"Talks a good game about freedom when out of power, but once he’s in – bam! Everyone's enslaved in the human-flourishing mines."

Contra Simler on Prestige

su3su2u1 challenged status/signaling theories of human behavior: can they make any real-life predictions? His example was a recent medical conference that threw together three groups of people – high-status top professors, medium-status established doctors, and low-status new residents. The women in one group (female doctors + male doctors’ wives/girlfriends) were wearing conspicuous fancy jewelery. The women in the other groups weren’t. Which group had the jewelery?

His point was that status/signaling theories don’t answer this question for us with any degree of confidence. Maybe the high-status top professors wear the jewelery to signal wealth and dominance. Maybe the low-status new residents wear it aspirationally and because they need to impress. Maybe the medium-status established doctors wear it, because the residents can’t afford it and the professors countersignal that they don’t need it.

Now, in fact su3su2u1 was a no-good sneaky sneak, because the residents had all just attended a wedding that gave out the fancy jewelery as gifts and this was probably all that was going on. But his point is well-taken. Status and signaling theories are hard to use in practice. So it’s always nice when people try to do some theoretical work on them and tease them apart into their different components. This is the task Kevin Simler takes on in Social Status: Down The Rabbit Hole.

His theory (which he adopts from various psychologists and animal behaviorists) is that status separates neatly into two systems: dominance and prestige. Dominance is “respect me because I’ll kill you if you don’t.” Prestige is “Respect me because I’m awesome”. The two systems have different origins and different behavioral effects; conflate the two and you’ll end up very confused.

If you hate your boss, but you do what she says anyway because she’ll fire you if you don’t, that’s dominance. If you’re very respectful to a police officer because he has a gun and you don’t, that’s dominance too. Principals have dominance, parents have dominance, psychiatrists keeping you in a hospital against your will have dominance. Prestige is different. A rock star has prestige. He can’t hurt you. You don’t necessarily need anything from him. But you still want his autograph, want to meet him, maybe want to sleep with him. Star athletes have prestige. Actors and actresses. Good bosses who you work hard for not because you’re afraid of them but because you don’t want to let them down. Your parents, if you do what they say out of respect/love and not out of fear of punishment. Heroic leaders like George Washington (except more alive).

Having prestige can be better than being dominant. If you’re dominant, your subordinates will do exactly as much as necessary to avoid your wrath; if you’re prestigious, they may go above and beyond to help you. On the other hand, sometimes good old-fashioned dominance does the trick; your boss can ask you to drop everything and spend a week of long nights on a sudden project, but if your favorite rock star asked you to spend a week doing his taxes for him you might politely decline.

Dominance has clear animal analogies (alpha chimps, chicken pecking orders, etc), and we can pretty well guess why it evolved. The evolutionary origins of prestige are murkier, and this is the focus of Simler’s piece.

First he flirts with the theory of a guy called Henrich, who says prestige comes from a desire to learn. I admire and flatter my favorite rock star because I’m hoping I can hang out around him, some of his genius will rub off on me, and I’ll be able to play a wicked guitar riff and win a couple of Grammies myself. This theory makes no sense to me. It’s not just that there’s zero chance of Bowie teaching me, or that I might not have the talent anyway. Maybe in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness that didn’t matter so much. It’s that I don’t want to be a rock star, and if Bowie offered to train me, I’d say I wasn’t interested.

Simler doesn’t like this much either, so he moves on to the theory of two guys named Zahavi and Dessalles. I’ll quote him at length:

Unlike Henrich, whose account of prestige is unique to our species, Zahavi and Dessalles find analogues among non-human animals — most vividly, in the Arabian babbler.

The Arabian babbler is a small brown bird found in the arid brush of the Sinai Desert and (you guessed it) the Arabian Peninsula. It spends most of its life in small groups of three to 20 members. These groups lay their eggs in a communal nest and defend a small territory of trees and shrubs that provide much-needed safety from predators.

When it’s living as part of a group, a babbler does fairly well for itself. But babblers who get kicked out of a group have much bleaker prospects. These “non-territorials” are typically badgered away from other territories and forced out into the open, where they often fall prey to hawks, falcons, and other raptors. So it really pays to be part of a group. (Keep this in mind; it’ll be crucial in a moment.)

Within a group, babblers assort themselves into a linear and fairly rigid dominance hierarchy, i.e., a pecking order. When push comes to shove, adult males always dominate adult females — but mostly males compete with males and females with females. Very occasionally, an intense “all-out” fight will erupt between two babblers of adjacent rank, typically the two highest-ranked males or the two highest-ranked females. This is the babblers’ version of a Wild West showdown, as if one babbler suddenly turns to the other and says, “This town ain’t big enough for the both of us.” A showdown always results in death or permanent exile for one of the combatants.

Most of the time, however, babblers get along pretty well with each other. In fact, they spend a lot of effort actively helping one another and taking risks for the benefit of the group. They’ll often donate food to other group members, for example, or to the communal nestlings. They’ll also attack foreign babblers and predators who have intruded on the group’s territory, assuming personal risk in an effort to keep others safe. One particularly helpful activity is “guard duty,” in which one babbler stands sentinel at the top of a tree, watching for predators while the rest of the group scrounges for food. The babbler on guard duty not only foregoes food, but also assumes a greater risk of being preyed upon, e.g., by a hawk or falcon.

Helpfulness, bravery, heroism: these birds seem like regular Boy Scouts. At least on the surface.

But here’s where things take a turn for the weird. Babblers don’t just passively or occasionally offer to help each other. Instead they compete intensely for the privilege of doing so.

Unlike chickens, who compete to secure more food and better roosting sites for themselves, babblers compete to give food away and to take the worst roosting sites. Each tries to be more helpful than the next. And because it’s a competition, higher-ranked (more dominant) babblers typically win, i.e., by using their dominance to interfere with the helpful activities of lower-ranked babblers. This competition is fiercest between babblers of adjacent rank. So the alpha male, for example, is especially eager to be more helpful than the beta male, but doesn’t compete nearly as much with the gamma male. Similar dynamics occur within the female ranks.

Now: what in Darwin’s name is going on here? Why are babblers so eager to help each other?

The naive answer is that they’re simply doing what’s best for the group — because when the group succeeds, everyone ends up better off. But this kind of straightforward altruism simply isn’t found in nature.[1] It’s not game-theoretically stable, thanks to the free-rider problem. Also note that babblers actively interfere with the helpful behavior of their rivals. If their ultimate goal were the success of the group, interfering with others would be entirely counter-productive.

So the logic of natural selection compels us to ask, “What selfish motive does an individual babbler have to help others?”

The answer, in a word, is prestige. A second form of social status that lives alongside the babblers’ dominance hierarchy — a kind of “credit” reflecting the amount of good each individual has done for others. So when two babblers compete to stand guard duty, for example, they’re actually jockeying, selfishly, for prestige within the group.

And suddenly the intense competition makes sense.

But as in our species, so too in babblers: prestige means nothing without admiration. If other babblers weren’t willing to defer and pay respect to prestigious individuals, there’d be no incentive to compete for prestige.

But other babblers are willing to pay respect to prestigious individuals, in two main ways. The first is mating opportunities.[2] Babblers are constantly trying to interfere with their rivals’ mating attempts — but when a babbler has high prestige, his or her rivals interfere less. Among males, this translates to more mating opportunities; among females, it translates to earlier mating opportunities (giving one’s offspring a head start in the communal nest)

The other perk of high prestige is a reduced risk of being challenged to an all-out showdown. The higher a babbler’s prestige, the less likely its rivals are to pick a fight — even if they stand a good chance of winning.

All of which brings us, finally, to the point. Why do other babblers voluntarily defer to prestigious ones? The answer is simply(!) that babblers with lots of prestige are useful to the group, and therefore useful to keep around.[3] This is how it ends up being in the selfish interest of other babblers to defer to those with high prestige.

When a babbler is useful enough, in other words, it’s in the self-interest of others to “suck up” or pay respect to that babbler (by backing down from fights and interfering less in its mating attempts) in order to keep it happily in the group.

Bottom line: Prestige-seeking and admiration (deference) are complementary teaming instincts. They help babblers stay attached to a group, keep groupmates happy, and secure a larger share of the group’s reproductive “spoils.”

I hope this account of the babbler prestige system sounds familiar, because it’s more or less equivalent to the prestige system found in our own species; both are derived from the same Platonic form.

This is better. It sort of makes sense as an evolutionary explanation. But I think extending it from there to modern human prestige is a big stretch.

Take the rock star again. Let’s say David Bowie. When people admire Bowie, are they trying to get him to not leave the group? Is that why people scream and throw themselves at him? What would it even mean for Bowie to leave the group? If he doesn’t have enough groupies, will he defect to North Korea?

And don’t we sometimes admire people who we do want to leave the group? Suppose that for some reason I was stuck on a plane sitting next to the Koch Brothers – maybe all their private jets broke down at once. I would probably treat them in the classic way someone treats prestigious people. I’d feel really nervous striking up a conversation with them because they’re high-status and important. If I did strike up a conversation with them, I’d be really deferential and overthink everything they said. After the flight was over, I would immediately post to Twitter “I SPENT A WHOLE FLIGHT TALKING TO THE KOCH BROTHERS!” and then post the photo I’d roped them into taking with me. But none of this is because I don’t want them to leave the group. If the Koch Brothers defected to North Korea, that would be great.

And what about prestigious people who don’t bring any special talents to the group? Helen Keller, for example, can do less than most other people. We admire her not because we need to make use of her mad skillz, but because given all her handicaps it’s amazing that she can do anything at all.

We could potentially dismiss all of these by saying that evolved instincts don’t have to work in the present day. If there were no cavemen like David Bowie (probably a safe bet), then maybe our evolutionary instincts don’t apply to his case. But even in evolutionary time, admiration has a free-rider problem. Suppose that we want to make sure David Bowie stays in the West rather than North Korea, but he’ll defect unless at least three people flatter him per day. Assuming that flattering David Bowie involves some kind of cost – maybe you have to buy the t-shirt with his face on it – why should I pay the cost when there are millions of other Westerners invested in the same project? Should we be more impressed with the altruistic spirit of people who have sex with famous rock stars, seeing as they are sacrificing their bodies to the project of keeping their heroes out of Kim Jong-un’s clutches?

I think I might be straw-manning the babbler hypothesis here, so let’s skip down a few paragraphs to the next time Simler explains it:

The point is, we want to be friends, allies, and teammates with people who do good things for their friends, allies, and teammates. It’s in our self-interest to cultivate access to such people — which we do, in part, by paying them respect and granting them the perks of prestige.

More generally, however, we admire not only those who actually do good things for their teammates, but also those who show the potential to do good things, i.e., by demonstrating useful skills. The student who gets straight As from a good college, for example, is advertising her value to future employers, and her prestige makes her highly sought-after on the job market. She’ll be actively courted by hiring managers and given various perks (a better starting salary, more time to make her decision) that aren’t accorded to her less-impressive classmates.

Simler treats this as a summary of his previous point, but this is a very different theory!

The previous point was that prestigious people do good things for their community. The new point is that prestigious people do good things for their flatterers in particular. It’s a tit-for-tat relationship: show David Bowie your tits, and he gives you some tat. Money? Access to the best clubs? A copy of his latest album?

This makes sense except that it’s not the way most admiration-interactions actually work.

Forget David Bowie. Let’s talk about Justin Bieber. I see about a zillion teenage girls hanging posters of Justin Bieber in their room, fighting for the last ticket to Justin Bieber concerts, buying magazines with Justin Bieber on the cover. But the chance that Justin Bieber gives any tat for all of these tits is practically nil.

And we can’t dismiss this as a form of irrationality restricted to teenage girls. A lot of people I know geek out about Elon Musk; I’ve been to more than one party/meetup where the topic of conversation turns to how great Elon Musk is. I don’t hang posters on my wall, but if I did, they would probably have his face on them. But I don’t expect any repayment from him; I doubt he even knows about my flattery. What about all those Catholics who obsess over the Pope? What about people who obsess over J.K. Rowling or Neil Gaiman or LeBron James or Derek Jeter?

And what about me on that airplane with the Koch Brothers? Am I thinking to myself “If I ever need an entire field of science discredited, now I’ve got an in with some people who are really good at it”? What about Helen Keller? “If the world is plunged into eternal darkness, and also there’s some global super-loud hum that makes it impossible to hear anything, now I’ll have a friend who can operate regardless?” Even in evolutionary times, we should have some need to reflect on “can this person actually help me?”

I worry no one theory can completely explain prestige. It seems to me to be a combination of several different things:

1. Group signaling. The people I admire say a lot about me. If I admire Elon Musk, it means that I’m really into space, technology, and maybe the free market. If I admire the Pope, it means I’m really into Catholicism. If I admire David Bowie, it means I’m fabulous. Learning about these people, celebrating their accomplishments, and joining their Official Fan Clubs is an important method of bonding with other peopel.

2. Coattail riding. If a prestigious person becomes more prestigious, I might “look good” for having supported them “before they got big”. It suggests that I’m a good judge of character, or “hip” enough to know which acts will take off and which ones will never achieve broader appeal. Just as a fan feels good when his sports team wins the Superbowl, and a patriot feels good every time her country wins a war, so being a known Elon Musk fan means I get to feel a tiny fragment of the glory whenever Elon Musk invents a new rocket.

3. Prestige by association. Prestigious people hang out with other prestigious people. Nonprestigious people hang out with other nonprestigious people. If I have access to prestigious people, even in some boring trivial way, that makes me seem more prestigious. I think this is what’s going on with the hypothetical airplane conversation with the Koch brothers. Yes, in some sense it’s sheer coincidence that I run into them on a flight. In another sense it isn’t; at the very least, it probably means I was flying first class, and I must have had some rudimentary level of social skills to engage them in conversation. I’m signaling that I’m the sort of person who, at least when everything goes right, can shmooze with billionaires. Even if deep down people know that it was mostly a coincidence, on some gut level that’s kind of impressive.

4. Tit for tat. Yes, in some cases we will be close enough to prestigious people that we can expect rewards for our support. It’s probably easier to flatter my boss or my favorite teacher effectively than to flatter Justin Bieber or the Koch brothers, and you can reasonably expect special treatment. This is a good way of forging an alliance. If I praise my boss, she benefits from my elevation: having a nobody admire you is boring, but having a somebody admire you is both flattering practically useful. Therefore, the more I admire and support my boss, the more she is incentivized to help me become a somebody.

5. Virtuous cycles. Suppose that, for reasons 1 through 4, people want to be associated with prestigious people. Note that this is different from “associate with prestigious people” in the sense of meeting them directly; anything that gets their name linked to the prestigious person will work. In fact, suppose that specifically, there are a bunch of conservatives who are really into the Koch brothers and are jockeying for position as Koch brother fan #1. Some of these people might play the strategy of according me prestige for having met the Koch brothers as a way of better signaling their own respect for the Koch brothers to third parties. That gives me a separate incentive to seek such prestige by association.

This is still woefully incomplete, especially by “predict which of these doctors will wear jewelery”-level standards. Maybe prestige shouldn’t be treated as a single thing at all. Maybe the admiration I feel for my boss (a real person in my social circle who I interact with daily) comes from a totally different part of the brain and has totally different evolutionary origins from the admiration I feel for Elon Musk (who I expect never to meet).

But I think separating dominance from prestige is a good start. Do consider reading the full Melting Asphalt essay, as well as Simler’s follow-up thoughts.

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568 Responses to Contra Simler on Prestige

  1. KR says:

    Speaking of signaling, what’s with the random OMG EVIL KOCH BROTHERS? Trying to impress the ThinkProgress readership?

    • Anonymous says:

      Scott needed to pick an outgroup, so he picked his outgroup.

      Are you surprised that Scott’s a liberal? He’s claimed as much several times in the past.

      • gbdub says:

        It’s more than that. Scott seems to have a streak of oddly focused uncharitability toward anything hinting at global warming “denialism” (see “discredit an entire field of science”). That’s why it was “The Koch Brothers” and not “George W. Bush” or even “Rupert Murdoch”.

        Perhaps I’m being over sensitive. But there’ve been a few examples of this recently in which Scott seems more willing to make snide/critical/joking assertions about the topic than he is for similarly controversial/mind-killing topics he disagrees with.

        Scott, this is an honest observation and not intended to be cruel or hypercritical, so please correct me if I’m wrong.

        • I don’t have any opinion on whether your thesis is correct, but I don’t see that it would be surprising – isn’t global warming pretty much the only urgent existential risk that is being widely and actively propagandized against?

          • E. Harding says:

            “Urgent existential risk”? I think you have low standards for that sort of thing.

          • Gbdub says:

            First, the idea that anthropogenic global warming is an existential risk at all is certainly, legitimately controversial (potentially very bad? Sure. But an extinction event for humanity?). I don’t think you have to be a “denier” or a Koch Brother to hold that belief.

            Second, Scott has at least thoughtfully addressed counter arguments toward other x-risks, primarily AI. And AI, while less likely, seems to have a clearer path to actually causing extinction. It doesn’t necessarily have a lot of people “propagandizing” against it, but it has far fewer people advocating FOR it too.

          • I should have said potentially existential. I’m personally optimistic on that front. But I don’t think it plausible to be certain that the existential risk is zero.

            AI may or may not represent an existential risk, but unless I’m mistaken Scott doesn’t consider it an urgent one.

            (Another thought: the fact that anti-GW propaganda is so effective makes it much more aggravating, at least to me. Much more so than, say, creationism.)

            (Oh, and by “existential risk” I didn’t necessarily mean extinction. Any major collapse of society would qualify as an existential risk IMO. Am I misusing the phrase?)

          • Samuel Skinner says:

            “I should have said potentially existential. I’m personally optimistic on that front. But I don’t think it plausible to be certain that the existential risk is zero.”

            It is close enough to be zero that we don’t have to take it seriously. The Earth has undergone shifts in CO2 and temperature before and while their have been negative effects for some things (large marine life- very, very screwed) there isn’t any indication it is something human society can’t handle.

            “(Oh, and by “existential risk” I didn’t necessarily mean extinction. Any major collapse of society would qualify as an existential risk IMO. Am I misusing the phrase?)”

            No, that is common (or at least wiki) usage.

          • James Picone says:

            @Harry Johnston:
            As the resident Guy Who Argues That Global Warming Is Happening, For Fuck’s Sake, I’d like to note that it’s extremely unlikely that it will be an existential risk in the sense that you mean.

