR as productionist.  This historical human cost of industrialization (both in the USSR and the West) leads to my next argument, that  the intensification of productionist growth depends on the exploitation of human labour –  through either extending the work day so that more industrial output is produced within a single day, or by extracting a surplus that must be reinvested in the development of machinery and techniques.

The history of class society has shown that economic expansion is contingent to the extraction of surplus from human labor.   The pyramids,  the steam engine,  and the violent transformation of peasants to more productive proletarians  are a function of the coagulated blood of billions.  Economic expansion requires the extraction of a surplus in human labour, whether it is by seizing peasants’ agricultural output, or through the exploitation of proletarians.

Today in the Global North we can see the more humanistic manifestation of the tyranny of economic growth. Although the economy in  core states has exponentially expanded in the last century, the length of the work day has frozen for almost a hundred years.   Not only has the length of the work day remained frozen, but more intensive  techniques are currently applied to dissect the human being in order to rebuild it as a working automation.  We see this with the expansion of the work-day into our inner lives, transforming humans into semi-sentient, individual firms. Socializing becomes networking, love a machine learning algorithm to find a mortgage partner, social media a matter of building a brand.  This transformation of homo sapiens to homo economicus is hard to describe, but I feel it in the marrow of my bones as an immigrant.  Economic rationality  controls the way I move my hands in a professional presentation and also structures my speech,  demanding that I do not betray my foreign sloppiness. For the sake of career and success I must conceal my spirit, which was shaped by a culture where lines are wobbly, time is erratic, and human boundaries less exact.  How could anyone that is human defend this infernal labor camp?  This despair  makes me  sympathetic to “non-model” minorities that are unable to adapt to this padded asylum of white light and right angles, because at some level they are more human than me.

I must reiterate that the above arguments do not necessarily run counter to technological innovation and a planned and controlled growth. My point is that productionism inevitably is a function of human labour, and therefore is at tension with the reduction of the work day.  If the priority of socialism is to expand the sphere of free-time, then inevitably,  reduction of the work-day will be prioritized over mass consumption and productionist growth.   That does not imply that humanity will necessarily live an austere existence with the minimum necessary for survival, but that production will be planned in accordance to use-value, so instead of the bult-in, capitalist obsolescence of large volumes of short-lived consumer goods, we may have a lower volume of long-lived, quality goods. An exact picture of  the social reality within  a world, planned economy is hard to portray at this moment, but the important point is that productionism and consumerism are antithetical to free time.

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EDIT: I misrepresented Leigh Phillips’ argument, as he isn’t really arguing for unfettered production, rather his argument is against localist imperatives of arbitrary “downsizing”. He instead locates the problem in the fact that capitalism isn’t planned, and we don’t have control on what to produce/stop producing depending on a scientific and planned evaluation of human need and environmental constraints. So the problem is not in growth per se, but the random arbitrariness of the market which cannot be solved even if we downsize if we don’t leave capitalism.  To quote Phillips from his book “Austerity Ecology“:


“Instead of next investment or production decision being driven blindly by profit seeking, or consumer purchase made constrained by the need to reduce expenditure, all economic actions occur as the result of rational decision-making on the basis of maximum utility to society. Because this all this is a conscious, planned process and we are no longer beholden to the drive for profit, we would now have the possibility to wait, to hold off for a while until we have sufficient technological innovation to move forward in a way that does not damage the environment in a way that delimits the optimum living conditions for humans.

We can collectively say: Well, now that we have this new efficiency in the production of this commodity, what shall we do with the savings? Shall we increase production? Shall we reduce material use? Shall we increase the overall amount of leisure time available to the labour force?

Capitalism is a problem because in the face of environmental spoilage, it must proceed regardless (not because of growth per se!). Any new innovation permitting efficiency gains will be invested in the optimum way to produce still more capital, even at the expense of environmental despoilment. This is not to say that the capitalist is evil. He is not. He has no choice. Indeed, even if he is environmentally minded, he must still make that choice, or go bankrupt. As Foster writes, and here he is correct, the constant drive to accumulate capital “impos[es] the needs of capital on nature, regardless of the consequences to natural systems.

[…] Democratic economic planning though gives us breathing room. True, we may in principle at some point in the future have to pause some production expansions here or there, for a period. But this is a very different thing from saying there is an upper limit.

Even better, because socialism would permit us to direct investment—including investments in research and development—not merely toward what is profitable, but toward what is most useful, there is every likelihood that growth may actually advance faster under socialism than under capitalism, because more research funding can directed to technologies ensuring we do not damage the environment.”