Jan 4·edited May 15Liked by Ruxandra Teslo

re: _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_.

I think the whole story is a bit different. The artisans did not sit around waiting for their intellectual betters to come up with theory for them to apply. Instead, the more usual pattern, which continues in the present time, is that the artisans and the engineers want to get a certain result, and they try things and eventually get something that works. The scientists notice. They start to analyse what the artisans and engineers are doing. They write papers about this.

The artisans and the engineers -- some of them at any rate, especially the ones who would like to get in on this new thing that is being done -- read the papers, and improve their understanding both of what they are doing and what other people are doing. They made improvements based on this new understanding, and the field improves.

But when the whole thing is written up by historians of science and technology and the like, they tend to chop off the first bit. You end up with the story that basic science leads to applied science, is purer, better, more abstract and more valuable than artisanship and engineering. But its not the 'trickle down' bit that is as important as the 'trickle up'.

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interesting, thanks for your comment. I think it’s plausible though that intellectuals created a culture of optimism first. I think what elites think is important even today and it will either catalyse or impede what the more practical people do

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Didn't have a primary resource readily at hand, but Taleb has been calling this "lecturing birds how to fly"


Taleb: "The greatest problem in knowledge is the “lecturing birds how to fly” effect.

Let us call it the error of rationalism. In Fat Tony’s language, it would be what makes us the suckers of all suckers. Consider two types of knowledge. The first type is not exactly “knowledge”; its ambiguous character prevents us from calling it exactly knowledge. It’s a way of doing thing that we cannot really express in clear language, but that we do nevertheless, and do well.

The second type is more like what we call “knowledge”; it is what you acquire in school, can get grades for, can codify, what can be explainable, academizable, rationalizable, formalizable, theoretizable, codifiable, Sovietizable, bureaucratizable, Harvardifiable, provable, etc.

The error of rationalism is, simply, overestimating the role and necessity of the second type, the academic knowledge, in human affairs. It is a severe error because not only much of our knowledge is not explainable, academizable, rationalizable, formalizable, theoretizable, codifiable, Sovietizable, bureaucratizable, Harvardifiable, etc., but, further, that such knowledge plays such a minor life that it is not even funny.

We are very likely to believe that skills and ideas that we actually acquired by doing, or that came naturally to us (as we already knew by our innate biological instinct) came from books, ideas, and reasoning. We get blinded by it; there may even be something in our brains that makes us suckers for the point."

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Possible evidence for the more bottom-up view in the paper "Quantifying the Scientific Revolution":

https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/evolutionary-human-sciences/article/quantifying-the-scientific-revolution/60249C6B9DF636D2EC8446F6B7E454F8 (there is also a slightly different preprint version at https://osf.io/preprints/socarxiv/9ex8q/download -- that one is a pdf auto-download)

On p. 4, they say the data suggests no dramatic break in the growth of scientific and technical productivity in the 1600s, the century often taken as the beginning of the scientific revolution (the trend also predates Copernicus' work, first published in 1543):

"Our estimates show an increase of scientific production in Europe during the period 1300–1850, except for a period of crisis from 1690 to 1730 (see Figure 1a). Interestingly, the increase in scientific production does not seem to be higher during the seventeenth century than during the period before and after the Scientific Revolution. Our estimates also show an increase in scientific production per capita, suggesting that the European population becomes more productive over time (see Figure 1b). In both cases, the growth rate in production and production per capita is regular over the period, except for a period of crisis at the end of the seventeenth century (see Figure 1c for growth rate in per capita production). Overall, this suggests that the scientific revolution corresponds less to an acceleration of science than to an accumulation of discoveries until a point during the seventeenth century when scholars began to realise that they had reached a level of knowledge unprecedented in human history (Wootton, 2015)."

Their overall conclusion from the quantitative analysis of the data they looked at is described on p. 7: "Our results suggest that economic development and living standards are key to explaining scientific productivity ... The results show a strong association between per capita scientific production, per capita GDP and urbanisation."

Looking at other proposals for factors that might have played a large role in the scientific revolution, they note on p. 7 that "it is notable that the invention of the printing press does not lead to the acceleration of scientific production", and on p. 8 they also look at the possible role of the university system with the conclusion "We found no significant association between scientific productivity and number of universities, suggesting that universities did not in fact play an important role in the Scientific Revolution". And on p. 12 they look at the rise and fall of scientific productivity in the Islamic Golden Age, with the conclusion "In line with our main hypothesis, it must be noted that the decline of Muslim science parallels the economic decline of Muslim countries. From the eleventh century on, urbanisation and GDP per capita started to decline ... in particular because of environmental problems associated with a dry and difficult environment".