            At about 6c to 7c above preindustrial, parts of Earth start becoming uninhabitable for humans without air conditioning because temperature + humidity become such that humans can’t cool down by sweating and will overheat. Currently we’ve seen ~0.9c above preindustrial, while increasing CO2 from 280 ppmv to 400 ppmv. That’s not all the warming we’d expect from 400 ppmv, the system is still out of equilibrium.

            Let’s take 7c as the point where society starts coming under significant stress because everyone in India has to move or die. ECS is within the range [1.5c-4.0c] with 95% confidence, according to the most recent IPCC report, with most of the remaining 5% above 4c and falling off rapidly. That’s the warming we should ultimately expect if we double preindustrial CO2 from 280 ppmv to 560ppmv. Currently, CO2 concentration is increasing at ~2ppmv/year, so it’d take 80 years at current rates to double CO2, and then we’d have to hit a 5% risk. I do think taking a 1% risk of fucking up society is really stupid, but I’m not sure describing it as an existential risk is really warranted.

          • Murphy says:

            I’m happy to call the Koch Brothers my outgroup for a reason orthogonal to the left-right thing and it’s same reason I’m happy to call someone part of the outgroup if they publish ghostwritten cruft to falsify drug safety data distorting the evidence base, generate bollox homeopathy studies, block sociological research related to race and gender because they might not like the results, torpedo research into safe hospital staffing levels because it might be politically embarrassing.

            In general anyone willing to piss in the fountain of truth and take advantage of trust between researchers I want outside my walled garden.

            Right, left, liberal, illiberal. Be utterly honest and open and I’ll forgive a lot of other sins.

          • Deiseach says:

            See, what fascinates me here is the use of the term “propaganda”. You don’t think pro-activism on global warming types don’t use propaganda themselves?

            One side uses propaganda, and we all know that propaganda is bad and is only the resort of people who don’t have the facts and the right on their side.

            The other side educates, or raises awareness, or makes the dangers known to us.

            How do we know which side is which? Because we know one side is bad and the other side is good, so the bad side must be using propaganda!

            So anything they say can be dismissed with the handy label “That’s only propaganda”.

            Myself, I think both sides have their share of dramatists who exaggerate and try to whip up doomsday scenarios in order to scare, hector or arm-twist people into adopting their view, so labelling any and all output by any one side as “propaganda” does not recommend itself to me. And no, sorry, I don’t sit awake at night worrying over the existential risk of global climate change.

            Perhaps I should, but I refuse to be stampeded into an emotional reaction akin to Chicken Little’s “the sky is falling, we’re all going to die!”, not least in part because nobody is clamouring for Apple to immediately cease existence and production and stop churning out the latest model iPhones in their Chinese partners’ factories because the planet can’t cope with the consumer frenzy this treadmill of “you gotta have the latest shiny toy” engenders.

          • Nicholas Carter says:

            I suppose the idea (equally circular) is that propaganda is by use /false/ persuasive information with an intent to lead people’s beliefs away from reality. So if you know that someone is lying (say tobacco companies) then whatever persuasive things they said were propaganda because they are not true, while your side cannot be using propaganda, because your claims are not false.
            Also, about 500,000 people ARE clamoring for Apple (and by synechdote, the consumerist system of the West) to stop in the name of climate change. But they mostly don’t have computers, are mostly middle and working class, and are taken as a group about the size of a middling American town. So their message does not propagate particularly quickly outside their sphere.

          • Cadie says:

            As far as the uninhabitability of certain places due to heat goes – wouldn’t some other places become more inhabitable with a rise in temperature? Parts of India would be too hot without air conditioning, yes, but Alaska, Siberia, etc. would be a bit more welcoming than they are now.

            A steep rise in temperature, if it happens, would be bad for reasons of economic instability and such, but it would have to be well beyond even pessimistic current projections to dramatically reduce habitability area.

          • James:

            I don’t know if you saw my blog post responding to an article on what happens if we burn all of our fossil fuels. I did some back of the envelope calculations based on ten degrees C increase a thousand years in the future. One of my conclusions was that it would make about half of India uninhabitable.

            http://daviddfriedman.blogspot.com/2015/09/if-we-burned-all-our-fossil-fuel.html

            And I discussed Cadie’s point as well—making more land in the far north inhabitable. There isn’t much too cold to live in in the southern hemisphere till you get to Antarctica, and I doubt that even ten degrees would make that habitable.

          • @Samuel: I lack your confidence in society’s stability. (To take a maybe-worst-case scenario, consider how much trouble resulted when less than a million Israelis moved into Palestine, and now imagine a billion Indians looking for a new place to live.)

            @James: while I’m happy to be told that the risk isn’t much bigger than I’d imagined it to be, 5% in 80 years is still well above my personal tolerance level. (I suppose you could argue that it means we don’t need to do anything for 40 years or so, but I lack confidence in our ability to do so then if we don’t start now. And I worry about that “at current rates” assumption.)

            [Full disclosure: I have been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, so I try not to take my opinions about risk too seriously. On the other hand, I don’t feel obliged to dismiss other people’s opinions just because I agree with them!]

            @Deisearch: I was writing from my own point of view, of course, and much of the dialogue on the anti-GW front certainly looks like propaganda to me. I’m not making a specific claim that all or indeed any of it is; just that it looks like it.

            (Most notably the idea that people should base their opinions on scientific arguments they don’t really understand rather than on the opinions of actual scientists. The anti-fluoride variant of that has particularly infuriated me in recent years, due to local politics, but the anti-GW variant seems at least as virulent.)

            I don’t deny the existence of pro-GW propaganda; I can’t recall any in particular, but then there would be no reason for it to have come to my attention.

            @Cadie: but how many people would we need to relocate, and would we be able to do so? We’re currently struggling with the number of Syrian refugees, and apparently there are still refugees from the 1948 Palestine war living in UNRWA camps – after sixty-seven years, for heaven’s sake!

            Also, even if an area doesn’t become uninhabitable, there are significant potential costs due to climate change; houses built for one climate may not be suitable for another. (As an anecdotal example, there have been several tornadoes in New Zealand in the last decade; since tornadoes were previously unknown, houses were not built with shelters. We’re not yet at the point of needing to do so, but if and when we do it’s gonna be kinda a struggle to afford it.)

            Um, I think that’s everything. 🙂

          • Nornagest says:

            There isn’t much too cold to live in in the southern hemisphere till you get to Antarctica, and I doubt that even ten degrees would make that habitable.

            Antarctica had a temperate climate about thirty million years ago, when CO2 levels were around 780 PPM, a bit less than twice what they are today. Not sure how that translates into global temperature averages, but it was subtropical in the Cretaceous, which was about 10c warmer at 1000 PPM.

            CO2 isn’t the whole story, though — the continental configuration then was somewhat different (though Antarctica was still polar), and that had an effect on climate too.

          • RCF says:

            “isn’t global warming pretty much the only urgent existential risk that is being widely and actively propagandized against?”

            The pro-warming position also involves a lot of propaganda. Many people, including Obama, are outright lying to support belief in AGW.

          • John Schilling says:

            @Harry: ” 5% in 80 years is still well above my personal tolerance level. ”

            In that case, you’re screwed. While there is approximately zero chance of human extinction due to AGW, James’s ~5% chance of a catastrophe leading to a few hundred megadeaths is maybe only a slight exaggeration.

            And there’s a five-percentish chance that convincing China to lay off building coal-fired powerplants until they get a clean-energy infrastructure in place will mean modernization doesn’t come fast enough to satisfy a billion desperately poor peasants and we get a Chinese civil war rather like the last one. Except with three times as many people, and thermonuclear weapons.

            And the chance that the international body set up to approve or allocate nations’ coal and oil usage will become a de facto world government of the mountains-of-skulls communist variety. The last time we tried that we got a creaky sort of democratic socialism and it’s working out OK so far, but if we roll the dice again they could come up snake-eyes.

            And more, on both sides of the equation.

            There is, at this point, no chance that we will be able to forecast any of this with 95+% confidence. There probably never was, but it’s certainly gone now. It’s a weak, multiplayer game of Pascal’s mugging – for any action, there’s a valid argument that you Absolutely Must perform that action or accept a small risk of near-gigadeath catastrophe, and also a valid argument that you Absolutely Must Not perform that action or accept a small risk of near-gigadeath catastrophe.

            Bad Plan: Panic. Focusing on the first Pascal-ish argument to be put in front of you. Trusting anyone who puts exactly one such argument in front of you.

            Good Plan: Keep calm and carry on. Respect Chesterton’s Fence on every border. Husband your wealth, power, and resources human and otherwise to deal with whatever comes. Don’t alienate or marginalize anyone whose help you might require if things break in an unexpected direction. See what happens and deal with it when it does.

          • @John, how do you figure approximately 0%? (Seems to me that there is a hopefully small but decidedly non-zero chance of a Jamesian catastrophe leading directly to a nuclear war, hence extinction.)

            Apart from that, although some of the risks you suggest seem a little far fetched to me, your thesis sounds generally reasonable. No reasonable person is recommending panic as the preferred option, so far as I’m aware. 🙂

          • John Schilling says:

            As has been discussed here several times before, nuclear war is not an extinction-level threat. Not even close to being an extinction-level threat. No, not even if we include fallout. And yes, we know about nuclear winter, and even that isn’t close to being an extinction-level threat. Nuclear War = Human Extinction is pure Hollywood, about as plausible as alien invaders seeking our water or our women.

            Global Thermonuclear War, with fallout and nuclear winter, and the disruption of technological civilization, might kill a few billion people but it will also leave a few billion survivors.

          • Harry:

            “and much of the dialogue on the anti-GW front certainly looks like propaganda to me. ”

            Much of the monologue on both sides is propaganda.

            I’ve lost track of where your 5% came from, but if that worries you it might be prudent not to read my _Future Imperfect_. I discuss three different technologies that might develop in a way that would eliminate our species in less than a century. One of them, AI, has been discussed here. Given how uncertain the future is, I don’t think there is any way of avoiding a significant probability of catastrophe—but AGW does not strike me as a likely candidate.

            Also, at a tangent, people write as if huge sums are being spent to produce anti AGW propaganda. What gets listed, at least what I have seen, is the total expenditure of, or donations to, organizations said to be opposed to AGW. Most such organizations (CATO, AEI) are not primarily concerned with climate–they are conservative or libertarian public policy groups. The amount spent on climate is perhaps a tenth of their expenditure, if that.

            What I think is going on, based mostly on time spent in online climate arguments, is that most people can’t really believe that any reasonable people could disagree with them on these issues. If people appear to disagree, they must be secretly in the pay of wealthy villains. On the other side, if people disagree they must be selling out to get government funding.

          • @John: really? When did that happen? (Never mind; for the purposes of this discussion, at least, I’ll take your word for it.)

            @David: it’s more that it’s hard to see how all those intricately misleading arguments could construct themselves spontaneously; sort of a back-to-front blind watchmaker thing, I guess. As in, literature that is effectively convincing people of something [that seems] blatantly false implies well-funded propagandists.

            Except that of course it doesn’t; for one example, I don’t think anyone’s ever suggested that the rich are secretly behind the anti-fluoride movement, and it manages more than well enough.

          • James Picone says:

            Just to be clear, I don’t think there’s a 5% risk of utterly catastrophic outcomes from global warming. I was trying to quickly estimate something up. The point was more that it takes quite a while to double preindustrial CO2, and that if we did manage to double it, then there’s a <5% chance that ECS is high enough to reach an arguable baseline for large scale societal disruption. If temperature keeps increasing like it has been for the next two decades while we continue emitting CO2, I'd like to think we'd stop. And if it increases for another two decades after that, surely by /then/ we'd stop.

            If you want large-scale societal disruption or existential risk from global warming, I think you have to go to outside-view. We know mass extinctions have happened in the past and are sometimes correlated with temperatures increasing significantly in short spans of time. I don't know off-hand if there are any that are a good model for what's happening at the moment – I don't know much geology. My expectation is that most of them are going to have extremely-large-scale vulcanism or the like going on at the same time, because CO2 doesn't tend to just shoot up on its own, and then there's a pretty good argument that the mass extinction wouldn't have been that bad without the extremely-large-scale vulcanism. Still probably your best bet for getting a good outside-view handle on this – find a few times in paleoclimate where temperature has gone up to roughly where we're taking it, very fast, and see what happens. Even then, though, we're not the kind of species that goes extinct in a mass extinction, even without the whole civilisation and technology thing – we're too adaptable. We'd only be seriously affected if the food chain collapsed enough to make it hard for us to feed ourselves, and I don't think there's evidence of mass extinctions that hard in the record. I think the best outside view can say is something like "Well if you increase temperature by 6c, maybe say goodbye to large sea animals".

            @Cadie:

            As far as the uninhabitability of certain places due to heat goes – wouldn’t some other places become more inhabitable with a rise in temperature? Parts of India would be too hot without air conditioning, yes, but Alaska, Siberia, etc. would be a bit more welcoming than they are now.

            Earth isn’t a cylinder. There’s less land towards the poles than towards the equator, and areas towards the equator are the places that become less habitable. But aside from that, I was mostly just talking about the impact on civilisation that would result from ~a billion refugees. And again, I don’t think this is a very high chance at all. Like 1% or so. And mostly only that high because of all the usual problems with extreme probability estimates – that 1% smuggles a few “…or my model is wrong” clauses in.

            @Harry Johnston

            @James: while I’m happy to be told that the risk isn’t much bigger than I’d imagined it to be, 5% in 80 years is still well above my personal tolerance level. (I suppose you could argue that it means we don’t need to do anything for 40 years or so, but I lack confidence in our ability to do so then if we don’t start now. And I worry about that “at current rates” assumption.)

            ‘At current rates’ is a bit of an oversimplification, it’s true. There’s statistical evidence that CO2 content in the atmosphere is increasing exponentially, and weaker evidence that it’s increasing superexponentially (that is, ln(ln(CO2)) has positive trend). On the other hand, renewables are becoming cheaper all the time, there’s a pretty big push to do something about CO2 emissions, it’s not /that/ exponential/superexponential, and if we don’t do anything about CO2 for the next n decades the effects will likely slow economic growth and so indirectly slow CO2 emissions ;).

            80 years is probably too long for us to double CO2 emissions, but it’s not too far out. If you want something more pessimistic, the IPCC’s business-as-usual scenario, RCP8.5, has CO2e crossing 560 ppmv ~2042. It’s a straight exponential (or superexponential? One of them) extrapolation of current CO2 trends, and is almost certainly too high. Their next lowest scenario, RCP6.0, has CO2e peaking in 2080, and hits 560 ppmv ~2063. Even in the most naive, most pessimistic extrapolation, we’ve got at least a decade, maybe two before we have to hit the brakes hard, and I don’t share your pessimism for how likely we are to do something about the problem if it becomes even more obvious – consider how fast the Montreal protocol got signed after the ozone hole showed up.

            And, /even then/, even if we do double CO2e, it’s a <5%, likely much less than 5%, risk that we hit evacuate-India levels of heat. Also I think I underestimated the temperature change required – see my response to Friedman below.

            @David Friedman:

            I don’t know if you saw my blog post responding to an article on what happens if we burn all of our fossil fuels. I did some back of the envelope calculations based on ten degrees C increase a thousand years in the future. One of my conclusions was that it would make about half of India uninhabitable.

            http://daviddfriedman.blogspot.com/2015/09/if-we-burned-all-our-fossil-fuel.html

            Yep, I saw that post. I occasionally browse your blog to find things to get angry at :P.

            I think I wrote a quick off-the-cuff response in response to a comment of yours several posts ago, although I don’t remember which one. The meat of it was that I think your 5c warming India/15c warming Arctic split is wrong, and both would be warmer – the value I estimated from some values on polar/equator differences was 9c/18c, but I have very little confidence in it. Broadly, there’s less land near the poles and much less land at the poles than there is at the equator, so a larger fraction of global average surface temperature comes from warmer places than cooler places, so the difference from global average surface temperature is smaller for warmer places than cooler places. IIRC I also thought that your timeline concealed some complexity – sea level rise would occur over ~1000 years, but the temperature increase occurs in more like 100 years, which would make the Indian exodus the largest human migration in history by a rather substantial margin; I’m not sure that’s really dismissable as ‘not that bad’.

            It’s worth me noting that the 7c value for how much warmer we have to be for India to become uninhabitable that I used while estimating a <5% risk for large-scale societal disruption from global warming is likely too low; this means it overestimates the risk. Friedman's blog post points out why (and him posting it reminded me) – global warming makes cold places warmer more than it makes warm places warmer, for fundamental physics reasons. As India is already pretty warm, global average surface temperature might have to be higher still.

            Basically, on the inside view global warming is not a serious existential risk.

          • @James, thanks for that – fascinating stuff. One follow-up question, if you don’t mind: wouldn’t India (or perhaps China) hit some sort of crisis point long before temperatures anywhere actually became human-uninhabitable, due to the impact on agriculture?

            (Granted some areas would presumably become more suitable for a given crop at the same time other areas were becoming less so, but would farmers actually be able to relocate and/or adapt to the changing conditions quickly enough? I know next to nothing about farming, but presumably it takes considerable time to prepare land for large-scale farming “from scratch” as it were.)

          • James Picone says:

            @Harry Johnston:
            I don’t know the answer to that one, I’m afraid.

          • @James:

            Your point about the pole being less area than the equator is of course correct. I was doing very much a back of the envelope calculation–I don’t know enough to say how much the hotter areas would heat for a given average temperature increase.

            You are also correct that temperature increase happens much sooner than SLR–I gave the graphs in my post. But you still need to allow time to burn all that carbon. So not a thousand years, but probably a few hundred.

            I agree with you, of course, that global warming is not a serious existential threat–with the caveat that it is hard to be certain about anything very far into the future. I think most people are much too conservative on that question, too inclined to assume that the future will be about like the present.

            I’ve argued in the past that there are several much more serious existential threats coming out of technological development, my standard list being A.I., biotech, and nanotech. One can imagine plausible ways in which any of those could eliminate our species within a century.

            In one of your posts you seemed to be suggesting that if warming continued at current rates, in a few decades there would be strong pressure to do something about it. I don’t agree. Current rates are about a degree a century, that being roughly the average since 1910 when the current warming started. I don’t think another .2°C would have much political effect–if anything it would make people conclude that AGW worries were alarmism.

