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Assimilation, Football, Affirmative Action, and IQ Outliers
Part 2 of my conversation with Steve Hsu
Last month I talked to Steve Hsu for the CSPI podcast. There was a lot we didn’t get to, so this week I’m talking to him again. This discussion has much more on his personal background and covers the attempted cancellation of him at Michigan State University. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation is below. See here for the video.
Near the end of our conversation, I ask Steve about what makes him different from other people in his willingness to go against the crowd and that leads to speculation on what personality traits predict non-conformity and the role that Asperger’s syndrome plays. This ties in to our discussions about the differences between the hard sciences and the social sciences, and people who go into the academy because they care about truth and those that do so to become activists.
As we mention, the conversation took place February 22, so the parts about the conflict in Ukraine are of course dated. One thing I got really wrong was I thought public opinion in Europe wouldn’t care that much about the war. One of the commenters on my piece on forecasting what would happen in Ukraine mentioned that it was hard to foresee how the twitterization of the news would affect the course of the war. As Greg Cochran points out, we never know how a new battlefield technology will work out until a war actually starts. This adds to the difficulties already inherent in forecasting the outcome of a conflict. Analysts were surprised at how well drones did against tanks during the war in Nagorno-Karabakh in late 2020. The same is true for information technology. There’s a lot of interesting historical work on the effects of mass literacy, which it has been argued led to nationalism, which in turn made maintaining an empire more difficult while creating national armies. Communications technology is of course changing rapidly, and the fact that armed conflict is more unpredictable than it has been in earlier historical eras will probably make risk-averse leaders less likely to want to go to war, while making it easier for more risk-acceptant ones to convince themselves everything is going to work out great if they attack their neighbors.
The affirmative action discussion is more current. Republican electoral victories are likely to finally start having an influence in this area with the coming ruling in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard. We talk about whether universities will be able to get around bans on affirmative action and how far reaching the Supreme Court decision in this case might be.
Finally, I found the discussion on IQ outliers to have been particularly fascinating. One thing that we were getting at, me more than Steve, was that research in this area shows how pernicious the ideal of equality is. If there are a very small number of geniuses that make a disproportionate contribution to society, we are shooting ourselves in the foot by cancelling them over their political views, offensive things they’ve said, or whatever. The story of what Jeff Bezos learned about gradations in human intelligence from studying physics at Princeton helps illustrate the point.
The Power of Assimilation
Richard: Hi, everyone. Welcome to the CSPI podcast. I’m here with Steve Hsu once again. Steve, how are you doing?
Steve: I’m great. How about yourself?
Richard: I’m doing great. In our first part of our conversation, we talked about China, we talked about international politics, we talked about the state of science and technology, geopolitics. One thing we didn’t get to, because there was so much else, is your biography, which is very, very interesting. We talked a little bit about your career and your job and your training, but we didn’t talk about really where you’re from. You were born in the US or were you born in China? How did you grow up? Where did you grow up? Can you just tell us a little bit about that?
Steve: Yeah. No, that’s a great story. I grew up in Ames, Iowa, which is the home of Iowa State University. My dad came here in 1948 before the communists took over China. He came here to go to grad school at the University of Minnesota in aerospace engineering. I grew up as a Midwestern kid in a college town. It was great. My brother and I had a great time growing up.
I have to say a lot of Asian Americans are alienated in a lot of ways, and I’m totally the opposite. Because my high school was almost entirely white, but on the other hand it was in a college town so people were pretty tolerant. There’s still hangover from the hippie era and believe it or not, the hippie era even affected Ames, Iowa. So I had a great childhood.
Richard: I think when you are the only one, that’s a cool exotic thing. I grew up, there were a lot of Arabs, maybe 10% or something. Kids would fight, and sometimes kids would fight over something else, and then people of their own race would want to get involved. That caused tension. I think if you’re the only one, or were you the only one? Were there any other Asians?
Steve: I think in my graduating class there might have been maybe five Asian Americans, or at most 10 out of maybe 400 kids.
Richard: That’s not enough to have fights. [laughs]
Steve: But of course you did lack role models and all that other stuff, but overall it was good.
Richard: One thing that must have helped you assimilate and feel accepted, I saw you played Division II football at Caltech, right?
Steve: Division III, the lowest. [laughter] Division III. No, it definitely helps. I think if you’re an Asian American, the ones who are athletic are a lot less alienated than the others.
Richard: Yeah, of course. Like every race.
Steve: I was a co-captain of the swim team my senior year and in sports the whole time and stuff like that. It also helps to be bigger than average. [laughter] If you’re on the opposite side of the stereotype, obviously you suffer less.
Richard: Just size and athletic ability for men is just universally desired, right?
Steve: I think so.
Richard: Sometimes the stereotype stuff, when one group tends to be smaller or less athletic on average, if you overcome that stereotype then you don’t have the problem. A lot of the stereotypes and alienation people feel is just stereotypes based on statistical realities. So an Asian will say, people will think I’m not very athletic or this and that. And it’s like actually, on average, you tend not to be athletic. It’s something that people will think, and then it seems to cause bitterness. If you’re abnormal for your group, then it seems like it’s not even a factor.
Steve: Yeah. It definitely wasn’t a factor for my brother or myself, because we were both pretty athletic and played on sports teams and stuff like that growing up.
Richard: One thing I found fascinating, on your blog you talked about how you have this book. Apparently this is normal in China and Korea, I don’t know if in other places, but you have this book that has every generation. This is just paternal line, your father, his father, his father, his father, going back to the 10th century. Is that right?
Steve: Oh my God, no, I think it goes back 3000 years.
Richard: Must have been 10th century like BC. I must have misread it.
Steve: 10th century BC. It is not typical. It’s generally only certain elite families that have these things. I could go get it. It’s actually in the other room. It’s this huge multi-volume thing. It was compiled… I got a copy of it from one of my uncles in Sichuan province. It’s a genealogy. It’s much more detailed maybe in the last 1000 years than in the first 2,000 years. You might say, if you’re really going back that far, you’re not sure how much you can trust it. But it’s a patrilineal family tree. There must be 700 pages or something, so the more illustrious people in the patrilineage get a whole page of biography. Chinese characters are also pretty dense in information. Very weird situation.
But there have been these studies that, also in the West but also in China, that some of these elite families have been elite for a long time. Even after the communists took over, they were still elite. They survived an entire communist regime and still are at that top of society. It’s a little bit unexplained how that all works.
Richard: You said it’s 700 pages, have you read the whole thing?
Steve: No, I don’t read Chinese very well so I haven’t. My wife has looked at it, but I haven’t, I certainly haven’t read it. Who knows what it says, like, so-and-so was a great horseman and won this competition and had seven kids, or who knows.
Richard: It’s hard for me to believe that the line, you wouldn’t have one irresponsible guy who just burned the book or lost it somewhere or something. Are you suspicious that maybe at some point somebody just…
Steve: No, because what happens is it’s parallelism. You can have a lot of irresponsible guys, as long as one or two guys in a given generation are keeping track, they just write it into the book. It’s not like each page is autobiographical, like the guy wrote it himself. It’s somebody in the family is keeping track. Now could there be an error? Could there be children who are not really the children of who people think they are or all kinds of inaccuracies? Of course. But just as a document, it’s kind of amazing that such a thing exists.
Richard: Yeah, it is amazing. Your ancestors were probably literate then for that whole period, right? Probably?
Steve: I think that’s true. Yes, that is true. At least some chunks of each generation were literate for sure.
Richard: Human civilization is a funny thing. I think at least on my mom’s side of the family, I think literacy doesn’t go back very far. I’m not even sure about my great grandparents. I would doubt it that they were actually literate [laughs].
Steve: One of the most amazing things that happened to me at one point, I was in the Palace Museum in Taipei, which is a very famous museum because famously the nationalists on their way out of China stole huge amounts of artwork that the communists are still mad about. The best collection of certain types of Chinese art is in this museum, which is in the middle of Taipei. You go in there, and I was with my wife, and my wife just started reading stuff from these scrolls that were like thousands of years old. I was like, wait, you can just read that? And she’s like, yeah, I can read it. It was funny because it was a very unflattering thing about this diplomatic delegation from Japan that was visiting the emperor. It literally says emissaries from the kingdom of the dwarf pirates visit the emperor in Beijing. [laughter] I started laughing because it was so unflattering to the Japanese, but it’s a very old document and she could just read it.
Richard: The spoken language is obviously, probably, it’s definitely not consistent, but the written seems like you can ... Mandarin or Chinese can go back to how far?
Steve: There are some changes. If you go too far back, then you need to be a specialist in classical Chinese to actually read it. But I think my wife can actually read a lot of that too. But I think for a typical Chinese person, there is a slight complication because the mainlanders simplified the characters at one point. Some mainlanders can’t read traditional Chinese. But if you are from Hong Kong or Taiwan, you can read back, I think, at least a couple thousand years, maybe not 3000 years. But yes a long time.
Richard: Written language changes generally at a slower pace than spoken language. I know Arabic, I know Quranic Arabic is readable, but it doesn’t resemble anything that anybody speaks as a native language today.
Steve: The amazing thing about Chinese is because it’s idiographic, so you have symbols for concepts. It’s not symbols for word sounds which change over time in the oral language, it’s symbols for concepts. These guys literally had to sit down and say, ok, there’s this concept called the sun, or this concept called jealousy. Then we are going to make a little image for it, a little pictogram. Of course it’s more clever than that, because they combine certain primitive concepts to get a more complicated concept. Characters have subcomponents.
But what’s interesting about it is if you study information theory, there’s this question of how many distinct primitive concepts is human thought built out of? You can almost answer that question because a little kid can start reading the newspaper once they’ve got something like 2,000-3,000 characters. Unless you’re Albert Einstein or something, the average person is building their entire conceptual universe out of maybe a couple thousand primitives, and just combining them and stringing them together and stuff. [laughs] It’s kind of obvious if you understand Chinese characters that that’s the case.
Richard: It’s interesting you said you don’t read Chinese well. Did your parents try to have you study it, or not really, were they just not interested?
Steve: This is the difference between the ‘80s and now. Now the sentiments are much more hold onto your ethnic identity and isn’t diversity great. Whereas when I grew up, it was more like everybody’s got to assimilate. My parents actually didn’t push us that hard to learn Chinese. Although when we were very young, they spoke to us in Chinese when we were at home. When we got to a certain age, they actually were worried that we would fall behind in English, which again was maybe wrongheaded. Well intentioned, but wrongheaded. So they switched to speaking to us in English.
Consequently, very few of the kids in my generation who are Asian Americans, have good Chinese language skills. The exceptional cases are often ones who grew up in Chinatown, or they picked it up in college later on, or they went and lived in Asia in college.