P. 8 suggests a hypothesis about why increasing wealth might be associated with increased innovation, along the lines of the thrive/survive idea discussed at https://slatestarcodex.com/2013/03/04/a-thrivesurvive-theory-of-the-political-spectrum/ (also see the work of Ronald Inglehart on the world values survey at https://www.worldvaluessurvey.org/WVSContents.jsp?CMSID=Findings discussed by Jonathan Haidt at http://www.the-american-interest.com/2016/07/10/when-and-why-nationalism-beats-globalism/ )

"Recent work in behavioural sciences has shown that innovation and creativity are strongly associated with affluence, whereas harsh and unpredictable environments lead to informational conformism, the tendency to defer to others’ judgments (Baumard, 2018; Inglehart & Welzel, 2005; Jacquet et al., 2018; Nettle, 2018). This behavioural approach to creativity suggests that individuals in affluent environments should be more innovative in science, but also in all kinds of activities, because the trade-offs between exploration and social learning are similar (Baumard, 2018). We therefore look at other kind of creative activities, such as literature, philosophy, painting, sculpture and music, and build a general per capita ‘Cultural Domestic Product’. In this index, scientists account for a small minority of the sample (19.9%), compared with painters (32.9%), writers (29.8%) and musicians (14.4%) (see Table S1). The pattern for cultural production is strikingly similar to the pattern of scientific production, with the Netherlands and then Britain leading (see Figure 5). This suggests a common general cause – a ‘culture of growth’ (Mokyr, 2016) – behind this high level of scientific, literary, and artistic production."

Likewise p. 16 says:

"This shift in views on the progress of science predates actual scientific progress, which also argues for our hypothesis. In his famous study on the decline of magic, Keith Thomas noted that:

In many different spheres of life, the period saw the emergence of a new faith in the potentialities of human initiative. (...) The change was less a matter of positive technical progress than of an expectation of greater progress in the future. (...) It marked a break with the characteristic medieval attitude of contemplative resignation. (Thomas, 1971: 1184)

Thomas was struck that this optimism in the power of technical progress could not be based on actual evidence. ‘It is often said that witch-beliefs are a consequence of inadequate medical technique. But in England such beliefs declined before medical therapy had made much of an advance’ (Thomas, 1971: 1211). In the same way, the popularity of the work of Francis Bacon in the seventeenth century – that is, before the great wave of technical progress – attests that the English were very receptive towards optimistic ideas (Mokyr, 2016).


Recent work in behavioural sciences have found that resource abundance triggers cognitive exploration, curiosity, independent- and open-mindedness, whereas resource scarcity triggers conservatism and conformism, in order not to take the risk of an unfruitful exploration (Dubourg et al., 2021; Dubourg & Baumard, 2022; Jacquet et al., 2018; Nettle, 2018)."

On that comment in the second to last quoted paragraph about Francis Bacon, he may be a representative example for the influence of artisan culture on intellectuals--the page at https://www.settheory.com/bacon_galileo.html notes that his proposal for a new scientific method (in works like Novum Organon from 1620) was lacking the systematicity of Galileo, perhaps suggesting that this sort of 'pure' scientific work was not a major influence on him, and the paper at https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.1086/695538?journalCode=isis (you can get past the paywall at https://sci-hub.se/10.1086/695538 ) says that "Bacon’s philosophical discussion of experimentation owes a large debt to his concrete knowledge of early Stuart craftsmen applying for royal privileges and patents for new technical inventions. Bacon personally supervised the drafting of many of these privileges."

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This captures my own evolving thinking. The role culture plays in material progress (or stagnation) is far larger than most people realize. Have you read Edmund Phelps' Mass Flourishing? https://www.amazon.com/Mass-Flourishing-Grassroots-Innovation-Challenge/dp/0691165793

“Thus the history of the West set out here is driven by a central struggle. That struggle is not between capitalism and socialism— private ownership in Europe rose to the American level decades ago. Nor is it the tension between Catholicism and Protestantism. The central struggle is between modern and traditional, or conservative, values. A cultural evolution from Renaissance humanism to the Enlightenment to existentialist philosophies amassed a new set of values— modern values like expressing creativity and exploring for its own sake, and personal growth for one’s own sake.”

His book basically captures everything you're feeling, takes it further, and provides hard evidence and data to back it up. His argument is the industrial revolution was more the result of a cultural shift.