            I think it quite likely that either resource exhaustion raising the cost of fossil fuels or improvements in one of the substitute technologies, most likely nuclear or solar, will result in CO2 output well below RCP8.5—considerably more likely than that political pressure will do it.

        • Deiseach says:

          Okay, somebody enlighten the ignorant:

          (1) Who are the Koch Brothers? I vaguely get the idea that they are very wealthy right-wing Americans, but why does that make them Evil? If it’s political interference, there were wealthy left-wing Americans interfering in Irish politics (e.g. one particular guy pouring money into the pro-same sex marriage campaign) and people got very huffy about this being pointed out and insisted this was all okay:

          Feeney’s Atlantic Philanthropies have committed $475,000 to Marriage Equality Ltd the main group dealing specifically with the issue.

          Feeney, the New Jersey-born billionaire, is giving away all of his money, an estimated $7.5 billion, through Atlantic.

          A proud Irish American Feeney earmarked over $1 billion of that to be spent on educational, human rights and other projects in ireland. He also played a major role in bedding down the Irish peace process in Northern Ireland.

          In addition to funding Marriage Equality, Atlantic has funded the main LGBT lobbying group, the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network (GLEN), to the tune of $2.5 million over the past few years.

          Atlantic and Feeney identified equality in marriage as one of the key human rights issue they wished to focus on. Their funding helped pass the civil partnership act of 2010. On its website and in a video Atlantic cites other major advances including:

          – Secured public referendum on civil marriage, which is scheduled for 2015

          – Government creation of a Gender Recognition Advisory Group, the role of which is to make recommendations on how to proceed toward legal frameworks for gender recognition for transgender people

          – Secured numerous significant changes in public policy and services to better reflect the needs of LGBT people in areas such as mental healthcare provision and bullying in the education system

          – Increased capacities of the LGBT sector

          It’s only Evil if you’re right-wing, was the message coming across loud and clear.

          (2) Why are they anti-global warming, if they are anti-global warming?

          (3) What are the Evil Denialists getting out of global warming denialism? They get to keep their filthy polluting factories spewing out carbon without having to spend money being clean and green?

          Because all I can see as a rationale for why denialists are denialists is “They just want everyone to suffer and die“, which seems to me lacking as a justification, sometimes accompanied by “They hate science (because of religion or something)”. So I don’t get the hysteria, I really don’t. Okay, maybe there is such a thing as massive anthropgenic global warming, and it really is as bad as made out, but the idea that opponents or critics are all motivated by some kind of malice simply because they are Evil and that is that – I find that hard to believe.

          • James Picone says:

            This seems like the most informative link, although SourceWatch wears their affiliations very proudly. Broadly, the Koch brothers have poured a lot of money into setting up think tanks and lobbyists for stuff they’re for and a fair chunk of left-wing people are very much not for, mostly anti-regulation. AFAIK the closest left-wing equivalent is George Soros? I dunno, the who’s-funding-who game isn’t something I’m very familiar with.

            So basically it’s because they put a lot of money and effort into fighting stuff people like me are for. Doesn’t take a genius to see why they’re disliked.

            As for why they’re denialists, it’s because they’re libertarians and large-scale environmental problems are extremely inconvenient for their political views, to put it uncharitably. I don’t know if they stand to lose money should fossil fuels fall out of fashion.

          • Murphy says:

            The tobacco industry doesn’t actually want people to suffer and die but they still deployed a lot of resources to pollute the evidence base, muddy the waters and delay the consensus that smoking causes cancer.

            I’m sure they would very much like if their customers all lived to a ripe old age continuing to buy their product but since that’s not possible they were happy to suppress research and screw with the evidence base to try to avoid government sanction/regulation for as long as possible.

            The collection of industrialists pushing the position that human-caused climate change isn’t a real thing, I’m sure, would love for their customers to all live long happy lives continuing to buy their products in a world without climate change but they don’t want the cost of that to hit their bottom line. It’s in their interests to suppress research and screw with the evidence base to try to avoid government sanction/regulation for as long as possible.

            I’m sure the people who graze their animals on the commons don’t want it to become an unusable poorly maintained mire but they don’t want the cost of avoiding that outcome to impact them so it’s in their short term interest to deny that their own activity has anything to do with any claimed decline.

            Add to this human nature, people are very good at picking philosophies which simply tell them that everything they’re doing is perfectly ok. You could feel bad while doing what’s economically most advantageous for yourself of you could feel good while doing what’s economically most advantageous for yourself.

            If you’re going to do what’s economically most advantageous for yourself no matter what then people will tend to pick a philosophy which says that that’s perfectly ok and has no negative side effects to feel bad about.

            Look at history. Every time large groups of people have destroyed the lives of other people to enrich themselves a philosophy has sprung up to tell them that what they’re doing is perfectly fine and moral. Does that mean that most of history is filled with evil people?

          • Nicholas Carter says:

            The practical, nuts and bolts answer here, is that Americans are debating *instituting a tax on products proportional to their contribution to ACC* and the Koch brothers work in a field that is currently estimated to be *most of the contribution to ACC* and thus we are discussing *a tax that is mostly on the Koch brothers and their ingroup*.
            The Koch brothers pay people to say that ACC doesn’t exist, and thus there will be no damages caused that would not exist if ACC were not occurring, and thus there is no public cost to their product, and thus they should not be taxed. Their critics say these are lies the Koch brothers only pay people to tell because they do not want to be taxed.

          • James says:

            “As for why they’re denialists, it’s because they’re libertarians and large-scale environmental problems are extremely inconvenient for their political views, to put it uncharitably. I don’t know if they stand to lose money should fossil fuels fall out of fashion.”

            I think environmental problems are a great case for libertarianism.

            That’s like saying peaceful people love central power because that never results in war…

          • tatertotsonmyshotgun says:

            James Picone is basically right, but the last sentence is kind of baffling… They own an oil company. Yes, they absolutely stand to loose huge amounts of money if fossil fuels go out of fashion.

          • Chalid says:

            @Deiseach If their political agenda was implemented they would certainly become much richer; some argue that they are simply hacking the government to get even more wealthy. (I don’t think that personally – it’s very human to think that policies that benefit you also just happen the best policies for society.)

            They get hatred in part because they are unusually effective at it. Most rich people are really dumb about politics for whatever reason; they do relatively ineffective things like run for office themselves or shovel huge amounts of money at presidential candidates or the like. Whereas the Kochs work at the state and local levels (where the marginal dollar goes way further) as well as at the national levels, they sponsor think-tanks that produce sympathetic white papers, etc which isn’t quite as sexy but which gets results, especially when it’s kept up over a long period of time.

          • John Schilling says:

            There is no law of God, Nature, or Man that says the Kochs must own an oil company, that their wealth must forevermore be tied to their ability to sell fossil fuels for great profit. In the course of spreading public awareness/vile propaganda on the subject of anthropogenic global warming, they’ve hired a great many scientists to provide them with information on AGW and in some cases to do individual research in the field.

            And they still own an oil company.

            At the institutional level, it’s not entirely unreasonable to assume this sort of bias. Exxon’s hired lobbyists are going to downplay AGW regardless of the facts because anyone who isn’t inclined to downplay AGW isn’t going to be on the payroll, in the boardroom, or even holding stock in Exxon, and there’s always someone else to take their place. If “AGW is overrated” really were just a 3% minority opinion, well, those 3% would have picked up their Exxon stock dirt cheap as everyone else sold out, and Exxon as a corporation would still be denying or downplaying AGW.

            But at the level of individuals, especially rich and well-informed individuals, this isn’t the way to bet. It’s great for generating caricatures of Pure, Selfish Evil, not so good for understanding the sincere beliefs of people who disagree with you.

          • Vaniver says:

            One thing not mentioned that seems relevant:

            The Koch Father (i.e. the one who founded the company) did some petroleum work in Russia, realized just how miserable and counterproductive communism was, and then decided that his company would operate on capitalist grounds as much as possible within the company. Koch Industries uses net present value for most of its decisions; i.e. instead of having a manager whose job it is to cut costs and another whose job it is to raise revenue, everyone’s job is to maximize profit.

            This dead simple technique appears to be the main strategic edge of Koch Industries, which has had ~10% annual growth and is the second largest privately company in the US. It is a huge success story for institutional design.

          • A little additional information on the Koch brothers.

            1. They are committed ideological libertarians. Some of their political positions are probably in their self interest, some not. Aggressive U.S. foreign policy probably raises the price of oil, but they are against it. Using eminent domain to take land and give it to private firms might well benefit them, since they own a very wealthy private firm, but they are against it. They are against the War on Drugs, which I expect has little effect on them either way. As those examples suggest, their positions are not consistently ones liberals oppose—some are, some are not.

            2. David Koch was the LP candidate for VP a fair while back. They have been involved in intra-libertarian activities for decades–the term “Kochtopus” was original coined by a libertarian critic of their activities within the movement.

            3. As best I can tell, their libertarianism was largely derived from Robert Lefevre, a charismatic and slightly nutty libertarian pacifist who ran his own unaccredited college (Rampart college) in Colorado Springs. He was a friend of Robert Heinlein and part of the model for Prof in _The Moon is a Harsh Mistress_.

          • RCF says:

            @John Schilling

            “here is no law of God, Nature, or Man that says the Kochs must own an oil company, that their wealth must forevermore be tied to their ability to sell fossil fuels for great profit.”

            You display a lack of understanding of both human nature and economics. First, sunk cost and endowment effects are going to make it difficult to sell. Second, of course their wealth is tied to the ability to sell fossil fuels. That’s what ownership of an asset means: it means tying your wealth to the worth of the asset. The Koch’s wealth is tied to the worth of their company, and the worth of their company is tied to the net present value of its future profits. Selling the company doesn’t change this; the price they get will be tied to the market’s estimation of the NPV of the company’s profits. Therefore, it is in their interests to increase their company’s profits, regardless of whether they are going to sell it or not.

          • John Schilling says:

            @RCF: Ah, so kind of like the way Elon Musk’s wealth, power, and prestige are forever tied to Paypal and to his ability to found and manage dot-coms. Of course, nobody remembers who Elon Musk is, because his elaborate propaganda campaign to convince the world that the dotcom bubble was infinitely sustainable (the only rational plan for him in 1999-2000) obviously failed, leading to his ignominious slide into bankruptcy a few years later.

            I did not know that. Thank you for enlightening me with your superior understanding of economics.

        • Leo says:

          The global warming “controversy” has less in common with the AI risk debate than it has with the Creationism debate, in that if, when and how we’ll get AI are unknown and debatable, while the earth definitely wasn’t created in seven days. So I’d imagine Scott isn’t seriously engaging with denialists because it would be a similar waste of time. Global warming denialism is a position adhered to by a tiny percentage of people (perhaps 1%, I don’t know exactly) and, as with creationism, the only people who see it as a debate are those who live in communities entirely unrepresentative of the global consensus. The vast majority of scientists agree that global warming is happening and that it is caused by greenhouse gases. Denialists, creationists and flat earthers have a right to their opinions, but that doesn’t mean they have a right to be taken seriously.

          • Nornagest says:

            perhaps 1%, I don’t know exactly

            Waaaaaaaay too low. Globally I’d estimate something on the order of 35-40% AGW, 10-15% no-AGW, 50% don’t know, don’t care, or never heard of — most of the world isn’t educated, most of it isn’t in the West, and a lot of it has a stake in energy or growth and less science-friendly media than we do. And if I’m overestimating anything there it’s probably the pro position (though there’s big error bars all around, and I’d expect that to funge more against apathetic than anti).

            Among scientists the difference is more dramatic but I’d still expect higher than 1%, though not too much higher.

          • Leo says:

            I’ve just done some further reading, and 1% was overly optimistic. Nevertheless, AGW denial is basically just an American/Australian issue, and 15% is implausibly high.

          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            @ Leo:

            Setting aside the debate over how many people believe in global warming (which is irrelevant), the main problem is that the charge of “denialism” is a blatant attempt to demonize any opposition to the leftist-interventionist program on abating climate change as the product of knuckle-dragging ignorance.

            First of all, I “believe in” global warming in the sense that, yes, I gather that average temperatures are trending upwards. But to say that there is the same kind of evidence even for this as there is for evolution is absolutely preposterous. Yet that’s the nature of the smear: if you are skeptical, you’re probably a “science denier” who thinks dinosaurs coexisted with cavemen and that the Earth is flat.

            This is separate from the question of whether the warming is mainly anthropogenic. (Personally, I’ll grant this one, too.)

            This is separate from the question of whether the warming is going to be small, moderate, or extreme.

            This is separate from the question of whether the warming can now be stopped, or whether we have triggered “runaway” effects.

            This is separate from the question of whether the degree of warming that occurs is likely to be a net positive or a net negative for mankind.

            This is separate from the question of whether we should do anything about it.

            This is separate from the question of whether geoengineering is a feasible means of controlling the warming.

            This is separate from the question of whether we should attempt geoengineering.

            And all of this is separate from the question of whether we should enact, in toto, the entire left-wing program to address global warming: carbon taxes, fossil fuel restrictions, “green energy” subsidies, recycling mandates, and so on.

            Even if an expert climate scientist is justifiably 100% certain that extreme, catastrophic warming is going to happen, unless that climate scientist is also an expert economist, he is not an expert on what to do about it!

            It does not even follow from extreme, catastrophic warming that we should reduce fossil fuel use. Perhaps we should be using more fossil fuels faster to allow the Third World to industrialize faster so that it can adapt to the changing climate. Or to build facilities to undertake geoengineering. All of that is subject to cost-benefit analysis.

            But the “denier” smear is used to conflate all of these questions and positions and turn it into: do you support our agenda to fight climate change, or are you a troglodyte?

          • Leo says:

            @Vox Imperatoris

            Regarding the geoengineering as a solution to climate change: which side of that argument gets smeared as science denying troglodytes?

            As far as whether or not it matters how many people believe in AGW, I’d say it does. This blog would not be improved if every time Scott mentions terrorism, for example, he has to explain why 9/11 was, in fact, not an inside job. Contrary to the blogs subtitle, Scott is not writing in a platonic spherical cow outside view world. He’s writing in a world where certain ideas are accepted as facts, and others are out on the fringe, and it pays to know which is which.

          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            @ Leo:

            I suppose that the pro-geoengineering position, in itself, is attacked more as “hubristic” than troglodytic. It’s defiance of Gaia’s will, a futile attempt to escape the consequences of man’s self-destructive quest for ever more material wealth.

            If God rains down fire on Sodom, that’s supposed to teach you to stop your sodomy—not to build your cities from fireproof materials. And that is the environmentalist narrative: man thought he could exploit nature without limits, but now she’s fighting back. The proposal to dominate nature harder is not taken in a good light.

            But if one regards it as a serious possibility and goes on to suggest that we shouldn’t impose CO2 restrictions until we have a clearer picture of the costs and benefits—that places one in the “denier” camp with the Flat Earthers and the believers in the Four Humors.

            Moving on, if we are going by public opinion, global warming “denialism” of the most uninformed and facile kind (such as “only God can control the weather”) is a mainstream position in America. Belief in a six-day creation is a mainstream position in America.

            If we are only going to count highly educated people, skepticism of global warming to a greater or lesser degree is still quite mainstream.

            If we are only going to count highly educated leftists, then it isn’t. But that’s pretty silly.

            However, the largest point on which I take issue with your position is your continual equivalence between global warming “denialism” and creationism. You cannot seriously believe that the general left-wing opinion on global warming—that there is real, anthropogenic, and continuing global warming of such a degree and of such a harmful nature as to demand drastic and immediate action—is as conclusively confirmed as the theory of evolution by the process of natural selection.

            None of those points is one-tenth as conclusively proven as evolution. Evolution, as opposed to creationism, is supported (directly or indirectly) by archaeology, geology, palentology, physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, agronomy, psychology, game theory, direct laboratory experiments where they watch it happen, and damn near every other branch of science known to man.

            The probability that all atmospheric temperature data is completely fabricated (which is incredibly low and not worth considering) is still much higher than the probability that every scientist in every field is lying about all the evidence supporting evolution.

            So let’s grant that we can accept the temperatures (which have risen) as factual. If literally denying that is all that is meant by “denialism”, we can put it out of legitimate debate. (Though it still doesn’t deserve to be grouped with creationism.)

            But I get the impression that “denialism” paints with a little broader brush: it is not supposed to indicate merely those who deny the past rise, but also those who are skeptical of the claim that temperatures will continue to rise in the future to a degree warranting grave concern. However, once you get into the predictive climate models, there are an enormous number of factors to consider—and substantial uncertainty about quite a large number of them. Even if you think that there is 99% certainty about every single one of them, we are nowhere close to the league of evolution.

            Heck, one of the major themes of this very blog is that it is really easy for studies to be flawed and to come to conclusions favorable to the researchers and those who fund them—and it doesn’t require deliberate wrongdoing, either. The mechanisms of this: confirmation bias, publication bias, etc. are well-known.

            Leftists have no problem at all with saying that centuries of basic economic theory as well as the results of every empirical study through the 80s were dead wrong about the minimum wage’s effect on employment. And some kind of very systematic biases must be operative now when half the studies find disemployment effects and half don’t. Moreover, this question is far simpler than modeling the Earth’s climate 100 years into the future.

            So, look, I don’t mind if you want to argue for catastrophic global warming. Just don’t go around saying it’s in the same epistemic category as evolution and that everyone who disagrees is a crackpot who should be shunned from polite society.

          • Leo says:

            @Vox Imperatoris

            The thing I’ve been saying from the outset is that America is a huge outlier in these matters. Europe has Christians, but one doesn’t meet creationists. Likewise, the vast majority of south americans and Asians believe that AGW is happening.

            As for the other issue, if you say that AGW activists are making pariahs out of people who believe in AGW but disagree on how we should deal with it, well I find that very easy to believe. It’s a shame. Scott is great on this sort of thing, of course. How feminists attack other feminists for not being the right kind of feminist and so on.
            Personally, while I take it for granted that AGW is happening, and is bad, I don’t know whether we should be trying to stop it or trying to adapt to it. Or how exactly we would stop it, and so on. I hope nobody is using the ‘denialist’ label to stifle that kind of debate, but point taken, people probably are. : (

          • Nornagest says:

            If God rains down fire on Sodom, that’s supposed to teach you to stop your sodomy—not to build your cities from fireproof materials.

            This is a tangent, but I want someone to write the story of the other moral now.

            Terry Pratchett would have been a good candidate; pity he’s dead.