Richard: Is that ‘80s, is that a time thing? Do immigrant parents today really care that much? I actually know somebody who is a Chinese immigrant who had the exact same thing happen. She has an 11-year-old son and pretty much the same mentality. Is it really a time thing or is it just a class and how exposed you are to American elite culture?
Steve: I think it’s always true that the kid will tend to lose their ancestral language if they are immersed in a different language. That effect is always pushing in one direction. But nowadays, especially if you are in Los Angeles or something, it will be very common for your parents to stick you in a very well run Chinese school, or very well run Korean school. Whereas back in the day when I was a kid though, they were not well run and they were not intense, and they didn’t really accomplish what they were supposed to accomplish. But now, especially if you grow up in the part of Los Angeles I think where you live, those Chinese communities can be pretty tight and their kids have a much better chance of retaining the language better than certainly in Iowa.
Richard: I think that’s right. You go to these parts of the San Gabriel Valley and every store is owned by some of these Chinese, and they all have terrible English. It’s just something really funny, like “best super wonton” or something like that. Every single one it’s like, this is so admirable.
Steve: They are recent immigrants, but the thing is that in their communities, the kids can get a lot more practice in Chinese than I would have.
Richard: But without the schooling… The thing about schooling is, you go to school, you learn big words and political and scientific and social studies concepts. Then that sort of supplements and then you have TV. And then American pop culture is so seductive. I would be surprised if even those kids were fluent in Chinese growing up. I think it’s just the power of the American education system and the pop culture. I think it’s so overwhelming for anyone who lives here.
Steve: No, I totally agree. I think still most of them, they are nowhere near native fluency, but the circumstances are much more favorable now than they were when I was growing up.
Richard: I think that’s right. That’s all interesting. Same way, I mean my parents, same thing. They said, don’t worry about Arabic, it’s stupid, you won’t need it. The idea that you’re not going to be able to speak English, my mom had the same concern. Anyone listening to this, they’re going to learn English. [laughs] Your kids are going to learn English. Try to get them something else in that critical window, when they soak everything up. Try to get them a different language, because English is coming no matter what if they are born in the United States.
Steve: I think that concern is somewhat misguided. The other issue is back then, there was not that much travel international travel. Whereas now, a lot of these kids from LA might go to Asia in the summers to see relatives and stuff like that. Then they would just get a lot of immersion experience.
Richard: That’s interesting. Let’s move on. I’m worried that we are going to talk about this and it’s going to be a little bit dated by the time…
Steve: I don’t know other than some immigrant Asian American or Middle Eastern American kids, who else is interested in this, right?
Richard: I think everyone is interested in the cultural clash. I don’t think it’s that…
Steve: The melting pot.
Richard: Yeah. It is fascinating how people’s intuitions just don’t match reality. The fact that people think you’re not going to learn English, you’re born in America, if your parents don’t speak to you in English, you are going to be just walking around speaking Chinese your whole life. It’s crazy that people think that and it’s funny that people think that, and it’s so wrong.
For people who like assimilation, that’s a hopeful thing that, everyone is basically assimilating at least to the language. What they do with that language, maybe they go off to a university and they’re brainwashed into liberal nonsense and that’s not great. Maybe they start to hate America or whatever, but they’re going to be assimilating into whatever the rest of us are doing in America.
I was in Texas not that long ago. Here in the San Gabriel Valley, during COVID everyone wears masks. Even when they don’t have to wear masks outside they still wear masks. The Asians would wear masks before COVID, you would see that sometimes, but now if you live in an Asian area, everyone is wearing a mask all the time. Even outside. There’s never been a mask mandate outside here, but people do wear it.
Everyone conforms. The Hispanics who barely speak English, who I see doing yard work or whatever, they’re also wearing masks outside. I spent some time in Austin recently, and you’d think the Hispanics there who are recent immigrants who are doing the same kind of work, they would be different. None of them are wearing masks. It’s interesting how you can get the same population, and they just assimilate to whatever the dominant culture is.
I saw Asians at UT Austin. They were probably much more likely to wear masks than most other people at the school, but less than white people or Asian people or Hispanic people in Los Angeles. I think wearing a mask is a big deal. Whether you do that or not, it’s not a small concern, like whether you vote this way or that way. The fact that this can be so determined by the dominant culture just shows, I think, the power of assimilation.
Steve: Michigan is a funny state because it’s both blue and red. I live in a kind of blue town. When I go to a swim meet or something, my kid’s athletic event or something, everybody is wearing a mask. People stare at you if you’re not wearing a mask, until the last couple of weeks. But if we had an away meet and we would go there, every single person at that other school, the parents in that community, nobody would wear a mask. It was just very stark. You just drive, I actually literally drive 20 minutes and nobody is wearing a mask.
Richard: It’s amazing. I have written about how this surprised me, because most red state-blue state stuff, it’s stupid and trivial. But this is, you look at people and just some are showing their faces and some are not. That is fundamental to how a culture functions, right? When we look at Muslim fundamentalist countries, we see their women cover their faces. I never thought in America we would have… Red state, blue state have as much differences as between Afghanistan and say Europe or something. [laughs]
Steve: It was super interesting to me because when I go to these meets at the other schools and again, it could be literally 10, 15 miles from here. The other parents are still maybe working on laptops or working on their phones. They’re not dressed any differently than I am, it’s just that they are not wearing masks.
Richard: It’s crazy. It’s a wild cultural marker. That’s all interesting.
Forecasting the Russia-Ukraine War
Richard: Moving on to current events. We talked a little bit about the US and Russia. Last time we talked about three weeks ago, nothing had really started yet. It’s now February 22nd, by the time we release this something else is going to have happened. But I think we can talk about it in broad outlines.
Today is February 22nd, what’s happened is Russia has recognized Donetsk and Luhansk, the two eastern regions of Ukraine that were held by separatists. They recognized all of Donetsk and Luhansk where the separatists only control parts of those provinces. It looks we are getting probably at least a war for the rest of Donetsk and Luhansk. Most people say probably much more, that probably Russia is going for a lot more. Given where we are now, how do you see the situation? How do you think it’s going to unfold? How do you think the American response has been?
Steve: I have to say I’m a little bit flummoxed, because I thought Putin, I actually thought he was going to hold back. I’m actually curious what your opinion is on why he did it. Some people are asserting that it’s part of some big plan. I think that’s consistent with the speech, the hour long speech he made, which was very broad in its historical and strategic analysis, which indicates that this is part of a broader plan. There were other demands that he made in that speech, which made it clear this is just the beginning if he follows that line. Of course it could just be a negotiating position, but of course that speech was to his own people, so it certainly locks him into a certain position if he’s just negotiating.
Now on the other hand, other people are saying Putin basically was forced to do it, because the West is egging on these Ukrainian forces to basically kill civilians in these areas through artillery fire and other things. In order to protect those ethnically Russian people, he had to. He had to basically do what he did. I’m not sure which of those two is right. I take his speech very seriously. If I take the speech seriously, he’s demanding lots of stuff. Basically demilitarizing all of these borderland states, even the ones that are part of NATO. If they share a border with Russia, he wants them… I think if you read his speech literally, he wants the bases out, he wants no missiles. Those are very strong demands. This could be a protracted, not necessarily a hot confrontation, but it could be a protracted disagreement. I don’t see an easy way out of it.
Richard: When the US intelligence started reporting – I think there was a New York Times news alert in December that said intelligence thought that Putin might be invading Ukraine next year – I started looking into it. And the people who are skeptical of American foreign policy, American intelligence community, a lot of them said this is nonsense. I didn’t think it was nonsense and I’ve been posting my predictions. I have always been about 10, 15% ahead of wherever Metaculus was on whether Putin was going to invade Ukraine. There were a couple reasons for that.
First of all, people say they don’t trust the intelligence community. This is a specific thing that’s either going to happen or not. When there was the thing that Russia was placing bounties for killing American troops in Afghanistan, that was something that happened in the past that nobody could ever verify. I was skeptical of that and it’s right to be skeptical of that. This is something you can verify or not with satellite technology, that they have 100-something thousand troops, and they say there’s going to be invasion. And so you start there, you start with, Ok, this is more credible than the typical thing that they are going to predict.
Then I looked at the strategic situation that Putin was facing. There are a couple of really good articles that influenced me here. There was one by a guy named Rob Lee. He is a professor of international relations, I think maybe at the US Air Force, university of the US Air Force or something. I forget, we’ll put the links in there. But he had a really good essay. One by Anatoly Karlin, who’s a Russian nationalist who has a Substack and has written about this. One by Adam Tooze, who is an economist who wrote about the Ukraine situation. All these guys, they thought there was something to this, or they heavily implied, I don’t know about Tooze, but Karlin explicitly and then also Rob Lee.
The idea is look, if Putin does nothing, Ukraine is just going to be going more and more to the West. They are eventually going to be a member of NATO. The Americans are going to put troops there. Then Karlin opened my eyes a little bit to this and I went and did my own research about what’s happening with the Russian language in Ukraine. Ukraine is basically banning Russian language media. Not officially banning Russian language media, but saying whatever you produce in Russian has to be produced in Ukrainian too. Which apparently, it’s just a plot to shut down Russian language media. Russian language education, they are getting rid of that. They are shutting down TV stations for the pro-Russian party in Ukraine. This is a serious effort of forced cultural assimilation. It’s an attempt to basically orient them towards the West forever, and not give Russia any chance to have any political influence at all within the country. And so, if you think Russians care about the nationalist aspect, they care about the future of Russian language speakers and Russian culture, if they care about the security aspect of NATO, it made sense to me that there was good reason for Putin to invade. Doing nothing, things were just going to get worse time over time.
And then Rob Lee goes into the military technology. He talks about the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which showed the usefulness of drones for going after tanks. Russia has the tanks. Ukraine, basically they are building their drone capabilities. They started out with nothing in 2014, as far as their army goes, they have been consistently building.
On the cultural front and on the military front, things are just going to get worse and worse for Russia over time. The question is what do you do? You maybe go tell the US that we’re very serious and we are going to have to come to some agreement here, or we are going to use military force. But then if the US doesn’t do that, and who knows, maybe Putin decided this already and that’s why they made maximalist demands, because they knew that the US was incapable of making any deal, or unwilling to make any deal. But whether it was a bluff or whether it was an attempt to settle it, the bluff doesn’t work or the threat doesn’t work, you have to go in.
I think that’s where we are at now. This is why from the beginning, I thought this was potentially leading to disaster and I think I have been right so far. Does that make sense to you?
Steve: Yeah. I mean, I’m updating my priors now, because I thought this whole thing was just a Western PSYOP for a long time, [laughter] mainly aimed at the Germans to try to get the Germans to drop Nord Stream 2. Maybe trying to egg Putin on into doing something, baiting him into doing something, so they could really drop the hammer on him with sanctions. That’s my model for what was going on. But after hearing that speech which Putin gave to his own country, I feel there are some pretty deep seated issues here that he’s not going to let go of. I think the big winner here is probably China.
