Ideas matter: How I stopped being a Culture Incel
In which a scientist (ME) argues for the importance of culture in facilitating prosperity and scientific progress
Nature, a top scientific journal, published an editorial last year arguing degrowth is desirable. Last month, The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) blocked a partnership between an emerging start-up and the pharmaceutical heavyweight Sanofi on what appear to be tenuous grounds. This collaboration was focused on jointly creating a drug for a rare illness. In the short term, a likely outcome is that the drug simply won’t be developed. Looking further ahead, this decision could establish a troubling precedent, further jeopardising an already struggling biotech market. Mainstream outlets publish opinion pieces with titles like: “The Morality of Having Kids in a Burning, Drowning World”. All while we are confronting a very real ageing population problem. You might think of these occurrences as disparate, yet I perceive a common undercurrent: They signify a shift in elite thought towards excessive caution (safetyism), skepticism of technology, and zero-sum thinking. This shift poses what I believe to be the defining ideological challenge of our time.
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This trend raises alarms from various perspectives. Psychologists like Jonathan Haidt and Jean Twenge have insightfully linked this culture of over-caution to rising mental health issues among the youth, a theme Haidt explores in his book “The Anxious Generation”. As a scientist, I see this type of mindset increasingly applied to issues concerning the potential technology has for society. I am afraid this casts a shadow over the very pursuit of scientific advancement itself.
A Song of Culture and Science
“But in the end the willingness to challenge nature in some way to reveal one of her secrets is based on metaphysical beliefs held on an individual level”
Scientific progress clearly influences culture: just think of the contraceptive pill or the internet as easy examples of this. But the way in which culture enables and facilitates scientific & technological progress can be harder to trace. It’s largely because “culture” is a somewhat amorphous concept, harder to define or quantify. But its importance can’t be easily dismissed: after all, the Laws of Nature have always been the same, yet we only seem to have reined them in, tamed them and embedded them into institutions at very specific points in time and in specific places. The remarkable epochs of Great Scientific Leaps hint at an intrinsic quality of those eras and locales that kindled such advancements. The term "Leap" is deliberately chosen, for progress has had a non-linear path through time. It is not merely a matter of accumulation; rather, a specific confluence of factors ignited the embers of human potential at distinct moments in history.
Perhaps the most famous such Leap is the Industrial Revolution. Economic historians Joel Mokyr is known for proposing the theory that the Industrial Revolution happened in Europe in part due to what he calls a “culture of progress”. According to him, the view that science could elevate humanity's condition sparked a Europe-wide culture of growth, nurtured by elite intellectuals who valued the exchange of ideas. It was this blend of cultural values and Britain's skilled craftsmen that set the stage for its industrial leap forward. This explanation departs from previous accounts of the sources of the Industrial Revolution by elevating culture to the center-stage.
For a long time, the arguments brought by Mokyr were qualitative in nature and based on extensive readings of the topic. But might there be a way to quantify this in a more rigorous way? After all, the study of History is rife with qualitative theories that die in the light of quantitative evidence.
Such quantitative support for this theory came in the form of a recent paper applying the method of “topic analysis” to a large body of works printed in England between 1500 and 1900. Topic analysis refers to the process of identifying and categorizing the main themes or subjects in a body of text or discourse. This technique is increasingly used in a wide range of fields to understand the primary topics in large datasets, such as documents, and to discover patterns or trends in how these topics are discussed or evolve over time. First, the authors categorise all volumes into three main topics: Religion, Political Economy and Science by assigning them a score on each axis. Then, they analyse how progress oriented the language in each volume is. The main findings of the paper can be summarised by the figure below, which shows an increase in progress-oriented language before and during Industrialisation (more yellow dots). This is particularly true for works sitting at the nexus between political economy and science, so those likely discussing the role of science in society.
This new paper does not just add weight to Mokyr’s theory, but also fills in some important gaps. Although intellectuals mattered, the movement known as the "Industrial Enlightenment" was crucially dependent upon what Mokyr calls “artisans” - individuals more directly connected to the industrial sector. So an important part of his theory hinges upon the assumption that there was diffusion from intellectuals to artisans in terms of progress oriented views: a sort of trickle-down effect for ideas. The current paper brings some confirmation of this: works that had a higher “industrial” score (so more likely to address practical aspects of science) had particularly high scores for “progress orientation”.