          • @Vox: it seems to me that blaming the existence of the phrase “global warming denialism” on “leftists” wanting to use GW as an excuse to promote their “interventionist” agenda is basically the same sort of labeling exercise and/or logical error that you’re complaining about.

            Don’t you think people could just be legitimately cross at those who appear to be trying to impede any attempt to address the problem? Does it really have to be an excuse for unrelated left-wing policies, rather than a genuine desire to try to mitigate what many of us honestly believe to be a real problem?

            If we are only going to count highly educated people, skepticism of global warming to a greater or lesser degree is still quite mainstream.

            But it is debatable whether that skepticism has any rational basis, as opposed to being driven on ideological grounds, by wishful thinking, and/or by very effective propaganda. I don’t want to debate that issue directly, just to point out that the “denialist” label is presumably used primarily by those who believe (probably genuinely) the latter.

          • Like Vox, I am irritated by the tactic, I suppose a version of motte and bailey, of treating “denialism” as meaning the refusal to believe that temperatures have trended up over the past century when accusing it of being absurd, then redefining it to mean disagreeing with the claim that warming is a crisis which obviously requires severe measures to prevent catastrophic consequences.

            People curious about my view, which is that there is no good reason to expect the net effect of warming to be negative, let alone catastrophic, although it might be, can find it in posts on my blog:

            http://daviddfriedman.blogspot.com/search?q=warming

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            @ Leo
            Personally, while I take it for granted that AGW is happening, and is bad, I don’t know whether we should be trying to stop it or trying to adapt to it. Or how exactly we would stop it, and so on. I hope nobody is using the ‘denialist’ label to stifle that kind of debate, but point taken, people probably are. : (

            [ Refraining from mentioning dogs and fleas ]

            From a Consequentialist view, at this point your group and the Deniers are in the same camp, supporting the same current action: keep increasing pollution and deforestation; don’t proceed with clean energy etc. Whether their/your rationale is “AGW does not exist” or “Let’s not do anything till we finish debating”, the current result is the same.

            The Adaptors too are in the Deniers’ camp at this stage, supporting the Deniers’ side of the action, so for now there seems little point in distnguishing between three sub-groups: Deniers, Adaptors, and Debaters. (Now, if there were a sub-sub-group of Debators saying, “Well, let’s put the polluting actions on hold till we finish debating,” they would be worth distinguishing.)

            At a future stage, Adaptors might part from Deniers, to adopt positively environmentally destructive projects. What I’ve seen from the Adaptors’ side are proposals like sunscreens of one kind or another (solid high-altitude screens, or putting more dark material into the air, etc); earthworks to deal with rising sea levels; and other projects that would use more fuel for their bulldozers, and bring more money to the people who caused the pollution (and possible AGW) in the first place.*

            As for doing something/s now rather than wait and see…. ‘AGW effects’ and ‘prevent-AGW projects’ are clusters of events and of projects that may or may not turn out to be directly related to [some definition of] ‘AGW’. But some events are happening now, and may worsen, which should be addressed now (droughts, unusual high waters, etc), and some projects labeled ‘prevent-AGW’ may stop or lessen some of those events (and certainly give immediate health and comfort* benefits now).

            * thus with incentive to motivated reasoning in favor of continuing their practices

            ** like shade trees to sit under

          • FacelessCraven says:

            @houseboatonstyx – Is building a giant sky shield cheaper and more effective that radically reducing the standard of living of the developed world. and/or preventing the development of the rest of the world? Ditto for Geoengineering? What about massive changeover to nuclear power?

            The thing that makes me the most skeptical about AGW is that the people arguing that something must be done about it have, for the twenty years I’ve been watching, consistently refused to entertain any solution that doesn’t involve dramatically restructuring our entire civilization. It has left me with the nagging impression that they are more interested in that particular solution than they are in the details of the problem.

            The thing that makes me the next-most-skeptical about AGW is that I have lost count of all the “last chances” we’ve passed. This may be a failing on the part of the AGW movement. Maybe it’s a real problem and doing it right now really is the best solution, but it’s sufficiently long-term that people just engage with it poorly. Unfortunately, the solution they seem to have gone with, ie exaggerating the immediacy of the problem for two decades now, has made me very reluctant to trust their word on it.

            The third thing that makes me skeptical of the AGW movement is that I have actually observed an entire scientific sub-field manage to delude itself for two decade and the public for much longer, so the “scientific consensus” argument doesn’t really pack much punch for me.

            I will say that James Picone’s frequent debates on the subject here on SSC have gone a long, long way toward blunting that third point for me, and have shifted my assessment significantly toward the AGW consensus position on the second as well. Keep it up, Mr. Picone.

          • Leo says:

            @Houseboat on Styx
            “From a Consequentialist view, at this point your group and the Deniers are in the same camp, supporting the same current action: keep increasing pollution and deforestation; don’t proceed with clean energy etc. Whether their/your rationale is “AGW does not exist” or “Let’s not do anything till we finish debating”, the current result is the same.”

            Maybe I made it sound that way, but that is not my position. There is a lot I don’t know about the subject of global warming, but information is out there. There are experts.
            And there are some obvious steps, like removing beef from the human diet. I would support an end to subsidies for beef farmers, and even a beef tax. I said as much in the comments to that article about vegetarianism a few weeks ago. But decreasing beef production would be only one of the many necessary steps to get us to where we need to be, and that is why I say I don’t know what to do.

          • @FacelessCraven said:

            consistently refused to entertain any solution that doesn’t involve dramatically restructuring our entire civilization

            This puzzles me; I don’t see that things like “let’s make sure we hold our emissions steady, and start to look for ways to reduce them” or even more specific proposals such as carbon taxes and/or cap-and-trade systems really constitute either a “dramatic restructuring” or a “radical reduction in the standard of living”. And of course many people don’t have any specific proposals beyond perhaps “increased funding for relevant technological research” and/or “solar panel subsidies”.

            I’m thinking you’re talking about the radical environmentalists, who seem to view a reduction in the standard of living as a desirable goal in and of itself? Lacking Scott’s energy and patience, I personally can’t be bothered listening to that lot any more, never mind debating them. But I would have hoped they were distinguishable from the mainstream actionists.

            [I think I coined a phrase there; is there an existing one? If not, isn’t that kind of odd? Thoughts?]

          • Unfortunately, the solution they seem to have gone with, ie exaggerating the immediacy of the problem for two decades now

            I’m not sure that’s true either. I mean, sure, there are people shouting “if we don’t do something now, we’re all going to dieeee” ad infinitum, so if you just mean them, then fair enough – but not so fair for the person who once said “if we don’t take action quickly, we’ll lose the opportunity to prevent climate change”, and then “OK, it’s too late to prevent climate change, but if we act now it may be possible to limit the impact to X”, and then periodically reminds you of the ever increasing value of X.

            (To put it another way, it isn’t a car about to go over a cliff. It’s a car driving through a crowd, and the fact that we’ve missed our last chance to avoid hitting pedestrian A, and our last chance to avoid hitting pedestrian B, doesn’t mean that we aren’t now faced with our last chance to avoid hitting pedestrian C. There really can be more than one last chance!)

          • FacelessCraven says:

            @Harry Johnston – “I’m thinking you’re talking about the radical environmentalists, who seem to view a reduction in the standard of living as a desirable goal in and of itself?”

            Since I was old enough to read, the consistent message in the popular media has been that we were on the brink of an environmental apocalypse, and only immediate, drastic restructuring of society could spare us the worst of the calamities. When I was old enough to follow politics, I learned that this was a trend that went back decades, at least through the Population Bomb and the Club of Rome report on overpopulation. It meshed neatly with the various other left-wing crises that drove politics through my youth, and rather ironically, it’s now apparent that the apocalyptic viewpoint was behind much of the conservative ideology as well.

            You may be correct that this was a consequence of a “radical environmentalist” movement. I confess that the distinction escapes me. Al Gore’s environmental push in the 90s and early 2000s certainly seemed pretty alarmist. The claims after Katrina that AGW was directly responsible for superstorms in the mid 2000s seem likewise. So do claims that “climate denier” scientists should be held criminally culpable for deaths resulting from extreme weather events that were “clearly” a consequence of AGW. The whole push to label skeptics as “climate deniers” in the first place doesn’t help their case.

            “This puzzles me; I don’t see that things like “let’s make sure we hold our emissions steady, and start to look for ways to reduce them” or even more specific proposals such as carbon taxes and/or cap-and-trade systems really constitute either a “dramatic restructuring” or a “radical reduction in the standard of living”.”

            Population is growing. A large chunk of the world is underdeveloped, and suffering greatly from it. The economy even in the developed world is not running 100% great. As a personal example, I grew up dirt poor, and remained dirt poor until a few years ago when I finally got a decent career started. I have not seen a serious proposal for halting, much less reducing America’s emissions that doesn’t seem likely to put a serious dent in the growth curve. Mostly, I see a lot of people saying that if we just institute one or more massive, unaccountable government interventions, everything will work out just fine. I remain skeptical of these claims for a variety of reasons.

            A quick google search puts the global economy at 77 trillion annually. What’s your estimate for the scale of a global compulsory carbon market? I am not an expert on the subject, but I have a very hard time imagining a global, compulsory carbon market that does not fit the definition of a “dramatic restructuring” of the existing economic order.

            While we’re at it, why not Nuclear power as a solution? Why not Geoengineering? Again, the thing that makes me most suspicious of AGW is that for as long as I can remember, the claim has been that only the massive government interventions have a chance of working. We could have pushed hard into nuclear decades ago. Why didn’t we? AGW is de-facto geoengineering; why aren’t we dedicating significant research to methods of offsetting it?

            As I’ve mentioned before, James Picone’s posts here on SSC have done more to convince me of the validity of the AGW position than twenty-five years of ham-fisted, wild-eyed propaganda. Even so, a lifetime of that sort of propaganda has left me very reluctant to trust the AGW movement about its claimed solutions.

          • James Picone says:

            @Leo:
            Denialism isn’t even at 1% in climate scientists – about 3% of of climate science papers that express an opinion on CS in their abstract disagree with the position that 1) there’s been warming over the past few decades and 2) it’s anthropogenic, according to Cook2013.

            Among the general population? It’s plenty common. Climate science is big and complicated and counterintuitive and has a lot of room for, broadly speaking, facile bullshit. It’s also something people would generally prefer not to believe – it’s scary, it suggests that maybe we have to pay more for some things, and there’s a machine out there pushing as many misrepresentations and confusions and cherry-picked statistics as it can.

            People being annoyed at ‘denial’ covering lukewarmer attitudes as well as outright no-warming or no-anthropogenic positions: There’s several non-dark-arts reasons for this. The first one is that the denial PR machine has shifted position as the evidence for anthropogenic effects and warming became extremely strong. This is seen as evidence that the PR machine is not arguing in good faith; that their true position is Anything But Carbon. It’s immensely frustrating, and seems backed up by noticing that arguments with people about this seem to have motte-bailey dynamics (I’m not claiming anyone here in particular is doing that; I’m talking about the average climate-change-isn’t-a-problem person you run into in arguments on the net. I promise you it’s common). And then you realise that it isn’t just Q. Random Denialist, some of the big names do it as well. I’ve listed a bunch of prominent people on the it’s-not-a-problem side who happily endorse positions that are within spitting distance of no-anthropogenic-effect in the comments section on an earlier post; for another example, consider this blog post on WUWT last week, in which Tim Ball claims that the CO2 data has been tampered with by a conspiracy of scientists, with a couple of side-swipes at the temperature record. The final reason is that the position that the temperature changes we’ve observed over the last few decades are ~100% anthropogenic – that is, in the absence of human CO2, there would be zero trend over the past few decades – is very, very strong scientifically, so the people – and this /does/ include some of the commenters here – who suggest that maybe there’s a 60-year cycle in which the Earth warms up for no reason and then cools down again, and only half the warming is anthropogenic, are treated like creationists who admit ‘microevolution’ but stop short at ‘macroevolution’.

            I will say that James Picone’s frequent debates on the subject here on SSC have gone a long, long way toward blunting that third point for me, and have shifted my assessment significantly toward the AGW consensus position on the second as well. Keep it up, Mr. Picone.

            Aww, shucks. I’ve probably spoiled that by getting all pissy at my rhetorical opponents here, though. 😛

            I would suggest that one of the things you’re seeing is that there’s a not-insignificant gap between the IPCC’s position, and the position of, say, Greenpeace, or the kind of people who donate to Greenpeace. I would agree that a lot of the environmental movement is not doing a great job on this one. The anti-nuclear stuff and the shut-down capitalism stuff makes me wince. I’m not even very pro-nuclear!

            Broadly, I would consider the ‘serious’ climate-change-is-a-thing position to be “This will be very expensive in several decades time, and there’s a small but nonzero chance that it could be extremely bad, especially from unknown-unknowns. We should probably avoid that by phasing out fossil fuels and other causes of emissions. The best way to phase out fossil fuels and other causes of emissions is a pricing mechanism tied roughly to how much harm we think it will do, either a tax on emissions or a emissions permit market. Subsidising research into non-fossil-fuel baseload power sources and/or trying to encourage nuclear power might be a good idea. The sooner we start phasing out fossil fuels, the more gradual we can be, and so the easier it will be overall. Developing countries are kinda stuck in a bad place here, it might be worth considering technology transfer or aid designed to help them industrialise without building huge amounts of coal power plants”. By complete coincidence, that’s pretty much my view.

            Maybe this is what’s happening.

            EDIT: On geoengineering: Broadly, what we’re doing by emitting lots of greenhouse gases is an uncontrolled geoengineering experiment. Trying to fix it with a different geoengineering experiment with opposite sign is kinda risky, still very much at the mercy of unknown-unknowns, and most geoengineering solutions don’t fix ocean acidification (the iron-filings-algal-bloom one does, I think, but I don’t know if the effect is sufficiently powerful). Probably better than business-as-usual, but probably worse than phasing out emissions.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            @ Leo

            Reviewing the string of comments nested as ‘replies’ to your comment at October 23, 2015 at 2:28 am, I question whether y’all are talking about the same ‘level of discourse’, and if so, what level is it? (Hey, am I meta yet?) Is it a Twitter and tabloids level (“Extinction next month, because the Deniers want to bring on Armageddon”) or a Guardian level or NYT or The Atlantic or SSC? (Leo, at which level is there any unstiffled discourse left?)

            In most discourse I read, I notice two unrecognized axes orthogonal to each other. S) On the Scientific axis, the poles are “AGW is definitely happening” vs “AGW is definitely not happening”. A) On the Action level, the poles are “Do something now” vs “Do nothing ever”, but the question is often presented as “Belief in AGW vs Disbelief”. To avoid getting pigeonholed (if it’s possible at all) might depend on where the discussion is taking place. Inventing a snappy label for a category of middle positions would be nice, and useful to recruiters from both sides.

            @ Harry Johnston

            I like your ‘Actionist’.

          • @FacelessCraven: ah, well, popular media. 😉

            I don’t think the claim that Katrina may have been due to or exacerbated by climate change is particularly alarmist, mind you. It’s all statistical, so perhaps it would have been just as bad anyway, but that doesn’t seem like the way to bet. (Here in New Zealand we’ve had several cyclones over the last decade, something which AFAIK had never happened before, throughout our recorded history. Can anyone prove it was because of AGW? No, absolutely not. But if it wasn’t, it’s a very strange coincidence.)

            (Although I personally blame the loss of life in New Orleans not on GW but on the decision to allow people to live below sea level. I was utterly gobsmacked when reconstruction began in the same fricking place, though I’m sure there’s a reason.)

            We very probably should indeed have been pushing nuclear power. But on the other hand, quite apart from the PR problem and disaster risks, it is awfully expensive, or so I’m told.

            Population is growing.

            Quite, and that is still a fundamental, important problem, one I wish we were addressing better than we are. (This is one of the reasons I get particularly irritated at environmentalists who keep using carbon emissions per person as a metric for virtue. New Zealand in particular is an example of a nation that could improve our carbon emissions per person most easily by encouraging population growth – but of course the total carbon emissions would be going up, and that’s what actually matters.)

          • @Faceless

            “The thing that makes me the most skeptical about AGW is that the people arguing that something must be done about it have, for the twenty years I’ve been watching, consistently refused to entertain any solution that doesn’t involve dramatically restructuring our entire civilization. It has left me with the nagging impression that they are more interested in that particular solution than they are in the details of the problem.” Is carbon offsetting something that draatically restructures civilisation, or something that pro-AGWers refuse to entertain?

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            @ Faceless Craven
            [ re geoengineering ]

            “The patient has a bad cough, and it’s getting worse.”
            “Maybe it has something to do with him smoking.”
            “Naw, that’s just coincidence.”
            “It’s smoking, but I can fix it! I’ll make some smoke filters and surgically implant them around his lungs.”

            “Er, couldn’t he just cut down on smoking for a while, and see if he gets better?”
            — Outrage —

          • Eli says:

            Ok, I’m totally in favor of listening to the climate science, but if you don’t think we’ll ever get AI, well, I’ve got an AI project to sell you :-p.

            Anyway, regarding global warming, I actually do think nuclear is a big part of a healthy way to address the issue! Everyone scientifically informed thinks that!

            At some point, you need to stop playing intellectual-hipster and listen to the experts rather than the college kids on the streets with petitions.

          • FacelessCraven says:

            @TheAncientGreek- “Is carbon offsetting something that dramatically restructures civilisation, or something that pro-AGWers refuse to entertain?”

            Combined GDP for the planet is currently 77 trillion dollars. What is your estimate for the total size in dollars of a global, compulsory carbon market? How about for the bureaucratic apparatus needed to administer and enforce it?

            @HouseboatonStyx – “— Outrage —”

            Smoking is pretty clearly net-negative, long-term and short. Carbon emissions are possibly net negative on a long timescale; as in, it’s arguable that mitigation might be cheaper. On the short scale, carbon emissions seem strongly net-positive. That’s why they’ve been so hard to cut. Like it or not, carbon markets work out to being a new tax of uncertian magnitude on pretty much everything. That seems like grounds for concern.

            @Harry Johnston – “I don’t think the claim that Katrina may have been due to or exacerbated by climate change is particularly alarmist, mind you.”

            Make a prediction in advance, and show me the data over a long-enough timeline to prove it correct. Unfalsifiable claims made in hindsight are not useful.

            “(Although I personally blame the loss of life in New Orleans not on GW but on the decision to allow people to live below sea level. I was utterly gobsmacked when reconstruction began in the same fricking place, though I’m sure there’s a reason.)”