Richard: The Chinese reaction though, has not even been... It’s very restrained. It seems the Chinese do not want… I think a lot of the people think that China’s just sitting there and waiting, ready to pounce, whenever America’s distracted, but it appears not. It appears as if China, they are trying to have as little tension as possible and still keeping their head down and growing. Do you see the Chinese reaction in the same way?
Steve: Yeah, I see it the same way now. I think they have relatively warm relations with Ukraine actually.
Richard: Yeah, part of Belt and Road.
Steve: They do not recognize Crimea. They are a little bit reluctant to, they’re not going to give stuff away for free, I think that’s their nature. Really would love to know what Xi and Putin discussed at the Olympics, but thinking a little bit longer term, if Russia remains at loggerheads with the West, oil flows maybe are cut off to Europe or reduced. It’s all good for China because the fewer options Russia has, the more it has to play ball with the Chinese. To the extent that they integrate their economies, or at least have friendly relations and trade, it’s all good for China because it shores up some weaknesses that China has. For example, dependence on energy imports, they can get them from Russia instead of having to ship them from the Gulf. Even some military technology exchange I think is still beneficial between the two countries. I think in the long run, it’s good for China. It strengthens one of their weaknesses.
Richard: Yeah, I’ve seen some commentary that this actually unifies the West, so China is going to have a more difficult time and Russia’s going to have a more difficult time. And it’s like, look, you’re unified but you are unifying against too many people on the other side. It’s Russia, then you have China and then India also will not condemn Russia. That’s very interesting too, because I think a lot of the American foreign policy establishment, they have this dream where India is going to be part of the alliance of democracies, that India is going to be a force against Russia and China. The Indians seem very uninterested in that, right? If you want to be constantly hostile towards Russia and China, and then India is just neutral, you are just declining over time in America and Europe as a percentage of the world GDP. And so, there really... It doesn’t seem like there’s a good long term plan here.
Steve: Yeah. India and Russia have a special relationship. I think something like 60, or maybe even 80% of the military equipment that the Indians use is from Russia. So, they are also going to be very careful in just throwing in on the American side against Russia on this issue.
So yeah, I think... Okay, it’s not clear exactly how the dynamic with Germany is going to play out here. So, if Putin is too aggressive, then of course the Germans will realize, Ok, this guy’s a threat. We better cozy up with the Americans and do what they say. We’ll be good members of NATO. Whereas, to the extent that they don’t believe the American rhetoric that Russia is really a threat, they’re willing to trade, they’re willing to buy energy from Russia, etc.
The relationship between Germany and China, which is super important in the next decade, that’s somewhat independent of this. So, if the US has to spend a lot of its capital with Germany to get Germany to align properly against Russia, it leaves the Germans a lot more room to conduct trade freely with China. So, a lot depends on exactly how aggressive Putin is and exactly then what the German public or whoever runs Germany actually comes to believe.
Richard: Do you think that the Americans and the Europeans will stay united? Because Russia can hurt the... I don’t think they believe that Russia is a ultimate threat to invade Germany or to invade France. But they can, if Germany and France want to care about Ukraine, they can make life difficult for Germany in particular. And so, the question is, yeah, they go along with the US now. Germany and France have always been sort of more willing to negotiate to work with the Russians than the Americans have been. Should we take it for granted that even if Putin, even if he goes maximalist, even if he takes all of Ukraine or much of Ukraine, that Germany and France are going to stay united with the Americans against him? For how long? 5, 10, 20 years? I don’t know if we can take that for granted.
Steve: It all depends. Imagine there’s a really terrible humanitarian situation in Ukraine, maybe there’s an active resistance. It’s all kind of stuff that can pull at the heartstrings and make the French public and the German public unwilling to have business as usual with Russia. You could imagine... America is a master of propaganda with CIA, media, US Media, US tech platforms. The tiniest little thing will make the Russians look like monsters, right? And that will impact the extent to which… Macron and Scholz, they may be thinking in terms of realpolitik and what’s best for their countries, but they’re constrained also by just public opinion, which is connected to the social networks and media propaganda and stuff like that. So, I just think it will be tough for the Russians not to be painted entirely in black over anything they do.
Richard: Although in France in particular, Zemmour could be the next president. It’s probably not likely, I don’t know, betting markets give it 10, 20%. He’s very sort of skeptical of this hawkish view towards Russia.
Steve: Yeah. And I think Macron as well, actually. I don’t think Macron is really just... He’s obviously not. He’s been very critical of NATO. I think those guys know that the best thing for Europe is to not get caught up in... To the extent that you accept the proposition that Russia is really not an existential threat to Western Europe, then the best thing is not to get caught up too much in American craziness in confronting the Russians and try and retain your freedom of decision making both in economic and military terms.
Richard: Yeah, public opinion. I don’t know how much public opinion… Elite opinion, yes, is one thing. How much does the public opinion care about Russia-Ukraine? I would be surprised if they cared very much. In either Germany or France, I don’t think there’s…
Steve: But if you go to meetings of the elites, and here I could mean hedge fund manager, C-level guy at a public company, think tank people, they’re all influenced by this same propaganda. So, they’re all very willing to just assert, “Putin is an evil murderer,” and “Wow, look at all those dead Ukrainian children.” And that is elite public opinion.
So, I think that... And it’s not like they’re holding a gun to Macron or Scholz’s head. It’s just very tough to resist that kind of groupthink. Once it becomes embedded into the entire class of people that you spend your day talking to, you have to be incredibly strong mentally to resist whatever they decide.
Richard: Yeah. Although it sort of reminds me of the immigration issue. The elites all thought one way, but that created an opening for people within the political process to take advantage of the issue. And so, I think immigration policy in actually much of Western Europe has gotten much, much tougher. And so, when you have a democracy, elite opinion sometimes can be overcome, right? If elites are really going crazy about Putin and the masses don’t care. That could...
Steve: Yeah. I actually think Trump’s election is an example of what you just said. The elites in the US went so far against what the average American thought about immigration that it just created this huge opportunity for Trump. And maybe that could be the case with Russia as well if the elites are too hawkish about Russia and average people...
Richard: And if the economy, if they can connect it to the economy and people are really suffering and the gas prices, right? It’s not just people are going to love Russia. They’re going to say, this is stupid to have this cost.
Steve: I have a buddy who... He has something of a physics background or quant background. And he runs, I think the largest, if not the largest one of the largest, energy trading funds. And I’ve got to get in touch with him and see what’s going on, because I wonder how he played this one. If he played it right, he just made a billion dollars in the last couple days. [laughter] But I got to see what he’s doing.
Richard: Here I am on Metaculus, I should have bought some oil. Should have bet on oil going up. [laughter] I was pretty stupid. Yeah, I bet on Metaculus and I sent it out through my Substack, I felt good about myself instead of trying to make some money off of this. But I think, yeah I...
Steve: Yeah, no. If I had thought Putin was really... Because I think markets were discounting it. I think markets were discounting that he was actually going to do anything. Right? So, yeah.
Richard: Unfortunate. And next time I have a foreign policy prediction, I think I’ll take it to you and we’ll figure out how to operationalize it and make it make money because... Yeah, I should have gone and done… I just don’t think in those terms. I just think in terms of reputation and going online and getting on the record.
Steve: Yeah. You could’ve. Even as an individual investor, probably you could’ve bought some derivatives that would pay off for your insight.
Richard: Oh well, next time. [laughs] Next time there’s a war I guess.
So, by the time I think people hear this, either things are going to have calmed down or things are going to have moved forward. Things are not going to stay the same. Donetsk and Luhansk have been recognized and they’re either going to have to come to an agreement or they’re going to go forward. And just as we’re speaking now, there was a Blinken press conference and there was a Biden speech, and zero indication that there’s any kind of agreement on the fundamental issue, which is sort of NATO and making Ukraine less hostile.
Steve: I think since you’re well calibrated on this and you’re on Metaculus, do you have a point prediction on whether Nord Stream 2 is dead?
Richard: I haven’t really thought about it. It depends on the timeframe. If you just asked me to make a... I’d have to research how close it is to being finished now and what it would mean, and what it would mean to just go forward at this point. But I think it’s going to be... I think Nord Stream is so symbolic at this point that it’s most likely dead.
Steve: So then if that’s true... At least some of the analysis that I’ve been looking at today about liquid natural gas shipments to Europe suggests there’s no way to avoid some huge energy crunch in Europe. So maybe next winter will be the real time.
Richard: And Germany, what they did was they shut down all their nuclear power plants stupidly. So I don’t know what’s involved with going back on that. [laughter] So, if that motivates them to bring back nuclear power, maybe they can weather the storm. I don’t know about German policy, maybe they’re just crazy. I know there’s a…
Steve: Green Party is in power.
Richard: Yeah, that’s right. I know German environmentalists tend to be crazy, right? So, I don’t know enough about German politics to know whether that’s actually an option, right? If it’s not...
Steve: I think they’re stuck. I think they’re in for some misery. [laughter]
Richard: They’re in some misery. So if that’s the case, I think... Yeah. I think that... Okay, if we condition it on it being politically impossible to basically reopen the nuclear plants, and there’s no other option but to have an energy crunch. Yeah. I think in five years, probably Nord Stream 2 goes back, goes back ahead. I don’t think the German public suffers indefinitely for the sake of Russia and Ukraine. I just can’t see it.
Steve: Yeah. It’s super interesting. [laughter]
Richard: We’ll see what happens in the immediate term.
Richard: Shifting gears a little bit, you have written a little bit about affirmative action and the Harvard Asian case that the Supreme Court is taking. Do you have a feeling... Do you have a good feeling? I have my own opinion on this. Do you have a good feeling on if the Supreme Court is going to actually get rid of affirmative action in this case or not? Or would you not speculate on that?
Steve: I’m certainly no expert on the Supreme Court. But just to advertise my own podcast, I think in about a week and a half we’re going to release an interview I did with a guy called Rick Sander who’s a professor at UCLA law school. And he’s the guy who coined the term “mismatch.” So, he’s both a scholar at a law school, but also a PhD economist and econometrician who has studied affirmative action in great detail.
And he told me that, the way that they timed granting cert... Oh, you’ve got a legal background. So, you know more about this than I do. But the way the Supreme Court timed the granting of cert to hear this case... he claims, suggests they are probably going to do something. And he also claimed that these cases, obviously they’re in the air. They know what’s coming down the pipe. So the clerks and the justices have been discussing this, say the conservative bloc for example, has been discussing this for some time. So, they kind of know what they want to do. And so he thinks there’s a good chance there could be a significant change in the status of affirmative action as a result of this case reaching SCOTUS.