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It's really cringey to call yourself an "incel" when it means "involuntarily celebate". How the f*** do you reconcile that definition with "culture incel" or any other twisted use of the term? This isn't a label to be used lightly or watered down through such casual use. Its true meaning and those who self-identify as being "incel" are highly problematic.

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I'd distinguish extra caution (a totally expected and rational reaction to a better less risky world) and the increased willingness to see ideas, criticism or experience as a threat.

But that isn't really new. It's just that in the past those concerns tended to all be phrased in religious or moralistic terms which made them antithetical to academia and the left but the decline of religion in the country has removed the common enemy that bound together classical liberals and the left so we now have a left leaning take on the ancient refrain: those ideas are so bad they can't be allowed. Victimization and safe spaces are mere dressing on that underlying message.

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> 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’ve never understood how that works. Your susceptibility to her allure just means she’s very desirable to you, but, once she shows you’re no more desirable to her than a turd, every second you spend thinking of her is a wasted second of your life, and an invitation for her or even a third party to get you in big trouble. If you absolutely must “steal” glances, find someone else to “steal” them at, but I don’t know how glances are owned in the first place so they can be stolen, and the idea sickens me enough I’d rather look at someone who doesn’t think I’m committing a crime by looking at her.

Maybe I’m just more used than most people to being surrounded from childhood by desirable things while knowing and wholeheartedly agreeing they were definitely, emphatically not mine to enjoy. Maybe it’s important for status to show how used you are to getting your way and how you could never be tamed like me.

I’d say culture spurns you by being inaccessible to you and not giving a damn about you—much like people, in fact. After all, that’s the whole point of costly signalling games: to ward off those who can’t bear the cost.

By the way, I find it a bit unnerving how you talk about that “incel” situation as if you know it from the male side.

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I do think attempts to cast these modern anti-advancements articles and thinkpieces as symptomatic of a general malaise miss the key point that journalism ain’t what it used to be. The splintering of our media ecosystems means that these pieces don’t reflect reality for everyone, just a smaller subset of society. I don’t think people with a high-safety mindset will create anything, but I also don’t think they represent us all

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-I’ve suspected for a little while that ‘cultural engineering’ ought to be a dedicated arm of progress studies. An area of, I think, deep discomfort for the average progress-oriented techno-optimist involves being able to work both policy- and market areas to help these ideas gain purchase; they’ve gotten good at the market areas, but policy can hold the market captive if it will.

-It must be said that there are considerable grassroots incentives for the wider mass of people to have a reduced estimation of the possibilities of what’s possible with technology – they don’t see many instances of technology improving their lives and do see a good many such instances of it making their circumstances duller, smellier, or more precarious. This is in large part due to the massive unwillingness to subsidise technical risk on the part of VCs in favour of the never-ending market-risk-playing merrygoround, and is something substantive that would have to be tackled before a culture shift could be managed.

-Important to note that cultural deficits clearly, as you yourself note and in the ways noted, affect the ‘humanities’ folk as well at present, and that until this is repaired it will represent a huge counterforce. The intellectual traditions inherited by both the humanities arm of civilisational affairs and the technological arm are patently not up to scratch, probably because they both resort from sources that are interesting but not fit for being taken as the foundation of ways of thinking. Impossible not to note how disinterested, and free from both pedantry and superstition, the knowledge-sharing environment was that helped produce the Ind. Rev. Impossible not to note how different its core traits are from those of our time.

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Science and technology ARE Culture, as are Art and Music, and the Political Economy and well just about everything in the human world. The industrial revolution was the offspring of capitalism and science.

Capitalism is a cultural construct in which businessmen have a "growth ethic" (see link). Capitalists accumulate capital, it's just what they do eating with forks and spoons rather than chopsticks.


Around the same time as capitalism was evolving in Britain, a “force multiplier” for technology development was also evolving, modern science, which can be thought of as a merger of natural philosophy with technology. Its appearance is known as the Scientific Revolution. An example of how science bled into technology and capitalist development is the vacuum pump, invented around 1650 as a scientific tool. More commercially-minded people saw that the vacuum could be used to do work (like pumping water) and engaged in experimentation leading to the development of the steam pump in 1698 and the atmospheric steam engine in 1712. James Watt’s improved steam engine is often considered to be a core element of the Industrial Revolution beginning in the second half of the eighteenth century.

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Oh, but shallow tribal dynamics, including the refusal to treat science as culture, for the sake of not respecting STEM people too much, is culture, too.

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What I don't understand is how desiring a world with a steady state population, possibly one smaller than it is now, can be considered being against progress. When population growth was challenging, increasing population was progress. Now, population growth is relatively easy, and the challenge is to manage it while still having an advancing civilization. There's a lot about modern life, even in the more advanced economies that could be dramatically improved save for intellectual and political objections. It seems almost heretical to suggest that making things better exemplifies progress.