            The damage to New Orleans was due to shitty maintenance of infrastructure. It’s a growing problem pretty much everywhere in America; we’ve had some bridge collapses due to it as well. This should underscore the point that efficient use of resources actually matters quite a bit. America is not rich enough to absorb significant decreases in economic efficiency without serious consequences, and pretending that zeroing out are carbon emissions would not involve a significant decrease in economic efficiency is absurd.

            “We very probably should indeed have been pushing nuclear power. But on the other hand, quite apart from the PR problem and disaster risks, it is awfully expensive, or so I’m told.”

            The nice thing about nuclear power is that not only do you cut carbon emissions, you get cheap electricity as well. You build something new that has positive benefits, and in the process solves the problem. Carbon markets do not seem to share this virtue, and I would be fairly surprised if they were cheaper.

            @Eli – “Anyway, regarding global warming, I actually do think nuclear is a big part of a healthy way to address the issue! Everyone scientifically informed thinks that!”

            Show me the push for nuclear power with the same amount of backing as the push for carbon markets. Alternatively, show me that carbon markets are obviously cheaper than mass conversion to nuclear. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to point out that a large chunk of the political forces trying to “do something about climate change” have their priorities out of whack. This happens on the right and the left; a lot of the big corporations started coming on board with climate change when the push switched to the carbon market idea; incidentally, carbon markets have extremely serious problems with exploits and loopholes that allow massive short-term profit-taking by gaming the system.

            @James Picone – “Aww, shucks. I’ve probably spoiled that by getting all pissy at my rhetorical opponents here, though.”

            Not remotely. For the record, the tactic that had the greatest effect on me was when you simply ask your opponent what their proposed value for warming per unit of co2, and then step through the various possibilities, starting with what would be dictated simply by basic physics.

            “This is seen as evidence that the PR machine is not arguing in good faith; that their true position is Anything But Carbon.”

            From the opposite side, I would have said this about AGW as well; the story seemed to shift significantly over my lifetime, from Global Warming to Climate Change, with a widely publicized doomsday scenario always ten or so years away and immediate action required to bypass doom. The impression I had for many years was that the movement was fixated on “carbon reduction only”, with all other potential solutions rejected out of hand. That impression breeds distrust in the same way you noted.

            “…for another example, consider this blog post on WUWT last week, in which Tim Ball claims that the CO2 data has been tampered with by a conspiracy of scientists, with a couple of side-swipes at the temperature record.”

            Another thing it might help to understand is that “conspiracy of scientists” is a real thing that has been directly observed on a range of issues in the recent past. My preferred example, though it may be derailing to mention it, is gun control, where the entire field of firearms epidemiology went rotten for something like two or three decades. In that case, the “science” was entirely unanimous until a completely separate field examining overlapping datasets stepped in to check their work and brought the whole sham down. That happened in the late 90s, and two decades later the press still quotes both the erroneous statistics as fact and their authors as preeminent authorities. Likewise, the current replication crisis in the social sciences is a pretty clear indication that Science as a holistic system can fail subtly without anyone noticing for decades.

            I think most of the people skeptical of climate science have the above in mind when they engage in debate on the issue. “Scientific consensus” has been abused too often and too publicly for it to be effective on rightists. The “denialist” label simply plays into their script, and for the undecided observer, it’s an obvious case of begging the question.

            The only solution to this, I think, is to answer their questions as best you can, present the data, and keep making correct predictions. That won’t help against the truly solipsistic, but giving your opponents the benefit of the doubt encourages them to do the same to you. I think the additional vulnerability to bad actors is more than balanced out by the additional effectiveness with the undecided audience.

            Anyhow, that’s my assessment as someone you’ve shifted significantly. Take it for what it’s worth.

          • @FacelessCraven
            “Show me the push for nuclear power with the same amount of backing as the push for carbon markets. Alternatively, show me that carbon markets are obviously cheaper than mass conversion to nuclear. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to point out that a large chunk of the political forces trying to “do something about climate change” have their priorities out of whack.”

            The two aren’t really commensurable, because you can set up a carbon market overnight without building anything or needing any raw materialis: it’s much more readily implementable.

            Carbon markets also give a moderate natural push to nuclear power in an otherwise free market, since they nuclear stations emit no carbon, they don;t have to bear the cost whereas their main rivals, the fossil plants do. (http://www.neimagazine.com/features/featurenuclear-power-and-carbon-trading/). The issue of propagandising nucelar is a bit irrelevant, if market forces are going to make it more attractive anyway.

            A steep increase in nuclear power would require tremendous capital investment, and would run into problems ramping up fuel supplies. (Such problems migh tbe addressable by throwing money at them but…)

            It is also something of a short term solution. Nuclear currently supplies about 12% of world energy, so an eight to ten times increase woudl be needed to supply all of it. Known uranium deposits are said to be good for 200 years, which under an all nuclear scenario comes to 20-30 years. And then what? Back to fossil and another round of warming? Hope for workable fusion or another new technology? Or renewables? But if renewable are your ultimate fallback, and the other options are respectively known to be bad and uncertain, then you might as well carry on with renewable.

            Basically, you don’t optimise the amount of time you can keep carrying on with an industrialised world, and keep searching for new solutions, by adopting a one sided approach (except of course for, renewables).

            And, for all that carbon markets fill you with horror, they are not a particularly left wing idea, compared, for instance to cap-and-fine, they allow industry a certain amount of leeway.

            “carbon markets have extremely serious problems with exploits and loopholes that allow massive short-term profit-taking by gaming the system.”

            I actually agree, but I don’t think you can blame the evil left for that. In fact, it gives ammunition for a push towards a more drastic solution, like cap-and-fine.

          • @FacelessCraven

            “Combined GDP for the planet is currently 77 trillion dollars. What is your estimate for the total size in dollars of a global, compulsory carbon market? How about for the bureaucratic apparatus needed to administer and enforce it?”

            We have a carbon market and it hasn’t sent us back to the stone age. You are making the extraordinary claim here..although I don’t know which extraordinary claim,. since you didn;t actually answer my question:-

            “Is carbon offsetting something that dramatically restructures civilisation, or something that pro-AGWers refuse to entertain?””

          • Glen Raphael says:

            the denial PR machine has shifted position as the evidence for anthropogenic effects and warming became extremely strong. This is seen as evidence that the PR machine is not arguing in good faith; that their true position is Anything But Carbon.

            This is a popular argument with the SkepticalScience crowd, but it’s…really dumb. It fails the ideological turing test.

            Suppose a crowd of people are marching around claiming that the world is going to end because God loves real cheese and thinks velveeta is a crime against nature so unless Kraft stops making velveeta by 2016 God will destroy the planet.

            Now suppose you are a “skeptic”. You see this claim as a chain of reasoning. The conclusion depends on every link in the chain being solid. So you might find yourself asking about whether particular links in that chain hold up. You might start by asking a question as simple as: “how do we know God even exists?”

            Now suppose they prove to you God DOES exist. You would naturally shift your attention to “How do we know God hates velveeta?” or “does this God actually have the power and inclination to destroy the planet?

            Is it arguing in bad faith to ask that every link in the chain of logic be proven before the overall conclusion is accepted? Is it arguing in bad faith to wait until the first link in the sequence is pretty well established before moving on to the next one?

            I think what happened here is that the warmists interpreted skepticism as holding a specific contrary position when really it was just skepticism. Failing to accept a positive claim is not the same thing as confidently holding an opposing positive claim. It makes perfect sense that somebody confronted with “Aiiee! It’s getting hotter and we’re all gonna dieeeeeee!” might first ask “did it get hotter?” then move on to items like “If so, is it likely to continue doing so? If so, is that a problem? If so, is it something we can do something about? If so, is the cost of action less than the value it provides?”

            The guy waving a “The end of the world is nigh!” sign has a substantial burden of proof to make the WHOLE case. He can’t turn that around and say “first you guys said there was no God and THEN you said he might not hate Velveeta and THEN you said he might not want to end the world – clearly you guys just have an Anything But Velveeta true position!”

          • @FacelessCraven:

            Unfalsifiable claims made in hindsight are not useful.

            “not useful” != “alarmist”. Pointing at Katrina in particular as a possible sign of climate change isn’t very useful, but neither is it alarmist IMO. (The prediction was “an increase in the number of unusual weather events” and if I remember correctly, the severity of Katrina was indeed unusual. To put it another way, it isn’t a proof, but it is a data point. If you chuck out each and every individual data point because taken alone it is “alarmist”, well, you’ve got no data.)

            The nice thing about nuclear power is that not only do you cut carbon emissions, you get cheap electricity as well.

            Is that actually true? Rumour has it that the plants have proved so much more expensive to build and operate than originally expected that they are barely even profitable. Perhaps that’s just an urban myth.

            You build something new that has positive benefits, and in the process solves the problem. Carbon markets do not seem to share this virtue, and I would be fairly surprised if they were cheaper.

            It almost sounds as if you want the government to build and operate nuclear power plants? The theory behind the carbon market, as I understand it, is to incentivize the private sector to build nuclear power plants, or solar, or offsets, or whatever they think is the best solution, rather than the government decreeing a particular solution. I could go either way, but I think you can see why I think of carbon markets as basically a right-wing policy.

            the story seemed to shift significantly over my lifetime, from Global Warming to Climate Change

            I’ve never understood why people get hung up over that. Global warming is only a problem because it causes climate change [1]. A change in PR focus from the cause to the effect does not seem to me to be a sign of dishonesty.

            [1] Well, up to the point where the human body breaks down, I suppose.

          • Glen Raphael says:

            Known uranium deposits are said to be good for 200 years, which under an all nuclear scenario comes to 20-30 years. And then what?

            Then we build breeder reactors, after which we’re good for thousands of years and we’ve simultaneously solved much of the waste problem as well.

            One reason we’re not using them YET is that fresh mined uranium is so cheap – but your premise suggest uranium gets expensive enough it’d be worth making some reactors that could recycle our old high-level waste to make more fuel.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            @ FacelessCraven

            The condensed version of my vignette is, we don’t jump to major (and experimental) surgery
            (geoengineering) till we have tried the obvious, simplest, least harmful option — ie, putting less pollution (of all kinds) into the system. My ‘patient’ is not a Gaia, but just a very complex system that can be disrupted, then resume its former operation after the disrupting influence is removed. Or may break worse with additional disruption. It’s a very complex system, that we don’t understand, at all.

          • “I think what happened here is that the warmists interpreted skepticism as holding a specific contrary position when really it was just skepticism”

            But the “sceptics” do have a specific contrary position: that warmism is a left wing plot to destroy capitalism.That has been expressed in good faith in this forum.

          • FacelessCraven says:

            @TheAncientGreek – “But the “sceptics” do have a specific contrary position: that warmism is a left wing plot to destroy capitalism.That has been expressed in good faith in this forum.”

            That would be because decent-sized chunks of the left wing actually did have the destruction of capitalism as an avowed goal, and used exaggerated claims about AGW to try to achieve it. The difficulty of disambiguating their claims and proposed solutions from those of the actual science-based AGW movement is not trivial, and is what a large part of this discussion is about.

          • Glen Raphael says:

            “But the “sceptics” do have a specific contrary position: that warmism is a left wing plot to destroy capitalism.

            Nah. That would be a motivational theory, which isn’t really what I meant by specific contrary position. By position I meant stuff like “there’s been no warming” or “climate sensitivity is X” or “CO2 isn’t a greenhouse gas”.

            It sucks that warmists need to prove EVERY link in the chain before they can jump ahead to the conclusion “we’re right about everything”…but they do. You can’t extrapolate from “it turns out we were right (and skeptics were wrong!) about points X and Y” to reach “…and therefore skeptics are wrong about everything – every other objection they might come up with should also be assumed bogus.” That is what the arguing in bad faith meme tries to do.

            Speaking of motivational theories though: my own is that environmentalism is a secular religion. Adherents to the faith enjoy the certainty that humanity is somehow doomed to suffer for our sins against the planet unless we perform penance and listen to the wisdom of the tribal elders. The exact form of our doom varies, but any situation which has even the tiniest whiff of potential doom about it will be embraced to prove the point.

            But note: having a motivational theory that seems to explain an unending series of bizarre doom warnings still doesn’t prove that any specific doom candidate is bogus. No matter how many times the boy cries wolf, it’s still possible there might be a wolf next time.

        • JuanPeron says:

          I think this might be an excessively narrow outlook on the matter. Scott had to find an individual that he both strongly opposes and would fangirl over in person. (I’m assuming he was set on using a personal example, since this is a fairly unsourced piece drawing from his own reactions).

          The Koch brothers are highly educated (in STEM), successful, and contribute to a lot of objectively good charitable work. They’re also actively funding a campaign to oppose action on a major issue Scott supports. I’m struggling to think of someone else who hits those notes.

          George Bush is/was also a climate denier, so that wasn’t the distinguishing factor. He’s also a huge celebrity most people would grant prestige to. But, he’s a spent force doing charity work today, so he doesn’t really fit for “Scott thinks his exile would be beneficial”.

          Rupert Murdoch, for a lot of people, doesn’t pass the “fangirl over his prestige” bar. He fails as an example because Scott might well spend the flight ignoring or arguing with him.

          For me, I read the choice of the Kochs as Scott working to pick a personal example of prestige mixed with animosity.

        • Eli says:

          The world contains actual facts, not just narratives. Scott may play a meta-contrarian on the internet quite a lot, but in fact, he cares what the actual facts are.

          So yes, Scott is going to take his view from the available scientific consensus, insofar as he believes that consensus is supported by real evidence, rather than from the scientific consensus’ position in the contrarianism-hipster signaling game.

          Go ahead and whine.

      • Fazathra says:

        As a Brit, I’ve never understood why the US left hate the Koch brothers so much. At least our equivalent across the pond – Rupert Murdoch – makes some sort of sense because he actually controls a “right wing media empire” which can plausibly shape public opinion in a big way. The worst the Kochs seem to have done is donate a load of money to various super PACs which, judging by your last two elections and general political trends, seems to be a spectacularly ineffective method of winning elections or shifting the overton window.

        The Kochs’ donations might be very good at buying favourable regulation for their no-doubt-nefarious business enterprises, but loads of billionaires do that on both right and left. Why are the Kochs so uniquely evil?

        • Orphan Wilde says:

          Short answer? Because they buy the wrong sort of regulation, from the wrong sort of people.

          • Bugmaster says:

            Personally, I dislike (“hate” is too strong a word) the Koch brothers because a). they are directly buying legislation without any repercussions, and b). I know their names. If I knew the names of some billionaire Democratic donors, I’d dislike them just as much (unless I already loathe them for some other reason, e.g. Time Warner).

          • Orphan Wilde says:

            Bugmaster –

            Possibly. But the same sorts of people who are generally against the Koch brothers don’t feel very strongly negatively (or feel positively) about GE, whose causes and regulations-bought (subsidies for green energy, for example) they tend to agree with.

            (I feel ambivalently about all of them; I see the issue as having more to do with incentives than actors, and find it hard to be upset at people for following the incentives they’re given. Blame the game, not the player, as it were.)

        • SpaghettiLee says:

          Unlimited-spending PACs are only five years old, and I imagine the people who fund them will only get more skilled at using them efficiently. They’re legally not allowed to coordinate with political campaigns themselves but I imagine interested parties will find ways around that too.

          I see the massive influx of private donations as inherently negative and would prefer a strict upper-bound limit on campaign donations; I think the idea that someone with a lot of money and power can basically singlehandedly groom and fund a candidate is a perversion of democracy and a reversion to aristocracy. I say this knowing this will be seen as a net positive by some people who read this.

          • Orphan Wilde says:

            I’m inclined to say the perversion of democracy you refer to has to happen at the level where candidates -need- to be funded, rather than a system which allows more candidates -to be- funded. The latter can only improve democracy.

          • 1. Unlimited spending in support of, but not coordinated with, a candidate has been legal for a very long time. The only thing changed by Citizens United was permitting organizations such as firms and labor unions to do it. Rich individuals always could.

            Also, while I’m not certain, I believe Citizens United was a response to restrictions on campaign spending that had only recently been passed at the time.

            2. I expect the Koch brothers donate for lots of things that Scott approves of–they are, after all, ideological libertarians opposed to aggressive foreign policy, the War on Drugs, the use of eminent domain to take property and give it to firms, and lots of other bad things. The current left wing hostility to them, like the wildly exaggerated accounts of the effect of Citizens United, is just tribal ritual. One of the things an ingroup needs is enemies to hate.

          • SpaghettiLee says:

            @Orphan Wilde I get your point, but that reminds me of rhetoric about the internet; anyone with an idea and a domain can get rich and famous, but in practice there are strong incentives in play that reward larger sites and harm smaller ones. Similarly, who gets funded and who doesn’t isn’t exactly up in the air; billionaire businessmen are going to fund candidates who are sympathetic to the interests of billionaire businessmen. So I’m suspicious of that argument. I believe that the kind of freedom and liberty that will feel like freedom and liberty to the majority of people experiencing it is an easily-destroyed and difficult-to-maintain equilibrium, not a natural state of any sort. If the neutral, ambient incentives in a certain society tend to flow one way, pretending they don’t, (let alone encouraging them) is not, in my opinion, the neutral option.

            Money has always been the most important factor in politics, yes; I’m not that naive. But 1) If so, then we sure don’t need to give it an even wider legal berth, and 2) That’s less true than ever, even if it’s still very true, giving the ease of disseminating information online. So, my pipe-dream goal here is a world where information is the primary currency of politics, and would-be candidates are not at risk of being beholden to someone else if they need money.

          • brad says:

            @David Friedman
            The timeline was:
            2002 McCain-Feingold comes into law

            2004 Citizens United files a complaint with the FEC claiming that Fahrenheit 9/11’s advertising violate M-F. They lose.

            2005- They decide that if they can’t beat em they should join em and start making political ads disguised as movies.

            2008 The FEC decides that ads for Hillary the Movie violate M-F and sue. They win in the lower courts.

            2009 The Supreme Court overturns in the lower court and in doing so invalidates parts of M-F as well as overruling parts of two prior supreme court cases McConnell v. FEC (2003) and more consequentially Austin v. Michigan State Chamber of Commerce (1990). That implicitly invalidates several parts of older federal laws (LMRA & FECA) as well as the campaign finance laws of many states.

            After having studied the matter if far more detail than I wish I had in retrospect, I’d say that the impact of the ruling, while not trivial, is somewhat overblown. Mostly because the rules were not all that waterproof before.