Richard: Yeah. It’s fascinating because you’re always… In the Supreme Court, to know what they’re doing, you’re analyzing the psychology of two or three individuals. So, it’s hard to make a prediction. You know how Alito and Clarence Thomas are going to vote, and you know how the three liberals are going to vote. And then the other four, you have to sort of psychoanalyze them and look at their history and try to figure it out. So it’s fraught to do that because people can have idiosyncrasies.
Steve: I’m not any good at predicting what SCOTUS is going to do. In fact, I’m often shocked at how stupid they are, honestly. Or let me put it in another way, that’s not the right way to put it. But the extent to which law is not at all anything like the logical reasoning based on axioms that they might tell you when you’re a 1L. But after that, you figure out it’s not true.
Richard: Yeah. I have professors who do believe in the axioms. I had professors who you could tell they like, they felt there was an objective answer to these things. Like cruel and unusual punishment. I remember I was telling a professor like, “This is all just... You’re playing with words. You’re just sort of getting to the political result you want.”
Steve: Yeah. Subjective word games.
Richard: So he was telling me, oh, cruel and unusual punishment was not... The death penalty might not have been cruel and unusual punishment at the founding because there were no prisons, right? So you needed a way to enforce the law. And now, there are prisons. So, now we can say that the death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment.
I’m like, “You’re just making things up.” What does it mean, “cruel and unusual”? These are words? They had meanings at the beginning. But then if you start saying, well, the meaning can change with the circumstances, it’s opened up to doing whatever you want. And if you look at the wording of the Civil Rights Act versus what courts have done with it, it’s the most Orwellian thing you can imagine. The conservative dissents in the affirmative action cases have made this analogy. They’ve said... Rehnquist in one of his dissents said, it’s Orwellian because it says don’t discriminate based on race. The government has used it to basically say, you not only can discriminate against race, you have to discriminate based on race. You have to have an affirmative action program and keep track of which groups, and then have disparate impact analysis and all of this stuff.
I’ve written about this on my Substack and I’m writing more about it. If you want to be sort of depressed by how sort of fake it all is and just the sort of the... I don’t know if it’s cynicism or just whether they’re self-deluded or it’s just dishonesty, it really is depressing. And it’s depressing for anyone who thinks society should be run on rationalist grounds or there should be some kind of connection between what politicians say they’re doing and what laws say and the way the world actually works. It’s sort of a very, just a sobering and sort of depressing experience to look into this stuff.
Steve: Well, I concur a hundred percent with what you just said. Specifically for the case, Asian admissions to Harvard. If you read the ruling by, I believe her name is Burroughs – Judge Burroughs, the federal judge in Boston on the case – she literally, she’s clearly statistically innumerate. For example, she weighs in on the issue of racial balancing, because the plaintiffs had charged that, had asserted that Harvard was clearly using racial balancing. So, if you look in a given year if they... Because their yields fluctuate, right? So, if they get an exceptionally large African American class, then the subsequent years they can take smaller African American classes. And if they get too much yield among Asians, they really push down on the Asians in a separate place. So, they managed to maintain this time average thing, which is just exquisitely constant over time. And you can see it by looking at correlations between different years, right? For different variables, like number of blacks or number of Asians, or whatever. And the judge says, “Oh, there’s no evidence for this.” And then she basically just says, “Oh, you see the numbers for any of these years is fluctuating so there can’t be racial balancing.”
So if an undergrad freshman physics major made that argument to me in my freshman class, I would flunk them. I would say, you obviously don’t understand math. I don’t understand how you can reason, how does A imply B the way that the judge did in the case? And then interestingly later if you go further into her opinion, toward the end, she literally justifies racial balancing as being okay. As being like, “Well, in the interest of diversity, of course we can conduct racial balancing.” Well, why did you have to argue, make a fallacious argument, empirical argument against the existence of racial balancing when you later say it’s actually okay? I wanted to just take the whole thing and put it in a shredder. [laughter] This is the opinion of a learned intellectual? No, not really.
Richard: Yeah, well I mean, this is not new. So, if you go back to the Gratz and the Grutter cases, the two big affirmative action cases, just the dissents. The dissents of Scalia, and maybe one or two others, they go into this. They say, the Supreme Court said there should be no quota. And then, they go and they say year after year they’re basically… The numbers are matching. So, if they get 12% black applicants, they’re ending up with 12% black. And then if they get 2% Native American, they’re ending up with something like approximately 2% Native American, right? And then what they say is they justify by “oh, diversity,” and we’re not balancing, we’re trying to create a critical mass so we can have the different groups. Oh, no, but the critical mass, they equal the balance of the applicants that you’re getting in.
And so, yeah. This has been sort of a transparent sort of scam from the beginning. And I... Yeah, I think this is... So, actually if I have to make a prediction, I do think the Supreme Court will actually do something good here. The Voting Rights Act, I don’t know if you... You probably don’t know much about that... Not many people do know about the Voting Rights Act. They probably think it’s the most innocent thing in the world. It just says you can’t deny black people the right to vote based on their race. Yes, it says that. But it’s like the Civil Rights Act. It goes much, much further. It has gerrymandering to make sure you elect like radical black politicians. And if you don’t do that, it’s against the law. And it has things where you can’t make minor changes in laws, because then it will dilute black political power. And so, black political power has to be maximized. It’s created a completely tribal sort of system of voting.
And the Supreme Court has pushed back on a lot of that in the last... I forget when the... I think it was about 2013, 2014, the big voting rights case. So, that indicates some kind of willingness to sort of rethink some of these crazy laws and policies that really trace back to the 1960s and how laws from the 1960s have been interpreted. And this is a more conservative Supreme Court now. So yeah, I think we’re going to get a ruling that’s going to make conservatives happy here, and it’s going to be interesting.
Steve: But, if I could just jump in, presidents of the Ivy League schools and such... They’re very clever in their own way. And so, they’ve... In anticipation of this and taking advantage of COVID, they’ve pretty much jettisoned standardized tests. So, it’s going to be harder and harder to catch them doing stuff. It took a heroic effort by the Students for Fair Admissions to get this case going, to get discovery, to discover the report written by the internal office of institutional research at Harvard that found discrimination. All that is meant to be swept under the rug and undiscoverable, and the more they limit the amount of data that’s used, hard numerical data that’s used in admissions, i.e., by getting rid of standardized testing, the more they insulate themselves from...
Richard: And what about the UC system? Because when the University of California got rid of affirmative action, the numbers did change substantially. So, isn’t that evidence that there’s some limit on how much they can sort of tinker with this stuff?
Steve: They were unprepared for that. So, what happened is... Actually, I lived through all this and I know a lot of the people involved in this. So, they were caught by surprise. There were dramatic changes. If you were a social scientist, the data generated by, was it Prop 209 in California? It’s a gold mine, because it’s a natural experiment. It was a shock to the system, and then you just saw what happened afterwards. But then gradually, the admissions office started cheating. And there are very prominent professors in the UC system that have served on admissions committees or oversight committees who have charged that the University of California is cheating.
Richard: They cheat. But have they ever gotten back to what it was before?
Steve: They have not. So it is true, they have not been able to fully overcome the impact of Prop 209. But now they’re trying more and more desperate measures, like basically getting rid of standardized testing entirely.
Richard: Do you think that if they do that, do you think the value of the college degree will change, and maybe there will be less of an advantage to going to an elite school? Or do you think... It’s like sort of, how much do you think it’s... Because a rational, like a rational economic system would say, okay.,Harvard, you’re selecting for standardized tests. Yale, you’re selecting for standardized tests. So, we’re going to judge you if you’re a Harvard graduate or Yale graduate, better than a state graduate. Now, if Harvard gets rid of standardized tests because they want affirmative action and they just select people based on the right race and whether they’re left-wing activists or not, an intelligent market, like a self-interested market would adjust to that and say, we’re going to discount Harvard. We’ll hire people from University of Iowa or something instead. But a sort of conformist model of the world of how businesses think will say, no. They’ll just keep relying on the same things over and over. I’m undecided on what world we would see in that case.
Steve: I think you won’t see uniformity. So, you’ll see some firms still behaving the same way because of conformity and lack of ability to reason from first principles. But some smart firms like Goldman... Maybe not Goldman is the best example, but certainly individual hedge funds, for example. They’ve already kind of figured this out, that there are many diamonds in the rough who were locked out because they’re the wrong ancestry group from say, Harvard. And so, if they look at the top kid at Michigan or the top kid at Ohio State or whatever, there are a lot of really strong kids now who are going to their state flagship instead of the top elite, the elites. So, there’s a gradual realization, but it depends on really how much the firm actually cares about looking prestigious and actually hiring the best candidate, right? Those are different things.
Richard: I imagine the non-profit world wants to look prestigious, right? And they don’t have sort of a market. They’re relying on donors or whatever, government grants. They don’t have to be competent, they don’t have to make something or meet some kind of price, some discipline of the price system. So yeah, I think you’re right. I think we will get... It can make it worse.
I think the problem with affirmative action, what actually I think is the worst thing... And the merit thing is important. But I think the worst thing is that a lot of people who get in with affirmative action and especially in hiring, they tend to be ideologically committed to a certain worldview because they sort of have to justify their place in the system. And so, if we get rid of affirmative action but instead we just start selecting just directly for politics, right? Because that’s what a lot of the data shows, they’re selecting for left-wing activists and these conservative extracurriculars hurt you. In that case, they’ll end up crazier. The universities will end up even worse. And so...
Steve: Yeah, I kind of have some bad news for you in the sense that, even before we get to the point where meritocracy is totally destroyed in the university system, we’re well on the way in that direction but it’s certainly far from accomplished. Already, there are examples you can point to. Tech companies that should care about the quality of their coders, they have internal battles about to what extent they’re allowed to use sort of difficult interview questions, how much diversity should count in the hiring process, is there a right number, right fraction of hires that have to be in certain groups? And there are huge internal battles, it’s been widely reported. Huge internal battles at all these companies, where it really does matter to those companies, the quality of their technology staff. But clearly, they’re acting in a way I think which hurts their competitiveness as companies because of ideological beliefs within the company.
Richard: Yeah, well there was an interesting story actually. Yeah, that’s true. I don’t doubt that that’s true. But there’s also... the government... It comes in, in very strange ways. So, there was a New York Times article about IBM. And they’re facing a lawsuit on age discrimination, because basically they want to be involved in cutting edge technologies. And all these boomers, they have not been trained in the same way, and your brain does go down with age and they cost more. So, they... It seemed like they were trying to make a rational business decision. If you want to be a cutting edge technology firm, I think you would go younger. And the government’s coming after them for that. So, there is like... It’s just a terrible system, up and down.