Europe went through its violent 19th century with a cycle of rebellion and repression. The gains of civilization were only meted out parsimoniously and, usually, in response to the threat of further violence. Economists call this the "middle income" trap which bedevils middle income nations trying to advance their economies further, but it is not much of a mystery. Look at modern China where the trade off between increased prosperity and the loss of political control is particularly stark. Look at the return-to-office push in the modern US. Workers are expected to accept a larger television screen and on-demand streaming in lieu of a four day work week. Getting an extra hour or two of their lives back is mere greediness.

The push to continue exponential population growth is part of this in that it provides an excuse to maintain the status quo. It has nothing to do with creativity or innovation or progress. Older people often experience a burst of long suppressed creativity after retirement. COVID and the payments program to support the economy led to a surge in business creation. If we want to unleash a more creative, more progress oriented culture, we need to cut our working hours, increase pay and make capital formation easier. Odds are, we'll just get a new round of repression and perhaps another tiny click of the ratchet upward.

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Much of culture is about conventions. "Being cultured", therefore, is about knowing those conventions. Being culturally competent is achieved by being sensitive to the conventions, recognising when they are being followed and acquiring knowledge of the conventions by observation.

Here's a convention you should have picked up from these three lines: don't capitalise the C in 'culture'.

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I think you're right that there's something self-destructive about a pessimistic zero-sum culture and doomers. And I get that this is all a more general take about culture and progress, but I can't help but to feel that the review of Hannah Ritchies book is a poor example of safetyist rhetoric and honestly a bit of an unfair characterization of the review. I think the review came of as pretty reasonable and balanced. An "Anti-CBT" anxiety-amplifying language would not say "It’s important not to discount the upside, but we also have to keep the worst possibilities in mind." Anti-CBT would be to only emphasize the danger in optimistic messages, not to call for a balance between awareness of risks and hope.

Here's another quote from the review:

>"Ritchie’s book is extremely useful as far as it goes, and we urgently need her and people like her – optimists who’ll say: you know what, we can turn this around; look at these numbers, look at these solutions."

The criticism van der Zee brings forth are also much more reasonable than some Anti-CBT idea that it's important to always panic:

>"But although it’s helpful to gather these remedies, many of them are familiar. And Ritchie’s determinedly upbeat tone when presenting them – “we just need to put a price on carbon and make sure the rich pay most”, she writes, as if environmentalists have not been fighting to achieve these measures for decades – can be infuriating; at points my notes in the margin became fairly exasperated.

>Most frustratingly, although Ritchie provides recommendations for specific problems, she doesn’t tackle the things that really keep me awake at night: the domestic and geopolitical barriers, together with the inbuilt biases and quirks of our brains, that combine to make environmental issues so difficult to address. We know now that humans don’t like to give things up; we are afraid of losing what we already have and afraid of change. We are brilliant at inventing things and making great leaps of imagination, but we are terrible at looking into the future, and at understanding the risks attached to those inventions."

So the critique is not that optimism about technology is bad here, it's that it in and of itself is not enough. Many solutions in terms of subsidies and carbon taxes that are now being implemented around the world have been known to make sense for decades. The progress is actually doing it.

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Many interesting points (and counterpoints, in the comments) and an excellent discussion that needs to be retrod more often. If we stop believing in our own, collective agency to create a better tomorrow, what is it all for?

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Great post, Ruxandra. Its time to be a rational optimist, or as Peter Thiel calls it, "definite optimists." To rational optimists, the future will be better than the present if you make plans and work to make it better. It's all about human action and agency. BTW, I'll be in London in two weeks, would love to meet for coffee and talk techno-optimism if your around. Thanks!

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This piece struck a chord with me. Think the stultifying effects of steady-state safetyness is a real risk, but also one that does sometimes get shifted.

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Completely agree. When I look at an industrial complex I admire it's beauty. To me they represent progress and human achievement. Everyone else just seems to be grossed out by them. These are the ugly loud things that poison our air and water. I think the modern environmental movement is mostly responsible for the shift in culture you describe. It's a deeply anti-human movement. A view of the world in which humans are the villains and our salvation can only be achieved by ceesing to exist, or by reverting back to animals ourselves.

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No need to be that drastic—just keep enjoying the benefits of industry while conveniently demonizing the people who work in it and helping make their lives needlessly hard, so noöne forgets your moral superiority to them.

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This is a great write up!

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