          • RCF says:

            “I see the massive influx of private donations as inherently negative and would prefer a strict upper-bound limit on campaign donations; I think the idea that someone with a lot of money and power can basically singlehandedly groom and fund a candidate is a perversion of democracy and a reversion to aristocracy.”

            Someone advocating the repeal of the First Amendment so politicians can put people in prison for criticizing them calling the opposing view “perversion of democracy and a reversion to aristocracy” is the height of hypocrisy.

        • Mary says:

          They give to Republicans.

          Mind you, if you rank donors by amount given, they are 59th but they are the highest rank with significant donations to Republicans. Everyone who gives more gives to Democrats

          • Jiro says:

            We can’t give out a +1 here but that basically is the answer. They’re doing what lots of people are doing, but they’re evil because they’re doing it for the wrong tribe.

          • LCL says:

            Not to be the annoying “source plz” guy, but that one seems really implausible. First, that there are (precisely) 58 political donors who give more than $889 million(!). And second, that everyone who gives more gives it to democrats. I find either of those claims unlikely separately, and the combination of both highly suspect. Source plz.

            ETA:
            I found a personal donations ranking that has the Kochs at 10th and 25th, and the top 100 about evenly split between red and blue donors. So even if you only count personal donations, they’re higher than 59th, and not everyone else is a democrat.

            And you shouldn’t only count personal donations, because the question was “why do liberals hate the Kochs” and recruiting/organizing a red political network that controls vastly more money than any individual donates seems relevant.

          • Swami says:

            I third what Mary and Jiro are saying.

            I have repeatedly asked very knowledgable progressives why they go off on the Kochs. The only answer which emerges is that they are big, identifiable figureheads supporting causes on the other side of the political spectrum.

            When I mention that the open access political system we have actually is designed to work this way, they mumble something or switch to something about existential global warming threat. When I suggest the Kochs may legitimately be worried about the existential threat of social master planners assuming control of the economy in defense of gaining control of the global thermostat, they mumble something else and wander off.

            The most obvious answer to what it is about the Kochs which sets off progressives is indeed tribalism and the need to collapse complex ideas into a single good/evil figurehead. The Kochs are the symbol in progressives minds for people they disagree with politically and thus simplistically categorize as evil.

          • mtraven says:

            Why is it so surprising that progressives would treat an enemy as an enemy?

            Progressives in general would probably prefer that billionaires have less influence on the political process, but given the realities of the situation, they will prefer billionaires who support good causes (eg Soros) to those support harmful causes (the Kochs).

            You may of course disagree with the good/bad labelling above. But please don’t express surprise that people have moral/political preferences and express them. This is a very common rhetorical move around here; I can’t tell if it is some weird kind of fakery or a genuine misapprehension about the way people work.

          • Mary says:

            “Why is it so surprising that progressives would treat an enemy as an enemy?”

            When you term someone who disagrees with you politically an enemy, you make politics utterly impossible.

            Although not unsurprising from people who have the nerve to term themselves “progressives” as if their aims were so utterly correct, and their means so obviously functional, as to make opposing them opposing all good things.

          • Ghatanathoah says:

            @mtraven

            I think the problem people here have isn’t with other people expressing their opinion that their political opponent is wrong. Rather, it is:

            -Demonizing one’s opponent and acting as if they were an Evil Mutant.
            -Acting as if one’s opponent has violated the implicit rules of the game for doing something that is both legal, and something that your side does just as often, if not more so.

          • Science says:

            David Koch lives in NYC, that bastion of leftism. He goes to all the important cultural events and galas, has his named carved into hospitals and museums all over the city, gets restaurant tables wherever and whenever he wants, and in general is treated as Scott images treating him (i.e. with great deference).

            If that’s being universally reviled as a symbol of pure evil it doesn’t sound so bad after all.

          • Swami says:

            Mtraven and Science,

            Your comments miss the mark. The point of an open access political institution is to foster dissent and contradictory positions. The gestalt of many progressives is to delegitimize dissent. As my comment reflect, almost nobody on the left has any understanding of why they hate the Kochs. They do so because others hate them. And these hate them because they are great symbols of the other side…

            Rich… check
            Capitalists….. Check
            Libertarians…. Check
            Give to republican causes…. Check

            Mary said it well. Calling your political opponents evil enemies is simply intolerant and ignorant. It is also great politics, which gets to how screwed up politics is.

            And Science, the deionizing doesn’t come from commercial enterprises in NY, it comes from non commercial progressives who demonize their supposed “enemies.”

            It really just comes down to “I hate them because they symbolize what I hate about non-progressives.” Tribalism.

          • science says:

            I get it. People are saying mean things on twitter. What I am saying is that you shouldn’t build your entire model of the world based on observing twitter.

          • Jaskologist says:

            Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid spent a lot time on the Senate floor denouncing the Kochs personally. That rises pretty far above the level of “someone being mean on twitter.”

          • Cet3 says:

            When you term someone who disagrees with you politically an enemy, you make politics utterly impossible.

            Unless you believe politics has been utterly impossible throughout the entirety of human history, this claim is wrong. Frankly, if what you said were correct, I’m not sure politics could ever be possible.

          • mtraven says:

            Call them “competitors” if the word “enemy” is too scary. People, ideas, and groups of people organized around ideas are in competition with each other. That’s life on this planet.

            “Enemy” doesn’t mean you have to kill them, but it means the stakes are high.

            Although not unsurprising from people who have the nerve to term themselves “progressives” as if their aims were so utterly correct

            Yes, people even have the nerve to make up names for their side that encapsulate their values and try to make them seem positive. Shocking, I know.

            Of course there is another faction that is explicitly anti-progress, they call themselves conservative and like to imagine themselves putting the brakes on history. So “progressive” doesn’t seem to magically make everybody fall in line.

          • Cauê says:

            Of course there is another faction that is explicitly anti-progress, they call themselves conservative and like to imagine themselves putting the brakes on history.

            Thinking your enemies accept your framing but simply choose the other side is a common trap. Probably the easiest way to identify someone failing an Ideological Turing Test.

          • mtraven says:

            As my comment reflect, almost nobody on the left has any understanding of why they hate the Kochs.

            That’s utter nonsense, the reasons for hating the Kochs are very well-known, whether or not they justify it in your eyes. I don’t know who you are talking to.

            I think I’m going to shut up and stop participating in the hijacking of this thread (politics may not be the mind killer but its an invasive species relative to other topics). Here’s some of my thoughts on rationalism and antipolitics, happy to discuss further over there.

          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            @ Cauê:

            But those who style themselves “conservatives” and “reactionaries” deliberately accept the framing created by their enemies.

            “Progress” means going forward; “reaction”, the political context, means going backward. And “conserve” means keeping things as they are.

            Now, I think the largest number of conservatives just don’t consider the implications of the term; they use it totally mindlessly (and generally don’t actually want to keep things as they are now). And I think that there is some number of conservatives (and especially, online “reactionaries”) who use it ironically in an attempt to “reclaim” the word, like “queer” or something.

            But it seems to me that there remains a sizable contingent that thinks history has some kind of inevitable progressive character—which they are against and hope to slow down as much as possible (or, for the reactionaries, reverse).

            In college, I studied under a couple of professors who were of that precise kind of conservative “stand athwart history” line. They both loved de Tocqueville and used Democracy in America as a jumping-off point. The idea was something like, “the old aristocratic, status-based model had some really great elements, but we can’t go back as history only flows in one direction; however, we can at least keep democracy and individualism from atomizing everything for some time.”

          • Mary says:

            Call them “competitors” if the word “enemy” is too scary.

            But you’ll still treat ’em as enemies.

            You yourself used the term “enemy” in order to justify behaving badly —
            Why is it so surprising that progressives would treat an enemy as an enemy? — precisely because the term “competitor” would not justify it. Rolling back on the term shows that the justification is invalid.

          • @Mary, I would argue that expressing the wish that someone would just choose to go away is well within the scope of “treating them like competitors” rather than necessarily constituting “treating them like enemies”.

          • Mary says:

            Well, go ahead and offer an argument for it. Me, I think expecting people to vanish because they compete with you falls squarely in the “enemy” quadrant, unless you’re a stunningly sore loser or winner as appropriate.

          • I’m not a business owner, but if I imagine myself – oh, let’s say running an ice-cream stall at the mall – I think I would be happy if the ice-cream stall opposite me moved to a different mall. I might even occasionally express the wish that they would do so, though probably not to their faces. 🙂

            For a real-world (albeit tongue-in-cheek) example, see the second quote here. 🙂

          • Mary says:

            False analogy. You would have to wish that they would go out of business, be unable to another business, and be unable to get a job to be the equivalent.

            “Tongue in cheek” vitiates your second example.

          • I really don’t read nearly as much viciousness into Scott’s original statement as you seem to, and it sounded at least half tongue-in-cheek to me. At this point I think we have to just disagree.

        • They are widely believed to be behind a lot of the propaganda against efforts to reduce the risk of global warming. That’s actually the only reason I even know the name, I have no idea who they are or whether they’re actually at fault, just that they’re often blamed for the number of people who don’t think global warming is a real risk.

        • Gbdub says:

          Bugmaster – The other donors aren’t that hard to find. As a comment below mentions, the Koch brothers are actually something like 59th on the list of spending for private political activists, and the majority of those ahead of them donate to Democrats. That, plus the fact that you apparently unironically believe they “directly buy” legislation, makes me question the veracity / objectivity of whatever sources you’re relying on.

          EDIT: comment meant for a bit farther up the thread.

          2nd EDIT: I’m curious where that 59th number from Mary came from. This list: https://www.opensecrets.org/overview/topindivs.php

          shows the two brothers as 10th and 25th, although it only counts donations to federal campaigns. Either way, there are several Democrats ahead of them, some way ahead. This was a 1 minute Google effort – it really isn’t hard to find other huge donors, but the only name that ever g TA smeared is the Kochs for some reason.

          • Chalid says:

            “only counts donations to federal campaigns” is a HUGE qualifier and makes the list meaningless as a measure of political influence. (Not that I have anything better.)

          • Chalid says:

            Example just from today: Carl Icahn putting $150 million to create a single-issue super-PAC, which alone is twice the amount listed for the #1 donor on the opensecrets list.

            http://www.vox.com/2015/10/21/9583646/carl-icahn-super-pac

          • RCF says:

            ““only counts donations to federal campaigns” is a HUGE qualifier and makes the list meaningless as a measure of political influence. (Not that I have anything better.)”

            Hardly meaningless How much money someone gives to federal elections gives some information as to how influential they are.

        • James Vonder Haar says:

          For me, anyway, global warming denialism is a special kind of epistemic evil. I’m pretty libertarian (hell, I interned with Heartland – not my choice, I was assigned there as part of the Koch Summer Fellow Program, which places interns at think tanks all over the country. Thankfully they had me working on school choice rather than global warming), so I generally think the median Koch intervention is likely pretty good. But advocating for policies I disagree with is one thing; taking something patently false that the overwhelming majority of experts in the field disagree with and turning it into a political football is quite another. It undermines faith in the scientific establishment, to say nothing of the scientific method itself, and sets a terrible precedent in demonstrating just how possible it is for money and politics to trump scientific inquiry.

          It’s like if some billionaires put together a huge network of think tanks and persuasive organs in order to convince half the country homeopathy works. Even if homeopathy doesn’t really harm that many people because it rarely displaces legitimate medical treatment, such a campaign is an insult to reason. A rationalist like Scott would have particular antipathy for it.

          • Jaskologist says:

            Submitted for consideration: Al Gore has done more to mobilize the anti-global warming position than anybody else.

          • ” taking something patently false that the overwhelming majority of experts in the field disagree with and turning it into a political football is quite another.”

            I don’t know what particular campaigns that the Kochs are associated with you are thinking of. The claim that global temperatures have trended up and that human produced GHGs are probably at least part of the reason comes pretty close to meeting your standard. The claim that humans are the main cause and that the IPCC modeling is reliable doesn’t. The claim that we can expect AGW, if nothing is done about it, to have very large net negative effects clearly doesn’t.

            It’s the final version that I believe Obama asserted with a 97% agreement claim. If you have any evidence to support that I would like to see it. Neither Cook et. al. 2013 nor Anderegg comes anywhere close.

          • Pete says:

            @Jaksologist

            As someone who accepts the fact that Global Warming is happening in the way the scientists are telling us, I dislike Al Gore more than the Koch brothers.

            Then again, I’m weird and always tend to dislike people who argue for things I believe in poorly more than people who argue against what I believe in. An Inconvenient Truth is terrible propaganda, and it makes it so easy to deniers to attack.

            I think the glee with which people use Global Warming to attack business also does harm. If we are going to solve the problem, the solution will almost certainly have to be technological, as you’re not going to convince 7 billion plus people in approximately 200 countries to voluntarily reduce their quality of life.

          • @David: that isn’t the conclusion that I usually see promoted. Generally, people seem to be insisting that AGW doesn’t exist, or if it does, it definitely won’t have any significant impact, and anyway, it definitely can’t possibly be anything we should worry about yet, so shut up and let everyone pollute as much as they like.

            (Whether or not the Koch brothers are actually to blame for that is another matter.)

            (It is also possible that I am frequently misinterpreting people’s conclusions, because they take a different view on risk management and/or are making different unstated assumptions about the cost of managing GW risk.)

          • Muga Sofer says:

            It undermines faith in the scientific establishment

            I don’t understand this criticism. I mean, Scott has written extensively on the failing of the scientific establishment, and most scientists would loudly deride the idea that their work should be taken on “faith”.

          • Deiseach says:

            But why are they fighting the science? If it’s a simple matter of “Scientists agree that – ” and you can show the figures, then what is the reason for funding campaigns against it, apart from “They’re Evil, is why”?

            This idea of science-hating for the sake of it because, um, the right-wingers are trying to appeal to the bitter clingers who are pro-God and guns and anti-gays?

            That sounds to me like classism at the least (poor rednecks who are too dumb to understand science and are whipped up by demagogues) and somewhat lacking in fact but relying more on “Our tribe are Nice, their tribe are Evil”.

          • James Picone says:

            @Deiseach:
            Have you /ever/ been in an argument with someone who disagrees with a widely-held scientific position and then backs down when you present data?

            Because I sure haven’t.

          • Nicholas Carter says:

            @Deiseach
            The Koch brothers stand to lose a tremendous amount of money if belief in ACC leads to a change in EPA regulations and tax codes.

          • On the question of whether people who demonize the Koch brothers know much about them …

            My impression is that most of the attackers imagine the Kochs to be conservatives, most don’t know their longstanding positions on issues where libertarians disagree with conservatives. I note that someone here (Picone? Not sure) said something to the effect that almost everything the Kochs are for he is against. That’s quite unlikely to be true, although of course I don’t know his views on those issues where libertarians tend to agree with liberals/progressives/leftists/… . That would include immigration (except we are more extreme than they are), drugs, foreign policy.

          • Chalid says:

            While the Kochs have social liberal views, as a practical matter they care much more about economic conservatism, which means they almost uniformly support social conservatives for office. So they’ve moved the country in a social conservative direction and are “bad” from a social liberal POV.

          • RCF says:

            @Muga Sofer

            “most scientists would loudly deride the idea that their work should be taken on “faith”.”

            You’re equivocating on the word “faith”.

          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            @ RCF:

            Right. In this context, “faith” in the scientific establishment means “rational trust, based on indirect evidence”. It’s the “faith” I have that Scott isn’t totally making everything up when he talks about studies he claims to have read. I’m not going to read the studies; nevertheless, I have rational confidence that he has.

            Not that I think the Koch brothers are undermining rational trust in science in any pernicious way!

      • Peter says:

        It’s a Wednesday (see a paragraph or two above the graph), so yep, liberal. Perhaps if he’d delayed a day we’d have had some other figure.

    • Octavian says:

      So writing mega-posts about lines of neoreactionary thought is fine, but taking a few jabs at the Koch Brothers in an otherwise non-political post is “blatant signalling to the ThinkProgress readership” ?

      • gbdub says:

        I think it’s more that neoreactionary ideas get thoughtful mega-posts, while this is a snide jab at a pair of environmentalist/liberal bogeymen – kind of out of character.

      • Anonymous says:

        To be fair, there’s a certain line of thought where the two are different. Addressing a line of reasoning (not to mention ultimately rejecting it) doesn’t equal endorsement of the ideals in question, but it’s hard to find of reading of this post that isn’t “I dislike the koch brothers and think they are ‘Bad people’ who do ‘Bad things'”.

      • Randy M says:

        Speaking as a righty, I like his (typically thought-provoking) megaposts much more than the few jabs for signalling.

    • jeorgun says:

      It struck me as being way out of left field (hah) too, but since Scott’s talked a lot about the importance of global-warming-as-X-risk before, it makes sense he’d have an uncharacteristically strong negative reaction to climate skepticism.

      • I take it as evidence that not even Scott can manage to overcome all of the “people I identify with say it so it must be true” instinct.

        • SpaghettiLee says:

          Don’t you think that’s extremely uncharitable on your own end, assuming that his views simply must be compromised somehow? Swap out the Koch Brothers for Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton and is it still just ‘instinct’, just ‘ritual’, in your opinion?

          • Nathan says:

            I don’t think it is unfair. Scott’s written a lot on a lot of different subjects but as far as I know he’s never examined the subject of climate science in depth. Which is fine obviously, no one has time to investigate every single issue in depth themselves. But it does seem that he’s basing his opinions on the opinions of others rather than his own critical thinking in this instance.

            I think it’s natural to draw a line somewhere beyond which you say “These ideas are clearly crazy and I don’t feel compelled to put in the effort to investigate their claims fully before ridiculing them”. I feel that way towards 9/11 trutherism for example. But to a fair extent where you decide to put that line depends a lot on the groups you hang out with and the people you respect. Most people would out of hand reject the idea of computers becoming suddenly super intelligent and killing us all in the same way, but for whatever reason Scott decided that one was worth considering. I’m only guessing but I would say that the idea being taken seriously by people he respected would have had something to do with it.

            I would personally quite like to see Scott move climate scepticism from his out-of-hand-dismissal basket to his worth-investigating basket. I think if he took a fair minded look at the subject he would at the least come away with more respect for those on the other side of the debate.