And, yeah. Yeah, I think one thing about the affirmative action piece, if the Supreme Court gets rid of it... I think there’s a lot of... The cases focused on universities could have some broader application, and it would potentially lead to more litigation. So like in government grants, government contracting, in government employment. Affirmative action is everywhere. And so once you start getting rid of racial preferences in universities, it’s the same thing. It’s the same principle.. Maybe they could actually have a very broad ruling saying the Civil Rights Act says X. That would be in their power. And they would say, everything else that justifies affirmative action based on the Civil Rights Act... That’s not allowed. They could do that. That would be very ambitious. I don’t know if they’d do that. They would probably have the ruling on the universities question, and then wait for other cases to get to the Court, and then apply it more broadly.
Steve: Yeah. I kind of feel like their ruling will be limited to education actually.
Richard: I think that’s true, but hopefully down the line. Hopefully it’s just like a wrecking ball to all this stuff. Because it’s up and down in the economy and our institutions.
Steve Hsu’s Cancelation at Michigan State
Richard: So, you were Vice President for Research at Michigan State. Right now, do you have an administrative role, or you’re just a professor now?
Steve: I have no administrative role, I’m just a professor. I’m very happy to be a professor now.
Richard: Yeah. So, we’ll talk about sort of what happened there. So, you were vice president of research in the physics department, right? So, you were helping fund physics projects, right?
Steve: No, no. I was Vice President for Research for the whole university.
Richard: Oh, for everything? Like all science?
Steve: Everything. Medical school, veterinary medicine school, engineering college, giant nuclear accelerator lab, agricultural labs, one of the top rated plant biology and ag schools. So, I was overseeing all that. I was overseeing about $700 million a year in expenditures.
Richard: Yeah. So, how much of this sort of diversity, this sort of putting your thumb on the scale... How much of it did you see in your role?
Steve: I want to be a little bit careful because I don’t want to throw Michigan State under the bus, although perhaps I have every right to do so. Let’s just say that… I’ll make general comments that all of this stuff is super baked into higher education now. And it’s only getting worse. If you don’t like it, it’s only getting worse.
And so, one of the aspects of my job... And I did this job for seven or eight years, was that I was the most senior administrator at the university, who read every tenure and promotion case for faculty members. And we’re a big university, we have 50,000 students, one of the biggest universities in the US. So, we had something like 150 cases a year of faculty either being promoted, say from assistant to associate professor, or associate professor to full professor.
And I would look at the files. And the reason... It’s a little bit unusual for the Vice President for Research to be doing that. But it was because when I was hired, the president who hired me was very ambitious and wanted to advance Michigan State in terms of academic quality and research output. And so, she wanted to... And this is the sort of... If you like to study behavior in institutions, this is a kind of interesting test case. She wanted to put a hawk in a certain position that would force all the deans and department chairs to really emphasize academic excellence and research excellence at the university. Because they knew that some hard-ass guy who was a physicist was going to be reading all the promotion files from the business school, all the promotion files from the ed school, all the promotion files from the ag school, and subjecting the dean to a certain amount of grilling. So, we had meetings every year during promotion season. I would go into the room with the representatives from that college and we would go case by case, okay. Joe Smith is meant to be promoted to full professor this year. This is his file. These are his publications. These are the letters of recommendation. Letters of evaluation.
So, we would go through those cases and... Affirmative action is a real thing. There’s tremendous pressure to promote people from certain ancestry groups, and the standards are not uniform. I’ve even written memos to the president, alerting the president and the provost to certain cases where I said, look, if this happens, we are vulnerable to a lawsuit because person from this group is being treated much more harshly than person from this other group. And it’s very clear in the files, but the recommendation from the dean is that the less strong person, in terms of their academic record, is being recommended for promotion and the stronger person is being recommended not to be promoted or not to be granted tenure. It’s a very big issue, and it was my duty to warn, in writing, the president and the provost that I could not support this and that it opened us up to certain legal action. And of course, those were very unwelcome recommendations, and to see them in writing was very unwelcome on the part of the top administrators. But that was my job, and I felt I would rather do my duty and do my job than just to succumb to what was convenient.
Richard: Did they get annoyed? It sounds like they got annoyed with you before the controversy blew up. Is that right?
Steve: Well, the controversy, all these things have deep political reasons.
Richard: Why don’t you tell the audience first about the controversy, then you can talk about its connection to your work?
Steve: So what happened in summer of 2020, right after George Floyd died, tragically, there was a student group, it was a leftist student group: the Graduate Employees Union – very left student group – started attacking me on Twitter and calling me a racist and sexist and all kinds of stuff.
Honestly, somewhat comically, almost all of their allegations against me were based on blog posts I had written. And in those blog posts I typically, I might write a blog post about some genetics paper that was written by some group, not my paper even. None of the things that were criticized were actually my research. They were all research done by other professors, and often at top universities, not Michigan State, other great universities, but not my work. I’m just commenting on their work saying, hey, I read this interesting paper about human evolution. It seems like there’s some evidence now that height has been under selection over the last 10,000 years in Europe and that’s why Northern Europeans are taller than Southern Europeans. And it’s not my work, but it’s work by very prominent researchers, but I’m just commenting on it. And in their tweets they alleged that I was a racist because of those blog posts.
It’s almost comical because now, in the fullness of time, when people go back and look at these things, they’ll realize that it’s a bit like Judge Burroughs’ reasoning in the case that I just mentioned. It just doesn’t make any sense, actually it’s kind of like…
Richard: Did you ever meet any of these students? Did they ever call you or find you or anything like that?
Steve: No, they never approached me. One of the things they objected to was my podcast which I did with a colleague of mine who’s African American. A guy called Corey Washington who has a PhD both in philosophy from Stanford and in neuroscience from Columbia. He and I are good friends and we did this podcast together. One of the shows they objected to that we did is we interviewed a professor at Michigan State who studied police shootings. He’s a psychologist and he studies decision making under pressure, under stress. And he had concluded in his own studies of real police officers in simulation environments, and also his own statistical studies of the statistics of police shootings, that once you normalize to the crime rates or to the rate of high-stress interactions between police and particular ancestry groups, ethnic groups, that there wasn’t actually any evidence for a large inflation in the rate of which, say, African Americans are shot. If you normalize it…
Richard: The idea is that police shoot more blacks, on average, per capita. But the measure is not in the population, it’s how often you’re interacting with the police, of course.
Steve: So that was a statistical study that he had done in several papers, which was very prominent. Also, Roland Fryer, who’s a very famous African American economist at Harvard had also done a similar analysis with different data and come to the same conclusion. But of course, that was very against the whole BLM and George Floyd feeling in the country at that moment.
Cory and I had interviewed this professor on the podcast and he and Corey were actually friends. I didn’t really know him very well. And they attacked me over that, that was one of the reasons I was a racist, because Corey, who’s African American, and myself interviewed this psychologist who is quite distinguished and we discussed papers that were published in the top journals, like the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. That was considered evidence that I was a racist.
Now you were asking whether I met with any of the people who were attacking me. They never wanted to meet with me. But Corey, in his youth he was actually a Marxist. He’s very pro- logic and discussion because he’s a philosopher, and he also considers himself originally a man of the left. So he went to meet with some of these people and tried to explain to them we’re not really racist by interviewing this professor. How is that racist? This guy is an honest scientist. It’s not even our work, it’s not even Steve’s work. Why does that make Steve a racist?
But, the real thing that you have to realize is that there is a battle within our institutions of higher education. On one side are scientists who want to preserve meritocracy and truth, and on the other are people who have primarily political and ideological motivations and things they want to accomplish within the institution which are not based on science or truth. That is the subtext of this battle. Basically, if you’re an administrator you get caught in these kinds of conflicts.
Richard: Do you see it as a battle or do you see it more as just a rout at this point? I see pushback on Twitter and in the media, but within the universities it doesn’t look promising.
Steve: I think it’s a rout. I think it’s funny because my own case was covered eventually by many journalists, Wall Street Journal wrote many pieces on it. You can go look at it. The record’s very clear. There was never any allegation, during eight years when I had over 600 people reporting up to me and I ran a budget of $700 million, and I reviewed 150 promotion cases a year over seven years. There was never a single allegation of sexism or racism against me for all of those activities. There were, however, allegations that had to do with a podcast and some blog posts. I was forced to resign over that. Any reasonable person who looks at this will just say this is a black eye on Michigan.
Richard: How did it go down? How was their decision process? How did they approach it, the administration?
Steve: Well, what happened was that you get all these students protesting, and of course it was that moment right after George Floyd…
Richard: It was just a bunch of tweets, what else? Did they do other stuff besides that?
Steve: No, no, no. It was basically just a petition.
Richard: That was the extent of it? So they weren’t occupying the president’s office over you or anything?
Steve: And then we actually circulated a counterpetition which got something like 2,000 signatures from very prominent people, like the former Dean of Harvard Medical School signed supporting me. Steve Pinker wrote a letter to the president supporting me. If you’re a credentialist, in terms of the credentials of the people on either side of this debate it was very one sided. However, the president is, this was a new president, not the one who originally recruited me to Michigan State, obviously they’re subject to political forces. Ultimately, the president asked me to resign and I said, “I serve at your pleasure,” the vice presidents all work for the president to help carry out his or her vision for the campus. So I said, if that’s how you feel, you can have my resignation. But of course, I feel it was certainly one of the worst days for truth and academic freedom at a US university in a long time.
Richard: But it doesn’t sound like that much pressure though. Like you said, there was a petition and then there was a counterpetition, and your counterpetition was stronger. So where was the pressure coming from?
Steve: It’s a good question. I don’t know, but you have to remember that... I shouldn’t say too much about this because some of these conversations are somewhat privileged. When the George Floyd thing happened, if you were an administrator of a university or even a corporation, you could see that something was happening in the country. This huge wave was coming, and so you just didn’t want to be smushed by this wave. So you just… And a lot of things happened that summer, right? A lot of things happened.
Richard: I remember it was a scary… I thought we were heading towards something Maoist. I remember there was one thing where a soccer player lost his job because his wife tweeted something or said something or posted something, I don’t know, about Black Lives Matter. We were doing a lot of censoring of art at that time, I mean it was like weekly, and cancellations... The polling showed Black Lives Matter became popular. I thought ohh no, this has popular support now, it’s just going to last forever. Six months later, Black Lives Matter, the polling went straight back down. We weathered it thankfully, it wasn’t a permanent Maoist thing. I was really scared actually in summer 2020, I thought it was going really badly.
Steve: You were not the only one scared, and many of the people who were scared were top administrators at leading institutions of higher education. Some people are in the job because they want to advance their career, and some people are in the job because they believe in the institution and what it stands for. Truth, search for knowledge, freedom of expression, freedom of ideas, and there’s definitely a conflict there.
Activists vs. Truth Seekers in Academia
Richard: I don’t know much obviously about the physical sciences, but I can speak about the social sciences. When I talk to people, sometimes people come to me for advice or just when I’m talking to people, and they say “I’m thinking about an academic career. I like economics or I like politics or whatever.” I tend to tell them don’t go into academia.