If we accept that culture can shape material conditions and scientific progress, the immediate question becomes: Does our culture bode well for the future? I think not. Take climate change: as pro-technological solutions to climate change proponent Hannah Ritchie points out, there is more focus on the catastrophic nature of it and less on the potential of scientific advancements to change it. The anxiety-enhancing, “anti-CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy)” mentality1 that Jonathan Haidt & Greg Lukianoff describe, shines through in a review of Hannah Ritchie’s newest book, published in The Guardian:
"But we need the pessimists too; the climate scientists, journalists, activists and even artists with Rosling’s “overdramatic worldview”. It’s important not to discount the upside, but we also have to keep the worst possibilities in mind. We need people who will carry on frantically waving red flags, trying to warn us all of what could be coming."
If Enlightenment thinkers believed that Technology can uplift the human condition, we have seen the exact opposite mentality applied to climate change. In fact, one of the greenest energy generating options, nuclear power, has been actively campaigned against by major climate organisations like Greenpeace (although this shows signs of changing recently).
Much like with Mokyr’s initial theory, the evidence I brought so far for an increasingly pessimistic culture is largely qualitative: “It’s a vibe”, as they say. But I think we are starting to see compelling quantitative signs that this shift is happening: for example, this year, two independent groups of economists found that millennials are more prone to zero-sum thinking (covered here). But let’s not be too pessimistic about the pessimism of our culture: it’s something that can be changed. It was not preordained that the pro-progress intellectuals of the Enlightenment would win. As Mokyr points out in his book, they faced their fair share of opposition.
Saying goodbye to my Inceldom
Not long ago, I was a staunch materialist, convinced that scientific and technological advances were the ONLY drivers of civilisation, relegating Culture to a mere sideshow for those less mathematically inclined. My relationship with Culture was like that of a man ensnared by a beguiling woman; I despised my own susceptibility to her allure, resenting the control she wielded over me, yet I couldn't help but steal glances at her. Despite my attempts to dismiss her, Culture, much like the woman, spurned me, leaving me in a state of denial and reluctant fascination.
I was for all intents and purposes a Culture Incel. As with all Incels, My Inceldom was born out of cope for feeling spurned by the object of my desire. The way in which Culture rejected me is that it didn't seem to reflect my identity or beliefs. Mingling with humanities students highlighted this chasm; their societal perspectives vastly differed from mine. I could simplify it as “I appreciate the importance of free markets and they didn’t; I was fascinated by the wonders of human civilisation, the moral & technological innovations of the last ~300 years and they did not; I believe a victim mentality is bad and they didn’t”. But the rift was deeper than that. Similarly, I did not really appreciate most journalism: the kind of cultural commentary that was en vogue did not resonate with me; the permanent doom and gloom over free markets and how bad our world is felt hollow.
So how did I shed my Inceldom? It's tempting to weave a story of a sudden epiphany sparked by reading Mokyr's writings, but that wouldn't be truthful. The reality is less dramatic: I can't pinpoint an exact moment when the change occurred. It was a slow transformation, influenced primarily by two factors. The first was the Marginal Revolution blog. Witnessing someone as knowledgeable and insightful as Tyler Cowen champion alternative views of our current situation gave me the confidence to trust my instincts, even when it seemed I stood alone. That alone is a testament to the power of ideas. The second one has been starting to Tweet. Tweeting is like a mating song sent into the void, in the hopes of attracting like-minded people. And attract like-minded people my tweeting did. There’s too many of them to exhaustively name, but relevantly to the topic of this piece,team really helped me consolidate my current views.
The first step in not being an Incel is accepting reality. Then, you need to move to action. And that’s why I write here. Optimism is a choice.
Lukianoff and Haidt, in their discussion of the "anti-CBT mentality," refer to a pattern of thought that contradicts the principles of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which aims to challenge and change unhelpful cognitive distortions and behaviors. They suggest that this mentality, often observed in contemporary social and educational contexts, encourages individuals to interpret situations in the most negative way possible, fostering harmful thinking patterns that CBT typically seeks to correct.