          • Stuart Armstrong says:

            Nathan, Scott has posted on Global Warming before: http://slatestarcodex.com/2014/07/02/how-common-are-science-failures/

        • Anonymous Bosch says:

          Alternatively, perhaps he’s taken a look at the balance of evidence and decided the negative case is not very strong?

          • If he had spent much time looking at the full range of argument, he would almost certainly, being Scott, have found something interesting to say about it, whether pro or anti the critical position.

    • Nornagest says:

      Yeah, not something I expected to hear from Scott. Are we just using them as a sort of totemic example of People We Hate, or does Scott actually have beef with them for some reason?

      • Jaskologist says:

        The Reign of Terror morphed into “send libertarians to the gulag!” in record time.

        • Dude Man says:

          This seems like an overreaction. One jab at a pair of famous libertarians and now you’re comparing Scott to Stalin?

          • Peter says:

            I don’t think that Scott has even banned the Koch brothers from the SSC comment section. I’m sure that if they were to turn up here and present their case in a polite and civil (and relevant and competently-argued) manner then they’d avoid being banned. Strongly disagreed with in no uncertain terms, but they’d have to be pretty virulent to avoid getting banned.

        • Yeah, I’m a libertarian PhD student, and last year I had a modest fellowship from an organization that gets Koch money. I read Scott’s comment and thought, “wait, so Scott wants the Kochs to go to North Korea so they’ll stop funding…me?” It seemed a departure from his usual evenhanded style.

    • SpaghettiLee says:

      Were the long and detailed, and arguably not maximally-kind-nor-maximally-charitable* deconstructions of various liberal and progressive figures just “attempts to impress the Reddit crowd”?

      I mean, Scott’s not a conservative or a reactionary. He’s said so many times. He’s sympathetic to them, he thinks they deserve to be taken seriously, but he doesn’t agree with them on various things. He disagrees with his more left-wing readers, including me, on various things, and we accept that and still find him interesting and valuable to read.

      Yeah, the jab itself was kind of surprising, but he’s got the right to think it and it shouldn’t really surprise anyone. Sometimes you can just say “I’m not fond of these people” and not be obligated to write 3,000 words on the topic (for the record, I would read that.) And yes, people can disagree with you without it being a craven attempt at sucking up to the Not-You Tribe.

      *-This might cause some agita, so all I’m saying is that they would–and have–taken those pieces as being just as hostile and unfair as you’re taking this one about the Kochs. That’s why I said arguably, not ‘objectively’ or ‘obviously’.

      • Jiro says:

        Scott’s not a conservative or a reactionary. He’s said so many times.

        Taking a potshot at a liberal bogeyman whose crime is supporting the wrong tribe by using the same tactics nobody cares about when done by the right tribe is consistent with Scott being a liberal, but not consistent with Scott being a thoughtful liberal. And *that’s* what he seems to be, most of the time.

        • anonymous says:

          Maybe if you whine about it ten more times you’ll bully Scott into not writing things that don’t meet your ideological litmus test in the future.

          They you can continue to complain about how he is letting his Blue Tribe friends influence him.

          • Jaskologist says:

            If once you have paid the Dane-geld, you never get rid of the Dane, and then a lot of other people want in on the gelding action, too.

          • LHN says:

            Kipling can say that, but, e.g., the Byzantines sure outlasted a lot of folks they paid enormous gold bribes to.

            (If they’d chosen a firm “millions for defense, not one red as for tribute” policy instead, it seems unlikely they’d have made it to 1453.)

          • Nornagest says:

            Tribute works pretty well when you’re a stable, prosperous civilization in the middle of a bunch of poor, unstable, but militarily threatening ones. I don’t think it’d work as well in great-power politics.

          • Protagoras says:

            Worked for the Byzantines (and lots of groups) partly because the second half of what Jask said couldn’t be more wrong; if you’re paying the Dane, the Dane will likely fight to stop anybody else who tries to get a cut of their action.

          • I agree with LHN’s basic point. But note that the Byzantines had an improved version of Danegeld–pay one of your enemies to attack another one of your enemies instead of attacking you.

            And, of course, Kipling’s reference was to the Saxon kingdoms in England, not to the Byzantines. I’m not sure he was wrong for that case.

          • John Schilling says:

            The Byzantine empire was also in a fairly steady state of decline throughout the bribe-paying period, culminating in the sack of Constantinople in 1204. The city-state that existed after that event was no empire, nor ever called itself Byzantine, so “they made it to 1453” is somewhat of a stretch.

            And they never did get rid of the Danes, whether of the Turkish or Frankish variety.

    • Dale says:

      Presumably Scott is concerned that North Korea lacks free markets, gay marriage, individual rights and so on, and hopes that Charles and David can become agents of change there.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I needed an example of people who were very rich and famous but who I wouldn’t mind leaving the country. Most other choices would have been even more controversial than that.

      • E. Harding says:

        Sheldon Adelson? The Pope? The Emperor of North Korea himself? Afewerki?

        • Nathan says:

          Donald Trump? Kim Kardashian? Paris Hilton?

        • Scott Alexander says:

          Not 100% sure who Adelson is but think he’s a big Republican donor; if so, not sure how that’s better than Koch brothers, and in fact seems worse since I’m saying I’m against Republicanism rather than anti-climate-change-ism per se.

          The Pope and Kim Jong-un aren’t part of our society (America? Vague gestures at ‘the liberal West’?) and so can’t defect from it. Trump is getting used as a punching bag too much already and I don’t have the same level of particular thing about him that I dislike. Hilton and the Kardashians are people whom I don’t care about and don’t have any active wish to see them go to North Korea, which makes them less good.

        • JuanPeron says:

          A good example needed to be not just rich and famous, but someone Scott would have a prestige reaction to. Adelson, Afewerki, and Jong-Un probably fail that test. The current Pope fails just about everyone’s ‘exile’ test except Catholic hardliners.

          I’m actually struggling with other good examples, except major politicians from your personal outgroup.

      • You wouldn’t mind a substantial reduction in funding for libertarian views, including opposition to the War on Drugs and aggressive foreign policy?

        • Jaskologist says:

          I always think of the venom directed at the Kochs when I see somebody claim that the winning strategy for the right would be to abandon social conservatism and just go with the fiscal side.

          • Randy M says:

            That’s what the Tea Party was (well, that and olde timey hats) and they became a punching bag in 0.4 media cycles flat.

          • John Schilling says:

            No; Tea Party was big on both social and fiscal conservatism. These are the people who think it matters where Barack Obama was born and what his religion is; that’s not social liberalism or even social apathy. Organized Tea Party movements (hah!) have tactially avoided making platform statements on hot-button social issues like abortion and gay marriage, but the leadership and membership is overwhelmingly social conservative and party discipline is too weak to avoid signaling that this is part of what they are about.

          • Randy M says:

            It was weakly organized as you say, but by and large the focus was on fiscal discipline and not on social issues. The impetus for it was the bailouts of 08-09; it was the occupy of the middle class inasmuch as it was started out of a feeling of economic unfairness, not moral crusading.
            It was a good test case for the republican strategists who insist that they stand a better chance at winning if their party does not camapaign on social issues but keeps the fiscal discipline which, the story goes, has broad support the social issues lack.
            In truth, the Republican party is/was a coalition of various groups that lacked majority support for their causes individually.

      • Metafilterian says:

        What about that noted misogynist Scott Alexander? I bet he’d defect to North Korea of they let him do eugenics experiments.

    • Vamair says:

      As a person who got almost all the info about Koch brothers from this blog, here I’ve felt they were just an example of prestigious people the author doesn’t like. I’m more than a little bit surprised this example has dominated the comments.

    • James Picone says:

      For all the complaining about Evil Lefties Influencing Scott, you guys sure do complain a lot about minor writing decisions.

    • Deiseach says:

      I’m getting to the point of cynicism where I think it’s all politically-tinged; the Koch Brothers are conservatives, or associated with conservatives, or are praised by conservatives, and this means right-wing, which means “socially conservative (and probably Bible-bashing bigots at that!”) and that means THEY WANT TO STOP ME HAVING SEX! (AND/OR FORCE ME TO HAVE BABIES AS WELL, IF I AM A PERSON BOTH CAPABLE OF BEARING CHILDREN AND ENGAGING IN THE KIND OF SEX THAT LEADS TO REPRODUCTION IF CONTRACEPTION/ABORTION ARE NOT AVAILABLE!)

      I don’t know anything about the Koch Brothers, and I don’t know their politics or other beliefs, and it is perfectly possible to be socially liberal and fiscally conservative (sure, use contraception and indeed if necessary abortion! In fact, we insist you do so because we don’t want you to take time off from being 24/7 available for work in order to have and bring up your squawling brat!)

      But yes, the cynical part of me thinks if they only made splashy big donations to Marriage Equality campaigns or hosted an event for Planned Parenthood, suddenly all the Evil Conservative Right-Wingers publicity would become very muted, even if they still were climate-change skeptics.

      • Scott Alexander says:

        As far as I know, the Koch brothers are libertarian and likely to be okay with abortion.

        Some people actually genuinely care about environmental catastrophes that could kill millions. Or at least signal caring about it in a primary rather than secondary way.

        • Kromer says:

          I sincerely encourage you to take David Friedman’s bait and dive into the “lukewarmer” arguments in your customary thoughtful manner.

          Even taking the more aggressive IPCC warming projections at face value (and blogs like Friedman’s and Ridley’s do contain compelling critiques,) the utilitarian in you has to acknowledge that the kind of action required to materially reduce emissions has very real tradeoffs in human welfare today. I think arguments about those tradeoffs are signals worth amplifying, versus demonizing.

          e.g.

          100 million + people worldwide are still cooking inside with wood/dung/charcoal. The WHO claims the outlandish figure of 4.3 million deaths per year from this type of household air pollution. I cant vouch for the veracity of that estimate, but if it is in the order of magnitude of being correct it suggests a course of action in some ways contrary to the common AGW prescriptions.

          • Linch says:

            The utilitarian in Scott has also to be wary of bias in the OTHER direction (ie, significantly more than 2-4 degrees).

            “Global warning as X-risk” rather than a “mere” catastrophic risk will require the possibility of fat tails. This seems intuitively plausible to me.

        • E. Harding says:

          “Some people actually genuinely care about environmental catastrophes that could kill millions. Or at least signal caring about it in a primary rather than secondary way”

          -Is this the Copenhagen interpretation of ethics you linked to? That’s the way you worded it sounds.

      • Jiro says:

        But yes, the cynical part of me thinks if they only made splashy big donations to Marriage Equality campaigns or hosted an event for Planned Parenthood, suddenly all the Evil Conservative Right-Wingers publicity would become very muted, even if they still were climate-change skeptics.

        Probably doesn’t count as flashy enough. But it’s like saying that if the worker ants had a bunch of female/minority supporters speak up, the SJWs would stop saying that the worker ants are misogynist. No, they wouldn’t. They’d just ignore the contrary evidence.

        • Peter says:

          s/wouldn’t/didn’t, of course. There was a whole submovement specifically devoted to speaking up while female/minority (well, unless you believe the theory some in the other side put about about them all being sockpuppets, but I don’t), and they weren’t always ignored as such, although there were dismissed in a variety of ways.

          I’m not sure the analogy quite works completely; there are similarities, but the way demographics interact with movements that claim to speak for those demographics has lots of complications of its own.

        • Nicholas Carter says:

          It’s an explicit, if not absolutely accepted, doctrine that women and minorities are capable of being misogynistic and or racist either epistemically (they hold beliefs about the lack of value or equality regarding their own group) or from a perspective of utility (they are incentivized to turn on their own demographic). This is complicated by the claim that only members of that same group may publicly signal whose behavior is misogynistic, but nothing stops a woman from saying “I hear those women saying that. Those women are misogynistic.”

          • RCF says:

            “It’s an explicit, if not absolutely accepted, doctrine that women and minorities are capable of being misogynistic and or racist”

            But not racist against whites, of course, because “racist” can only refer to ethnic prejudice against non-whites.

          • Nicholas says:

            Firstly, not sure how this is relevant.
            Secondly, this has to do with a redefinition of racism to be a question of societal institutions and cultural attitudes that encourage and benefit from a disparity in the prestige and resource access of groups based on their race. This brings us to a fact claim, that white people and men (and the conjunct) are the groups that the societal institutions and cultural attitudes of the poster’s home are deliver the greater half of an asymmetric distribution of prestige and resources.

        • The Kochs have given hundreds of millions to fund cancer research.

          “David Koch supports PBS’ documentary series “Nova.” He also is a paleo-philanthropist, having given $15 million to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History for a Hall of Human Origins and another $35 million to update its fossil and dinosaur displays in Washington, D.C. New York’s American Museum of Natural History will enjoy a new Dinosaur Wing, thanks to David’s $20 million gift.”

          Obviously part of a plot to conceal their true anti-evolution beliefs.

      • stillnotking says:

        The Koch brothers are not social conservatives; their focus is on foreign and fiscal policy. Think Heritage Foundation, if you know that group — they were very chummy with Thatcher.

        I doubt the Kochs could buy themselves any love with the American left by any means short of suicide, at this point. They are the quintessential bogeymen of US liberalism. It’s kind of interesting, in fact, that they attained that status despite not fitting the mouth-breathing social conservative stereotype. Probably says something about stated versus revealed priorities.

        • Linch says:

          “Upon a careful look at the prevailing evidence, Charles and I have decided that anthropogenic global warming is real, and presents a significant challenge to future human flourishing. I recognize that this might come as a shock to our shareholders and other constituents, and can only request that they give the evidence as careful a look as we have.

          While we still believe that an ideal world is libertarian, right now climate change is such a pressing concern that we have no choice but to support the only legitimate candidate that is willing to do anything about it. Starting today, we intend to throw the resources and manpower of the Koch corporation into support of the campaign of Bernie Sanders. #feelthebern”

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            Starting today, we intend to throw the resources and manpower of the Koch corporation into support of the campaign of Bernie Sanders. #feelthebern”

            Being too lazy to Google for it, I expect that in 2000 they supported Ralph Nader. Perhaps not so openly.

        • Vox Imperatoris says:

          @ stillnotking:

          Slight correction: the Heritage Foundation is most definitely a socially conservative institution. They support the mainstream Republican position on (almost) everything.

          The Koch brothers may well give them money (I don’t know if they do or not), but they disagree with many of Heritage’s Positions. For example, they support gay marriage, open borders, and a less interventionist foreign policy. Heritage is against gay marriage, constantly comes up with specious studies showing how illegal immigrants are criminal maniacs, and supports an aggressive foreign policy.

          The libertarian Cato Institute is much more in line with the Kochs’ views…which makes sense, as Charles Koch was a co-founder (as the money man, along with Ed Crane the manager and Murray Rothbard the ideas man). Cato would not exist without the Kochs.

          As someone at Cato once pointed out to me, the essential difference between them and Heritage can be seen in the portraits they hang on the walls of the lobby. At Cato, you see libertarian economists and philosophers: Rand, Mises, Bastiat, etc. At Heritage, you see Republican politicians. That difference applies not just to their ideology, but also to their methods.

          The Koch brothers, as is logical, have both a short-term and a long-term game plan. In the short term, they (like myself) judge the Republicans to be a lesser evil than the Democrats, and (unlike myself) they have lots of money to spend, so they try to get Republicans elected. And with groups like the Club for Growth, they try to make sure more economically libertarian Republicans win primaries.

          In the long term, they attempt to shift the Overton Window and make things like drug legalization, open borders, and the gold standard politically tenable. This is the purpose of places like the Cato Institute and the Mercatus Center at GMU, which are full of abstract thinkers who write papers defending these kinds of ideas in the intellectual community.

          • hardly_matters says:

            >In the long term, they attempt to shift the Overton Window and make things like…the gold standard politically tenable

            Wait…*what*?

      • ivvenalis says:

        I think you meant “Bible-thumping“. Completely opposite meaning! Get your emotionally loaded political catchphrases correct, sheesh.

        (Does the term “bible thumper” not exist in Ireland?. On reflection, it does sound distinctly American, somehow.)

        • Winter Shaker says:

          Pretty sure I’ve always understood ‘bible-thumping’ and ‘bible-bashing’ to be synonymous (with the latter being more common) … but then I’m from the next country along from Deiseach, and I’ll agree that the meaning of ‘bible-bashing’ does invert the pattern of the usual ‘[X]-bashing’ construction.

          Of course, I can’t resist now linking to this sexy alternative 🙂

      • Ptoliporthos says:

        It doesn’t matter whether you donated to support proposition 8 (like Eich) or to oppose it (like the Kochs). Once Big Brother decides you’re an unperson, you’ve always been an unperson.

      • JuanPeron says:

        For whatever it’s worth, the Kochs are major donors to educational institutions, cancer research, and art organizations. David Koch personally funded a season of Nova on PBS. Koch industries funds legal defense for low-income defendants, which Obama praised them for. The brothers are pro-choice, pro-gay marriage libertarians to boot.

        I think on this example at least, the cynical view is wrong. The Kochs have hit almost every socially liberal note imaginable, which implies that the opposition is for the stated reasons.

    • Sigivald says:

      I was gonna say, “What? Does their support for gay marriage and drug legalization offend you? And why would they defect to the most authoritarian place on Earth?”

      I mean, sure, they’re The Wicked Other for the Left at the moment (remember when it was Halliburton? Good times.), and thus ideal for someone to shun for in-group signaling reasons, but …

  2. Dominic says:

    I don’t buy su3su2u1’s challenge at all. Of course it’s hard to tell what the signaling norms of those three groups are from the outside. I’m sure you learn very quickly once you’re a member.

    I’m in tech. The signaling that goes on here is not subtle at all, but I doubt someone who hasn’t worked in this industry could guess which groups are bragging about their cars, which ones wear funky socks, which ones join expensive social clubs, etc. Doesn’t mean they’re hard to use in practice (except if you’re unfamiliar with the norms).

    • PSJ says:

      But the whole point is that once you’re inside, you’re just making post-hoc observations, which isn’t in fact explanatory at all.

      • baconbacon says:

        It could still be explanatory for new members and unobserved interactions. You almost always need details to solve a problem. How far can I throw this ball? What angle/speed/planet am I on?

      • Scott Alexander says:

        Perhaps status symbols are necessarily at least a little anti-inductive, because of the trouble with being seen as a transparent status-climber? But then, what about the cases where we do think we know something about status symbols?

        • Alrenous says:

          Symbols have to be obtuse or they’re easy to spoof. If elite philosophers can pretend to be high-status programmers but elite programmers can’t pretend to be high-status philosophers, the philosophers are going to eat the programmers through free-riding on their high-status perks. Thus, selection.