It’s not only that it’s politically not very good. It’s not like physics where you need expensive equipment or something. Often you don’t need that much money, you just need some kind of support and then you’re on your computer, you’re running simulations or you’re running data analysis. And there’s not a lot... there’s more expensive stuff you could do, but I tend to think that stuff is not even that good and the best research is just crunching data. There’s think tanks, there’s independent stuff like CSPI.
So anyone who’s interested in the social sciences, I tell them, just forget the university, be like me. Just go out there, speak to the world, reach a hundred times as many people, have something interesting to say and put it out there. Don’t write in these journals, just talking to a few other people, having to conform to these methods and investigate a narrow question, which I think is just constricting what you can actually find out when you’re doing research.
I have come to just be very against academic social science. I don’t think it’s very useful and I think you could do better work outside of it, or at least as good work outside of it. So that’s my advice when people say that they want to go into academia or they’re thinking about it. If someone comes up to you and they say I want to be a physicist,” or a chemist or whatever, what do you tell them?
Steve: I agree with what you just said about social science. The academic track in social science, I think, is not as favorable as in physical sciences or STEM. STEM is not without its own problems. But there are lots of important things, whether it’s material science or physics or chemistry, where really you do need to get a certain deep training in the academy. One way I often say this is, if you want to start a company or you want to trade stocks, the person who might best advise you is probably unlikely to be a professor at a university who teaches that subject, right? They’re not really that useful in the real world often. But if you want to build a robot, or you want to improve the efficiency of a lithium ion battery, or you want to measure the brightness of a distant galaxy, actually there’s a very good chance if you just go to the nearest university and knock on the door of a professor whose specialty is in that area, that person will be very useful to you.
So there’s just a difference in how real, just to be a hundred percent frank about it, how real certain subjects are. I’m not saying there shouldn’t be academic historians or academic economists, but I just think the gap between their capabilities and what’s done in the real world outside the academy is not so large, as you were indicating. Whereas in some areas of academic science it is, right?
Richard: You can’t go build your own super collider outside of academia, you need to be within systems to do that. Social science is different, so it really depends on your field. I guess the hard sciences can’t give up on academia. Certain kind of physics, certain kind of math, that’s really the only option.
Steve: Yeah. I think the people who I really feel sorry for at the universities are these STEM scientists who are searching for truth. That’s the only place where they can go and pursue questions where the economic payoff or technological payoff is a hundred years down the line. Who else is going to support it? In the US it’s universities. For them to be trapped in an institution now which is mainly pursuing some other ideological goals which aren’t necessarily aligned with the pursuit of truth, I think that’s a real tragedy.
Richard: How bad are… Do you know anything about European universities? I assume China has none of this political correctness stuff, but say at a European university… I know Europe is obviously left wing by certain measures politically, but it seems like their universities are not as far gone. Do you know anything about that?
Steve: My colleagues in Europe, in both the UK and in Europe, tell me they have similar problems. It varies from country to country how far along things are. Things were different in the US just 10 years ago. They’ve accelerated quite a bit in the last 10 years. I think when we first spoke we were discussing exactly what the causes were for that. But it seems like things have accelerated a lot, and there might be some countries in Europe where things are still functioning kind of okay and they haven’t hit that acceleration that we just had. But I think it’s hard to resist over time.
Richard: There’s other systems you could imagine. People have talked about taking the university, separating the research from the teaching. The teaching gives you all these administrators, and it gives you pressure from students and takes up your time. If you’re one of the best physicists in the world, maybe teaching undergrads is not the best use of your time. So there’s a lot of reasons to... You can just have government funded research. The NIH I think is like this. So there is stuff like this. Potentially less subject to the capture by the crazy people who are drawn to the universities. [laughs]
Steve: Well, another aspect to this, which, again, it’s very politically incorrect to say this. But if you are working on trying to build a quantum computer, you’re competing against some of the smartest, hardest working researchers around the world, in Beijing or in Munich, Cambridge, all over the world. You don’t have a lot of time to fool around with other stuff. In fact, you have to be famously monomaniacal to succeed as a STEM researcher. You have to focus on your little problem and really just crank on it with your team. Now it seems like, some people who are in other subjects, they actually view a part of their job as being activism, as being advancing certain ideological causes whether in the broader society or at the university, through speaking and writing and organizing.
So there’s no way that Joe chemist, who works on membranes, is going to compete with Joe activist who’s in the department of labor studies. It just doesn’t work that way, because the other guy can spend a heck of a lot more time and energy beating you up in campus politics or actually attacking you and trying to get you fired, and actually could view that as part of his or her job. They can say, look, I’m here for social justice, the whole reason I’m in the academy is for social justice, and I’m going to fight for justice. And this membrane chemist, he may be great at doing cell membrane studies, but he has some wrong views about gender so I’m going to try to get rid of him.
So basically, the serious people have to shut up. If they want to get their work done and advance the subject that has been their passion since they were a student and they have devoted their whole lives to, they basically have to shut up. They’re competing against other equally formidable people at other universities to get the research money, to win the Nobel prize, etc., to get the paper published.
They’re not activists. They don’t see activism as part of their job. If a physicist goes to a protest on the weekend because they want to support the local labor union or whatever, they view that as, that’s time away from my work, away from my job, it’s not what I’m here for but I believe in it so I’m going to go protest. Fine, no problem. But the problem is we have whole classes of people on the campus who actually view social justice as their main reason for being on campus. It’s just a different situation.
Richard: That’s unavoidable because a lot of these fields were created through political activism. Like the African American Studies and Chicano Studies departments, I mean there were protests that led to these things. So of course, if your field is created for political reasons, it’s going to be a political field.
Steve: And in a way I don’t even want to judge those people because they can sincerely believe... I might not agree with them, but they might sincerely believe that the number one problem that they can help with in society is this kind of injustice, and they should be teaching it to the undergrads, and they should be agitating every day. However, one has to at least admit that those are two very different mindsets and types of activities that are happening on campus, okay? One guy’s an astronomer trying to figure out how do supernovas happen, and the other guy is trying to get all the sexist astronomers fired. So it’s two very different activities that professors engage in on campus.
Richard: There’s a selection thing. I think that when I was in grad school there seemed to be like a U-shape of how people did in our program. Some people were just too lazy to do the work, so those people wouldn’t do well or they’d take forever to finish or they wouldn’t finish. Some people could do interesting and compelling work and remunerative work outside of academia, so they moved on to their dissertation stage and then they sort of disappeared. In all humility, I put myself in that category. I sort of lost interest at some point. But then the people in the middle who couldn’t really do anything outside of the academy but were smart enough to do the work and go through the motions, those people stayed in it.
I think it’s selecting for a certain kind of... And it’s not just ability, it’s like what kind of life do you want? Do you like this playing games of manipulating symbols and then having other people judge your work and not having any kind of accountability mechanism through going out there and trying to make your way out, build a product, or build a business or whatever?
I think we’re at this point, at least in the social sciences, the selection mechanisms are so, so bad. I have a friend, Eric Kaufmann, who works on trying to reform the university. A lot of people try to do this, University of Austin tried... I just think it’s hopeless. You still need the university for STEM. I just think about reforming from the outside. I know there are some places, I think Tennessee did this and I think Australia did this where, they fund you if you’re going into a STEM program. The government will give you money to study STEM, but not the humanities or social sciences. Or they’ll give you less money, or something like that. I think we need to start thinking about solutions like that because I just look at the social science and I think, you’re not going to reform this. The selection mechanisms, the people who are there, the methods, the institutions that have developed... It’s gone, and all you can do is think about how to limit the damage and limit their power and their resources and their influence.
Steve: When you and I were first talking on my podcast earlier, I said to you I admired you because you and Zach Goldberg and these other guys had really, in some sense, figured out how wokeism happened. You had a very compelling narrative for how it happened. And I was saying that I had totally missed it even though I was in the academy this whole time. How could this wokeism thing have taken over while I was sitting there not noticing? And here’s the thing, being a little bit too autistic physics guy, when the Sokal hoax, are you familiar with Alan Sokal? Maybe before your time.
Richard: Oh yeah, I’ve read about it.
Steve: He was a mathematical physicist and he noticed that a lot of these postmodern philosophers and literary theorists had kind of completely abandoned the notion of truth and the scientific method and positivism. All these things that physicists assume naturally, these guys had basically just decided were totally untrue. So he decided to spoof them by writing a completely nonsensical article and getting it published in one of the top literary journals, just to prove that these guys are full of it. It’s just complete junk and we should just ignore them. We should not pay them high salaries, and we should just ignore them. So Sokal pulled off his hoax and totally humiliated, I forgot the name of the journal, it might have been called Social Text, but it was a very big journal at the time.
I just thought, being this crazy physics, physicist, scientist type guy that, well, Sokal has demonstrated these guys are full of it so surely administrators and other people will realize that this is all junk and they should not pay attention to these guys. But it didn’t happen, what happened is actually those guys kind of took over the university and all the STEM guys are just quietly taking it.
Richard: Yeah, it’s true. There was even a more recent hoax... Helen Pluckrose...
Steve: There was a sequel to the Sokal hoax which was even more extreme and they published many papers.
Richard: There’s more journals and the standards have been even lowered, so I’m sure it’s probably easier to do that today. I don’t know why you would... It’s like a religion, right? You think, oh, some scientific finding has discredited this branch of this faith. But that never works like that, right? People just, you know...
Steve: I mean, foolish me to think that these other people would pay any attention to what Sokal proved, uncovered, they just completely ignored it.
Richard: But do you feel like… I think your portrayal of the universities is probably accurate and you have these people who are STEM people, science people that are just interested in finding truth. They haven’t bought into all this other nonsense that goes on. But, it’s not like there’s some big backlash and they’re like oh no, the crazies are running it. I think your view is probably the minority, right? And we have data on this. Again, Kaufmann, did a study of professors, including broken up into STEM and non-STEM, so people can look that up on the CSPI website. So this is your view of it, and I think it’s probably an accurate view, but the people in STEM and science in the academy don’t see it that way, right?
Steve: Yes. The younger the STEM faculty member, the less likely they are to agree with me. And a lot of the younger STEM faculty are, themselves, super woke and just think this is the right thing. And we need to change the way we teach the math course, or we need to change the way we teach freshman physics for these reasons. And I think the older that you are among the STEM faculty, the more you’re likely to quietly, without trying to get yourself into trouble, agree with what I’ve been saying. So it’s an unfortunate situation.
Again, I want to say, I’m not saying there can’t be a place at the university for people who are committed to social justice or ideological causes, but we need to articulate that they’re not searching for truth in an empirical, positivistic sense, the way that scientists are. They’re doing something else. They’re convinced they know the truth, and they’re trying to shape society, starting with their own institution, in the mold that they want. But it’s a different activity than the search for truth.
Why Microeconomics is Better than Macro
Richard: Speaking of these different kinds of branches of science and what’s going well and what’s not, I was thinking about some of your writings on economics. You’ve cited some papers and articles that have been skeptical of conventional views on economics. I think you focus a lot on the 2008 crash and how they didn’t know a lot. My view of economics, compared to other social sciences is... Look, if you took the average third world country and you replaced their dictator with an economist, things would get better, probably. I’m not sure that’s right with sociologists or political scientists or anthropologists or women’s studies degrees, I think the Afghanistan War was that to a large extent, these people were in charge to a large extent.
Do you think you’re maybe a little bit too hard on economics because, for the complexity of what it’s studying and as far as what it’s gotten right – the decline of poverty in the third world as soon countries started listening to economists – aren’t they doing something better than most of the social sciences?
Steve: Well, they are. I think they try to be empirically driven. There are really deep truths uncovered within economics, I would say primarily within microeconomics. If you ask about, how do market forces shape prices? Or how do prices work as a signal for organizing your economy? I think those things are clearly correct. When you get more toward macroeconomics, it’s almost like a kind of storytelling. The number of degrees of freedom that could affect your economy that you have to deal with is so large, that it’s hard to imagine that it’s sufficiently under empirical control, that you can really get to strong conclusions about your theory or your model based on empirical data. There’s just not enough examples.
I think serious people who tend toward rigor or being self critical within economics admit all those things that I wrote about, so I don’t think my take on economics is totally outside the mainstream of very critical deep thinking economists. But the average econ prof would just reflexively defend themselves and just say, oh, no, we’re real science, leave me alone and stop bugging me.
Richard: I have this suspicion about macroeconomics. I have a suspicion that Keynesianism was basically… It won in the marketplace of ideas because it’s the most convenient things in the world for governments. It gives you an excuse to just spend a lot of money. You don’t really have to think too hard about how you spend it. And when the justification for central planning, when we see that doesn’t work, Keynesianism just goes to governments and says, spend a lot of money. And you could see why governments would like this, but how solid is that science? I don’t know, I’m far outside my range of expertise, but do you have any thoughts on that?
Steve: Well, on a very fundamental level, there’s an economist, I think, named Colander, who surveys economists, including PhD students at top departments. And he asked some questions like, “Do economists test theories?” And it’s a very deep question because it’s asking this question that I alluded to earlier, which is that if your models are so complicated… Like I think if you’re a development economist, you could list easily a dozen variables which could affect whether a particular country is going to have strong economic growth. Like what’s their level of education? What’s their commitment toward education? How much corruption is there? You could list 15 variables. Like, is there a neighbor that’s threatening to overtake and invade? You could list 15 variables and then you can ask, well, if I’m trying to test the effect of these 15 variables and I only have like 100 examples, but I’m in a 15-dimensional space. How well can I do? And even the most beginning economics student, who’s a little bit more mathematically inclined would just point out that, yeah, you’re right. You can’t do hypothesis testing if what Steve just said is true.
So this guy Colander, he surveys, I think both economists and grad students in economics departments. Some of them understand this point, some of them don’t. One of the main things that I found most tragic in his surveys, he asks, “Are there fundamental disagreements within economics?” And it’s uncomfortably close to 50/50 where 50% of them say, no, we don’t have fundamental disagreements with each other, like about whether Keynesianism is an accurate description of macroeconomics or not. And 50% of them say, we do have fundamental disagreements. But just the fact that the field can be polarized like that… Doesn’t the fact that these 50% disagree with each other imply that for sure they have fundamental disagreements [laughter] because they have a fundamental disagreement about whether economists degree about fundamentals. So the whole thing, it shows you the whole thinking within the field is not coherent. It’s not even equilibrated properly.
So you can go to a department and find a really strong Keynesianism true believer, and you can go to another department or maybe even the same department and find a guy who’s a George Mason, completely anti-Keynesian, Hayekian guy and they live with each other. So we don’t really have that in physics where one guy says, special relativity is wrong. And the other guy says, special relativity is right. [laughter]
Richard: Well, you have the interpretations of quantum mechanics. I mean, there’s some people who think multi-worlds is correct and some people who don’t. And that seems pretty fundamental.
Steve: But we agree that we disagree. And actually, most would say that in the places where there are these disagreements it’s because there’s not enough data to resolve the issue. So we are lacking some experimental capability to test the issue. It’s generally not a disagreement about how experiments are interpreted and things like this.
But anyway, I think if you live through something like 2008, and while 2008 is happening, while the financial crisis is happening, you go down the hall and start talking to your economist colleague, and then you realize the economist colleague doesn’t actually know what a credit default swap is, but at the same time is giving you some long spiel about what’s happening in the economy. So I’m in a weird position because more than half of the theoretical physicists that I trained with, was educated with, ended up on Wall Street in hedge funds and creating these instruments. And I considered that as a career option for some time. So I had carefully studied lots of things like options pricing theory, and derivatives and all the math that’s required to be a quant on Wall Street I understood pretty well.
So I was really shocked when the academic economists that I was speaking to, and these are very prominent people actually… Because I was actually invited because I was blogging about it, I was invited to a bunch of conferences about the credit crisis where most of the people at the conference, or at least half of them were economists. And so when you meet them, on the one hand they’re giving these amazing quotes to The Wall Street Journal, New York Times about the crisis, and then you start questioning them in detail about, well, do you know how these mortgage-backed securities are constructed? No. Do you know what firms are buying, what firms are selling, what the incentive structure looks like for the guy who’s building the portfolio? No. Well, where does your opinion come from? Well from nowhere actually, honestly. So it’s absurd.
Richard: I mean, I’ve seen that in academia too. I’ve seen IR theory try to explain historical situations and then when you know a little bit about the history and you’re like, no, that’s wrong. Like you get basic things about the facts of what actually happened wrong.
Going Against the Crowd
Richard: So let’s close out. I just want to ask, I guess another personal question. You’ve been out there and you’ve been publicly speaking about many issues and you’re not afraid of controversy, I admired the way you dealt with it when those grad students came after you. I’m always disappointed when people fold or apologize and say, oh my God, I’m so sorry. And you didn’t do that, I really admire you for that. What do you attribute this… When people say I have courage, I always cringe because it’s not like I’m running through minefields or anything, I’m saying my opinion on Twitter. But obviously there’s something different about me, obviously there’s something different about you compared to a normal, average person. What do you attribute that to?
Steve: Part of it is just, I would say personality. So some people are just willing to be a maverick, to differ from the crowd, to have a different opinion than the crowd. My intellectual hero, as you know, Richard Feynman, he had no fear of standing out from the crowd and doing something different. So in that way, he’s my role model. So it was natural for me to say, well, if I disagree with the crowd, as I’ve gotten older, you get wiser. So when you differ from the crowd, you want to think carefully, like maybe the crowd knows more than me and I’m just being stupid. Like in a juvenile way I’m being a maverick just to be a maverick or something. So you want to weigh both of those things, but it’s also true that as you get older, if you study the history of science or the history of ideas or intellectual history, you’ll often find that anything useful that got introduced, whether it was IVF or quantum mechanics or whatever, the very first 10 guys that our innovator talked to told him he was full of shit and wrong.
So that’s the standard experience you should feel if you are deviating from the crowd in a correct way, you should feel that burden of pressure to conform. So you just have to integrate into your life expectation that I’m going to be forced to undergo this unpleasant sensation by the crowd. And that’s why most people are just conforming all the time.
Richard: There’s an idealism there because it’s interesting… I think if you say that, you give that little spiel and you say, oh, Galileo, and this and that. And people were always oppressed for saying things that were true. I think everyone would, even your diversity administrator might nod along with that. But then if you look at people’s actual opinions, they end up conforming on every topic. So it’s funny how people... I think what you’re saying, everyone agrees with that in the abstract, but they would say, thinking for yourself is good and standing out from the crowd is fine. And then in reality, they just end up conforming. So people really do compartmentalize, and I’ve always been fascinated by this.
Steve: I think the pressure is enormous. There’s actually a quote from one of Feynman’s contemporaries, one of the guys he shared the Nobel Prize with, a theoretical physicist called Julian Schwinger. He wrote about this later in his career because he started working on some different stuff that people didn’t like. And the direct quote is, “The pressure to conform is enormous.” And this is a Nobel Prize winner who was one of the most brilliant physicists of his generation. He was famously brilliant. And yet he was saying, decades after winning the Nobel Prize, that the pressure to conform is enormous. And I think that’s just true. There are probably good evolutionary reasons, evolutionary psychology reasons for why we conform, but if you want to think for yourself... I think the ultimate goal, even if you’re not a scientist, is to look at this world, try to understand the reality, try to understand how things really are, but you can’t do that if you’re not willing to go against the crowd sometimes.
Richard: Yeah, I agree. It’s just I don’t know if we have a good way of explaining what makes some people actually willing to do that and some not. I mean, it’s just something that’s fascinates me.
Steve: Well, people vary by, there’s a Big Five personality trait.
Richard: Is it just autism? When I was looking at the symptoms for Asperger’s once, and one of them was like a naive concern with truth. And I was like, that doesn’t sound like a disorder, that sounds like a heroic trait. [laughter] Is it just something we could reduce to something like that?
Steve: Well, to some extent, I think Aspergery people are... Actually there’s an economist, I can’t remember his name now, he’s another Nobel prize winner, the economist who first started doing experiments with people to test market dynamics. His name is Smith, I should remember his name because he went to Caltech. But he himself is autistic, and he wrote that one of the reasons why he was able to not conform with the orthodoxy in economics was because he was Aspergery and just didn’t care or didn’t understand what other people wanted him to think. But there is a Big Five personality trait called agreeableness. People who are high on agreeableness, they don’t like a lot of conflict…
Richard: On Big Five, where are you on agreeableness?
Steve: I’m actually high on agreeableness insofar as you fill out the survey, but it depends on the survey, the specific questions they ask you. So I’m high in agreeableness in that I try to have harmonious relations with my family or with my colleagues or people I meet on the street and I like making friends. I don’t try to generate unnecessary friction or discomfort. But when it comes to something like a matter of science or a matter of something that really matters, then I’m willing to have disagreements with other people. But I still, at least on the tests I’ve taken, I score high on agreeableness.
Richard: I scored low, I remember I was like bottom 5% or something when I took it. So it’s not agreeableness, I guess we both come to the same place, but we’re on different ends of the spectrum.
Steve: Yeah. I mean, most people who are out there tweeting out their opinion and stuff, or even most geniuses who win Nobel prizes, they score low on agreeableness.
Richard: I’m sure that’s probably true. I said that was the last question, but actually I wanted to, speaking of genius, I wanted to ask you one more thing. You talked about the gradations of intelligence. You’ve written about the difference between a 1 in 100, a 1 in 1,000, a 1 in 10,000, and what you’re capable of. But I think you wrote something about Bezos, was it you who… Bezos, was he trying to get a PhD in math or something at Stanford? And Bezos is obviously very smart and people around him think he’s super smart, but when he was around these other people, he felt like an idiot. And can you talk just a little bit about that?
I think one problem is people have this idea that genius is not that rare of a trait. So if we cancel people or we replace people from one race with another race, it doesn’t matter. There was a guy who just got canceled, one of Biden’s guys who was, I don’t remember what agency he was, but basically he was in charge of curing cancer. And I remember I was reading about this cancellation. He made all these women cry, he yelled at them. And then there was this one quote, which was like, “I don’t think genius is so rare that we have to tolerate a mean boss.” And that’s one perspective, like anyone who’s in the top 5% or top 1% maybe can do his job. You can look for a saintly person because there’s so many people who can do the same work, but that’s not how the world is, right?
Steve: Okay, this is a very complicated question, but I’m very happy to talk about it. So in terms of different levels of intelligence… So psychometricians try to measure this kind of thing, and there are qualitative differences. So in the most famous studies of this type, where they follow a group of kids who have been tested when they’re quite young, and then they ask what happens to them 50 years later? So they track thousands of kids for 50 years and they look to see whether they can, for example, you could ask, are there diminishing returns? You compare the kid who scores at the 1 in 100 level on the test when they’re 12 with the kids who score at the 1 in 10,000 level on the test. And then you say like, oh, is one group more likely to be a tenured professor in STEM or is one group more likely to have a patent or is one group more likely to earn more than a quarter of a million a year?
And what you find is there are no diminishing returns. [laughter] So in other words, as you go out to these very stratospheric levels of capability, at least as measured by the test, there are still continuing positive returns. And Bezos is a very interesting case because he’s a very honest guy. And so Bezos was an undergrad at Princeton, and several close friends of mine were in his eating club and also in his physics classes with him. So he was an undergrad physics major. He went to Princeton…
Richard: Eating club? What’s an eating club?
Steve: Oh, eating clubs at Princeton are kind of like their fraternities. They don’t have Greek letter fraternities, but they have these social clubs. And so I think… Was he in Cloister? Anyway, but he was in the same eating club as several of my friends. And he wanted to study physics. He went to Princeton specifically to study physics. They have one of the top physics departments there. And he wrote about this very openly, which, I admire him, because oftentimes people, if you meet someone who’s better than you at something, the natural protective impulse is to say, ah, I didn’t really care about that. And he’s only better than me in this narrow way and fuck it. That’s the usual reaction. Or these IQ tests don’t mean anything, or the GRE doesn’t measure anything, or the LSAT doesn’t measure anything. You meet somebody who beats you. Oh, that guy’s way faster than me, but I’m a better receiver because I’ve got more body control.
Richard: Sometimes people think there’s a threshold, but they’re above it, whatever that threshold is below where they are.
Steve: Yeah, exactly. One way to say this is, any IQ points above mine don’t matter. [laughter] Yeah, superfluous, there’s diminishing returns. After my IQ, there’s diminishing returns.
So Bezos wrote very clearly about this. And he said, actually, I was doing great in physics until I got to quantum mechanics. And I know exactly what he’s talking about because I teach those classes and at a certain point, the material gets much more abstract and you deal with infinite-dimensional Hilbert spaces and stuff like this. And Bezos just said, at that point I could not follow. And he said, there were a few kids – and this would be a typical thing, these would be the top physics majors at Princeton in a given year – there were a few kids who got this material naturally, had no trouble with it. And at that point I realized I’m just not going to be a physicist. And he switched to computer science. He’s just very honest.
Now, if you talk to other people in the building of the company, Amazon, Bezos has great generalist brainpower. So in other words, he can go into a meeting and he’s talking to a bunch of engineers about how to optimize the supply chain at this factory or some optimization process for detecting counterfeit goods or something. And he’s just very good at reasoning. And lots of engineers have said Bezos is the smartest guy in the room always, and he always has the right instincts and he can deconstruct some complex argument that we give him and come up with a better solution quite often. And I think these are true because I’ve founded tech companies, and I think it’s just true. Most of the guys that I know who are at this level in theoretical physics, they can solve engineering problems. It’s not difficult for them.
So if you pull Richard Feynman out of physics and you say, hey, can you help the company Thinking Machines? This is a true historical thing, he helped the company Thinking Machines design the first parallel processing computers. Well, he didn’t have any training in it, but he just had more horsepower. So, Bezos has more horsepower than the average engineer at Amazon, I think there’s no doubt. But Bezos himself says he really had a lot of trouble trying to understand quantum mechanics at an abstract level. And I believe him because I know people who were in that same class in that same year with him at Princeton. So anyway, it’s a true story, but it reveals something that most people don’t like to admit.
And they don’t even imagine it because typically you can imagine people who are a lot dumber than you, and you can imagine people who are a little bit smarter than you, but when you actually say, what would it be like to be much, much smarter than me and look at the world? How would you perceive it differently? People cannot imagine that. People just don’t have the dynamic range because by definition they can’t simulate somebody who’s out here. They can simulate somebody who’s on this side, right? They can maybe simulate, just guess at what it’s like to be here, but they cannot simulate what it’s like out here.
Richard: Yeah, because if you’re drunk, you could say, well, this is what it would feel like if I was 20 IQ points dumber. [laughter]
Steve: Exactly. Or I had a very bad day, I was sleep deprived. I just couldn’t think clearly. I can understand how that works. I remember how I perceived problems when I was 12, but now that I’m 18…
Richard: But sometimes I guess you can have a really good day, sometimes you really feel it’s on and you can say, oh, if I was 10, 15 IQ points higher, maybe this is what it would be like all the time.
Steve: Yeah, no, that’s totally fair. But what about 50 IQ points higher? [laughter]
Richard: Probably don’t have an idea where I’m 50 IQ points higher than I am. I can get 50 IQ points lower. If you drink enough, you can go down to zero. [laughter]
Steve: Exactly. So what I like about Bezos is he’s very honest and he just he lays it out, and this is a perspective that many people just cannot accept. So they just won’t accept the picture of the world of reality that Bezos paints in this set of anecdotes is true. They just can’t accept it.
Richard: And as like a policy question. I mean, does that mean that we, do we as a society just owe such a disproportionate debt to the few Bezoses, the few people, and shouldn’t policy be just centered around… If it conflicts with equality at any point, right, we should be basically on the side of letting genius basically run free towards socially productive ends, of course not through creating complex financial mechanisms that destroy the economy…
Steve: I think it’s deeply out of favor today because people are so pro equality, but I think it’s that disproportionately advances in hard subjects like science and engineering come from people who are disproportionately drawn from the tail, the right tail of the distribution. And 30 years ago, if you had this discussion with any number of engineers or scientists or whatever, they would’ve just laughed and said, well, how else do you think it works? Like of course I try to get the smartest grad student into my lab possible because I think he’s going to be able to push us forward. Of course it works that way, there would be no question that it works that way. But only today in our crazy woke world can people question that actually there are non-diminishing returns to increasing cognitive ability, right?
Richard: Yeah. I agree with you. I think we’re going to leave the audience on a sort of pessimistic note. I think if you listen to the first podcast we did, we talked about Chinese science and I think we were more optimistic. And so if you want to hope that science will continue somewhere, I think if you haven’t listened to that one, you should go back and listen to that.
Steve: I think science will continue. It’s just things are somewhat less efficient in the West than they could be, and it’s kind of growing.
Richard: The trajectories are bad basically.
Steve: By the way, let me just give you one more anecdote, which is kind of interesting. So Los Alamos National Lab was where the first atomic bomb was built famously, led by Oppenheimer. And the core group that really did a lot of the important stuff for the bomb were a bunch of physicists, theoretical and experimental physicists, and they’ve always had a tradition there of having a theoretical physics group. I think it’s called T8 or T9 theoretical division. And even though the lab has increasingly become more and more focused on military things, weapons, atomic weapons and so on, they still keep a theory division, which for many, many decades was “outside the fence.” So outside the fence, it’s both literal and also administrative. So if you’re outside the fence, you may not have super top secret clearance. Like you might be working on muon physics or some kind of very abstract physics, but it doesn’t have any application to bombs or something. You may be working on quantum field theory or something.
So for a long time, Los Alamos had this outside the fence research group. But interestingly, if you talk to the people who are in that group, some of them have top secret clearance and they do work inside the fence, but some of them don’t. Some of them refuse to get top secret clearance because they don’t want to be pulled into behind the fence research. And the behind the fence stuff is what in comic books and in the defense industry you think of as like the hardest skull cracking mental work, like trying to figure out how to improve satellite imaging or how to figure out how to improve fission or things that are considered really hard by the rank and file engineer or whatever.
But if you talk to the guys, and these are my colleagues, if you talk to the guys who are in the outside the fence lab, sometimes we’re having a beer, I’ll say, oh, it must be interesting at Los Alamos because you do some behind the fence work, right? And they’ll say, yeah, I do a little bit, or I do 10% time behind the fence, or they’re trying to make me up to 50% or something. And I’m like, well, okay, so who’s in there? Are there any good brains in there? Like are there actually good people there? And they’re like, a few. And what they mean by that is actually most of the very best people at Los Alamos are in the outside the fence group. And that’s why they’re constantly trying to get them to come back there and work on these applied problems. But the really sharp guys don’t want to do that. They want to work on problems that are more intellectually interesting to them. And so there is this very far right tail that can do stuff if they want to do stuff. But oftentimes they’re doing something which only is important to the long term advancement of science and not to some short term engineering problem. But they can solve these engineering problems when they need to.
Richard: Do you have a feeling those very far right tail people maybe are too interested in the theoretical stuff and maybe we’d be better off if they applied themselves to the applied stuff that can be sure to pay off?
Steve: So you might say in terms of the short run benefit of society, what you just said is correct. It would be great if you got them working on applied stuff like Bezos working on optimizing sorting of packages or something. But on the other hand they might say to you, no, no, no. These discoveries that we’re making now will pay off 50 or 100 years from now. And they’ll make huge changes in the way we view the universe or whatever. I think it’s an unanswered question actually, what benefits society more, even in the long run. But the point is it’s a matter of personal preference. So a lot of these guys want to do this beautiful abstract thinking, but the point I’m trying to make is some people would like to claim they’re not able to do these hard engineering applied type problems, but I think it’s totally untrue actually. So it’s consistent with the Bezos story.
Richard: Okay. Well, Steve, this has been fascinating. Anything you want to plug or talk about before I let you go?
Steve: No, it’s great talking to you. I’m sorry it went on so long, [laughs] but hopefully your audience likes it…
Richard: Oh no, this is what we have you here for. Broad interests, so there’s a lot to cover.
Steve: Yeah. Great. Alright
Richard: Great having you. Talk later, Steve. Bye.