      • JE says:

        Does needing to know which item is hotter before you know which way the heat will flow mean that thermodynamics doesn’t have explanatory power? I don’t see why signaling theory ought to be able to say anything about which group wears fancy jewelry without know the cost of fancy jewelry, and the income of the three groups.

    • Aegeus says:

      That’s exactly the problem – you can only recognize status symbols by seeing them in use by high-status people. You can’t make any predictions of what the status symbols will be in advance. Looking at the status symbols that currently exist and saying “Yup, that’s a status symbol alright” is not exactly a stunning achievement.

      We want to know why things become a status symbol. Why funky socks and not fancy cars? Why did they catch on in that group, but not another? Will funky socks go out of fashion and be replaced by, say, funky gloves?

      • Orphan Wilde says:

        Scarcity and difficulty of acquisition, or otherwise high entry cost. Status symbols set the people who acquire them apart; as they then become easier to obtain (due to market forces), they cease to do this, and they have to find something else.

      • We would like to know why things become status symbols, but I don’t think you have to be able to answer that particular question in order to say interesting and predictive things about people seeking status.

      • Dominic says:

        OK, that makes some sense to me (I didn’t see the problem framed that way).

        This is an interesting, um, sociological exercise. But given the diverse contexts, outside influence, and path dependence I’m pretty skeptical anything other than vague predictions are possible.

      • Leonard says:

        If it were generally possible (i.e.: scientifically) to predict which things would become status symbols, they wouldn’t be status symbols. Because everyone would Do Science and predict them; this implies everyone would gain status, which is impossible because status is zero sum.

        Thus, status symbols must, by their nature, not be predictable, or at best they can only be predictable by a minority. And not via anything nerds can replicate — which emphatically rules out science.

        • Izaak Weiss says:

          Status symbols, therefore, can be thought of stocks on a large status stock market that obeys the efficient market hypothesis.

        • RCF says:

          “which is impossible because status is zero sum.”

          Is it? I sometimes wonder whether once we’ve reached post-scarcity, the last task of our armies of robot slaves will be to stand around being low-status. If everyone has 99 robots, can we all be part of the 1%?

          • For a real world example of the use of robots to provide people with status, consider World of Warcraft, especially the latest expansion. The player is the hero leading the good guy efforts, interacting with and praised by the other top people on his side. Large parts of his interaction are with NPC’s, many of them fawning admiringly on him. For an older equivalent, consider dogs.

            Even limiting the relevant population to humans, status isn’t zero sum. For a discussion of why, see:

            http://daviddfriedman.blogspot.com/2006/10/economics-of-status.html

          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            @ David Friedman:

            Yes, video games (and tabletop RPGs) are great at this sort of thing.

            Eve Online has an interesting way of doing it, even more indirectly. One of the problems with MMOs is that, unlike in a single-player game, you cannot be the top dog world-saving hero. Things don’t revolve around you.

            But the game’s fictional backstory (which is quite extensive and well-developed) establishes that only a tiny percentage of humans is physiologically capable of becoming a “capsuleer” (a pilot of the kind of ships players fly)—and that even the poorest capsuleer has more money than almost all normal people will see in their lifetimes. The setting and the quest dialogues give this notion a fair degree of verisimilitude, too (unlike City of Heroes, a game where everyone is a caped superhero).

            So, depending on how seriously people immerse themselves in this, it mitigates against the incredible economic and political inequality among players in the game.

      • Wat. Gold, golden jewelry, bling bling worked as a reliable status symbol for thousands of years, still works everywhere from India to Ukraine to US ghetto blacks, basically everywhere but the white western elites because they want something more special.

        I get it, there is this elite who constantly invents new and new status symbols. But they are the exception, not the rule. The rule is status symbols being EXTREMELY reliable. Got gold? Got precious stones? Got a horse, later on, a car, later on, an expensive car? Sword? Some title before your name that suggests links to government power, like “knight” or “geheimrat” ?

        Status symbols are usually, typically extremely simple and stable, because they translate either directly into sheer power, or indirectly through money. It is all about fear me because I have a big club, except actually scaring people is not nice, so you just wear a gold chain that sends the message you could buy a really big club and thus people get only a little scared, which translates to prestige and eminence and “voluntary” submission, not dominance and fear.

        Except for this one educated white western group with the complicated, ever-changing status arms races.

        Another issue is that precisely this one group (hint: most of you guys are members of it and most of who you know, too) tends to deny that status means power/fearsomeness at some level. It always does, just in this group this is hidden in many, many layers of abstraction. But in a simpler societies the gold chain in your neck is a more or less a “don’t try messing with me” signal. Just not so outright and not so uncivilized and unfriendly as wearing a Glock in your neck instead.

        Try running around wearing a business suit in, IDK, for example Kyiv, Ukraine and talk with blue-collars. They will talk to you with that “beware, this guy could have me fired, be better cautious” attitude. Status advertises power.

        • Scott Alexander says:

          I don’t think it’s that simple. Yes, there are some cultures where gold jewelery signifies status. But there are others where it signifies low status, trying too hard, being gauche, etc. If Carly Fiorina were to come to the Republican debate loaded down with gold jewelery, everybody would laugh at her.

          When you say it works “everywhere but white western elites” – well, first of all, I doubt it would fly in Beijing. Second of all, white western elites are pretty important. So it sounds like you’re saying “it works everywhere except where it doesn’t”, which is exactly the problem.

          I think we can do better by pointing out that it might be a general-ish rule that gold jewelery works everywhere except where people have enough money that even the middle class could get it if they really wanted to (and possibly also places with high emphasis on equality where people showing that they’re rich are treated as defectors). But if you told me “in Morocco, only the middle class wears gold jewelery”, I would believe you without a second thought. And if you told me “Among the wives of oilmen in Texas, gold jewelery is a status symbol,” I’d believe that too.

          As for power/fearsomeness, that’s exactly what this whole article is trying to debunk. How fearsome are David Bowie or Justin Bieber?

          • I would propose the counter-theory that gold jewelry works everywhere where people are OK with most of status coming from dominance, as it directly translates to money and money to power, usually. And these things stack well, there is never too much. Such groups can be identified by e.g. military leaders (dom) having very high status and e.g. singers not so high (pres).

            While it does not work in groups that explicity dislike dominant status (dislike oppression, repression and so on), where having a mil. general as a father-in-law is not really super cool, but having a rock star as father-in-law is super cool. In these circles prestige-status it is, and that does not stack.

            Why exactly prestige-status does not stack i.e. why your Zebra Stripes theory works for these groups is probably because prestige can be merited. Power not. Power stacks. Two guns are better that one. Merited things don’t really stack, if a singer has one very good song, just singing it all the time or making slightly different copies of it makes people go “aw, this is all you can do? you ran out of creative talent quickly”. you probably know that guy who has three jokes and tells them to. every. single. new. person. he. meets.

            David Bowie isn’t fearsome, but he and his admirers are the products of 2-300 years of Western liberalism whose main goal was to throw out dominant status (repression) and replace it with prestige status.

            This is an exception, but of course right, a hugely important one. I am just trying to tell it is not an evolutionary thing but recent.

            David Bowie gained prestige status by merit, by demonstrating talent. This probably requires variety, as he has to show off his music skills from many angles. A singer whose every song is a slightly different copy of the first hit never gets really, really famous. The variety of prestige / merit status is probably a way to demonstrate its genuinity.

          • moridinamael says:

            I feel like the whole gold jewelry discussion is a red herring. Who cares? Why should a prestige theory make predictions about specific fashions in specific times about specific groups?

            Or, put another way, I would need to know more information than just “group A is more prestigious than group B” to know what fashions group A will exhibit. I would need more data points for interpolation. Tell me who among Oprah, the First Lady, Beyonce, Carly Fiorina, Serena Williams, and Melinda Gates wears gold jewelry, and I might be able to give you a prediction better than guessing.

          • Jiro says:

            But if you told me “in Morocco, only the middle class wears gold jewelery”, I would believe you without a second thought. And if you told me “Among the wives of oilmen in Texas, gold jewelery is a status symbol,” I’d believe that too.

            Striping would imply that either of these is plausible, but you may not be able to tell a priori where the stripes are.

          • Murphy says:

            There also seems to be a lot of grey areas and intersections between dominance and prestige.

            Someone can have prestige for being a self made billionaire, they also have dominance in that the wealth grants a great deal of power.

            Someone can have prestige for being an amazing martial artist, they also have dominance in that the skill grants the physical ability to beat the hell out of someone.

            Ditto, there’s prestige in being an amazing sniper.

            Hell, I can think of someone I know who held quite a bit of prestige for skill at asserting dominance over groups. (nice guy, worked as a social worker, was a master of taking control of groups of unruly teens and getting them to do exactly what he wanted under their own power while playing the Drill Sergeant)

  3. Fazathra says:

    It could simply be that our systems of understanding and reacting to prestige are designed for small hunter gatherer bands where flattery and tit-for-tat are actually possible, but they don’t work so well in today’s world of mass media advertising. Justin Bieber et al could basically be prestige superstimuli.

    • Earthly Knight says:

      Also consider that the Pleistocene equivalent of Justin Bieber may have been the one guy who knows how to make good fishing nets. We lose relatively little if Bieber defects to North Korea, but losing a craftsman with unique skills to the tribe down the coast could be a disaster, both because food shortages might ensue and because others might follow him and fracture the tribe. Better to keep him placated, if at all possible. So the good-of-the-tribe hypothesis, like the reciprocal altruism hypothesis, also seems more plausible in an environment more typical for our ancestors.

      • John Schilling says:

        But there are people in the real world who are a much closer match to “guy who knows how to make good fishing nets” than any entertainer, and they get relatively little prestige as a class and almost none as individuals.

        • Mary says:

          Are they still unique?

          For that matter, is it feasible to recognize who they are nowadays?

        • John Schilling says:

          Yes and yes. We generally don’t recognize them as individuals, but fate and fame are fickle. Nikolai Tesla, Wilbur and Orville, Werner von Braun, a few others both irreplaceably unique and broadly renowned. Lots more uniquely talented people making major contributions and never heard of outside their own field. Even the famous ones don’t get to be rock-star glamorous, and I’m pretty sure there are no groupies involved.

          And then there’s the relative fame of the two Apple Steves, as an indicator of society’s valuation of making fishing possible vs. making fishing entertaining and cool.

        • Sokka says:

          That seems in line with the “superstimulus” concept. We see people like that as a-dime-a-dozen. Celebrities are curated by popular media, where you have a constant and unnatural stream of information reminding you how prestigious these people are. It messes with your sensitivity.

        • birdboy2000 says:

          He doesn’t match to the guy who makes good fishing nets, but to the oral poet – the guy in charge of both your entertainment and a good chunk of your history.

        • Earthly Knight says:

          I think the value humans invest in artistic talents is in general fairly mysterious, but this is really a separate issue. Scott could just have easily used Musk or Thomas Edison or Archimedes for the example, in which case the analogy to the net-maker is perfectly precise. The important features are a) that we prize the skill, for whatever reason, and b) that the skill is rare enough that a smallish tribe is unlikely to have a back-up.

          If you’re concerned about the hordes of faceless artisans and engineers, it might be useful to think of it this way: you will respect someone a lot more if you find out that, for whatever x, they are the best x around. This could be the best mechanic in town, the best mathematician at the university, the best director in hollywood, or the biggest tween star in the world. “Around” just had a much smaller scope in our evolutionary past.

          • John Schilling says:

            But the best mechanic in town and the best mathematician at the university have little prestige among anyone but the local car geeks and mathematicians, respectively. The best local entertainers have broad local fame. And on the bigger stage, there are people who are the best scientists, engineers, inventors, period. They mostly aren’t famous either.

            They mostly aren’t famous even when their works are. How many people, even here, can name the people who designed the Falcon rocket, the Dragon spaceship, or the Tesla automobile?

            I can come up with some plausible-sounding hypotheses for why this might be, but it pretty clearly is the case that fame and prestige, while positively correlated with aptitude and achievement, are weakly or even negatively correlated with the relative practical utility of the achievements. It isn’t the guy who makes the best fishing nets who gets the prestige, it’s the guy who tells the best fishing tales.

          • Nicholas Carter says:

            Hence the argument that this is, essentially, a malfunction. In an earlier environment your local best mechanic is the best out of all the mechanics you will ever meet. He is the mechanic who will receive the most prestige from you. The skill of the other communities’ mechanics is irrelevant, because they are outside your community.
            The idea is that because certain services (music, for example) can scale really well to the multi-community model, they have produced an imbalance in the local landscape and distorted my perception of who I’m supposed to be prestigeing and why.

          • John Schilling says:

            Right. Wilbur and Orville were the best bicycle mechanics and amateur aerodynamicists in Dayton, but that sort of thing doesn’t scale very well and so nobody outside Ohio has any reason to know who they are. Steve and Steve were once the best small-computer builders and salesmen in San Jose, but same principle applies and they never gained any influence outside of California.

            Wait, what was the thesis we were agreeing with again?

            In the industrial age, and perhaps even more so in the information age, scientific and engineering skill and general inventiveness scale really well. More so even than entertainment, because there’s a premium for personal performance in entertainment but no advantage whatsoever to having the Woz himself personally solder the circuit boards on your Mac. But famous entertainers are the norm, famous scientists, engineers, and inventors are not.

          • Nicholas says:

            That’s actually the opposite of the form of scaling that would be salient to a prestige system.
            If Taylor Swift sings live into a radio transmitter, it is a song actually sung by Taylor herself, with her own voice, that is being enjoyed by me. So Taylor receives prestige.
            Back when the Woz was hand building Apples he received at least enough prestige that I know who we’re talking about without googling him. But now someone else builds the Apples, on a team, who I will never hear the name of, blunting and diluting the prestige so that it goes to the company as a social fiction instead of any individual member.

          • John Schilling says:

            But you’re not hearing Taylor Swift’s own voice; you’re hearing an automated reconstruction of Taylor Swift’s own voice. Possibly on the speakers of a computer which is an automated reconstruction of a Steve Wozniak design. The former almost as entertaining as the true original, the latter exactly as useful than the true original.

            There are many obvious reasons why one might recognize Swift and not Wozniak, I’m not misunderstanding or disputing that. I am asserting that this difference, and the obvious underlying reasons for it, undermines the “guy who makes good fishnets” claim, the ckaim that prestige originally came from making practically useful stuff. In a hunter-gatherer tribe or an industrial nation, it is equally possible for one entertainer or one inventor to reach the whole group with their work, and equally possible for the group to recognize the entertainer or the inventor.

        • Mike says:

          1) Celebrities are actively manufactured by an industry trying to take advantage of failure modes in our tribal heuristics.

          2) Think about the *reach* that media has. Taylor Swift has sold something like 35 million copies of her albums. That’s just a ton of people who have the opportunity to see her music as something as influential and important as the best fishing nets.

          • Dues says:

            @Mike. Exactly. Taylor swift doesn’t have the status of a tribal singer, she has the status of the god of music and sex that all the tribal singers put into their songs.

          • Garrett says:

            I’m a software engineer. The software I write is (combined with hundreds of others) responsible for a billion dollars in revenue annually. Hundreds of thousands of systems. Yet I and my coworkers are certainly unknown.

        • Nicholas Carter says:

          I think if your community has entertainers they will acquire prestige, and you might consider the good they provide your group comparable to a fishing net.

    • LeeEsq says:

      Justin Bieber is just evidence that the entertainment industry has reached the ultimate in refinement of their technique. Movie studios and record companies have always been carefully involved in grooming some people for stardom status. When they started, their advertising technique was a lot less capable so their needed to be some basis for their choice. Mickey Rooney might have been a cute kid but he was also a very talented musician, actor, singer, and dancer. These days, you just need to be cute, get the attention of somebody in the business, and no actually talent is necessary.

    • Sniffnoy says:

      Ah, I was going to post this but seems you got to it first. In the case of small bands, Simler’s two distinct theories cease to be so distinct. It’s only once you scale up, outside the EEA, that you get this mismatch.

    • This. Also that whole circular wanting-to-sleep-with-people-other-people-want-to-sleep-with thing.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Did people actually defect to other tribes in hunter-gatherer times?

      • keranih says:

        They do/did in modern(ish) times.

        A couple points – there was the traveling band, which was an extended family (three-four brothers, a father/uncle, various wives and kids, plus associated stranglers) which was part of a wider kinship group. Getting sick of your brothers’ wives and their bullshit was not uncommonly enough to make shifting over to another traveling band (who were more distant cousins you spent the winter with and met irregularly at waterholes, and who were closer in relationship than the distant cousins you knew from the end-of-summer sing and might share a winter camp with) seem like a fantastic idea.

        Secondly, “voting with your feet” was a lot easier when everyone was moving anyway. You and the woman talked it over, maybe for a whole month, and then one morning, bam, you shook the kids awake, dropped the tent, dumped the back packs on their backs, and headed out. The camp guard was little Louie, who was just stupid enough to believe you when you said the whole family was going for a walk. Junior sulked the whole way, and it was three days before you decided that he *wasn’t* going to take off back for the band and his agemate buddies, but hey, the youngest kids thought it was an adventure, even the random ‘meeting the bear at the blackberry bushes’ part. The next morning, you find the trail of Cousin Bob’s band, and the woman makes you swear that you won’t marry Bob’s youngest daughter without talking it over with her first.

        It was a bit more complicated when the longhouses went up, but still, people have been going off in sulks and finding wives in Canaan for forever.

      • Earthly Knight says:

        Yes, in fact, inter-tribal mobility was/is extremely common and a key method of solving conflicts without bloodshed. The defecting unit is typically the family or clan rather than the individual, though.

      • RCF says:

        There must have been some inter-tribe mobility, otherwise every tribe would quickly descend into incest.

    • This is exactly what I was thinking.

  4. Mike says:

    I think you nailed it with 1. 2 through 4 seem to be extensions of “say a lot about me”. 5 = system evolution, which varies the aspect that is primary at a given time. Even where people say they disagree with 1 and its extensions they don’t: see “smart people like Elon Musk, so that makes me smart” below it is just “say a lot about me” with a different hat; or see “Distant prestigious people without the power to help you wouldn’t have existed” below — but now they do exist and why wouldn’t our African brain treat them the same?

  5. Error says:

    Do I get prestige under #2 for having read Simler’s article before Scott posted about it?

    This is one of those irritating cases where it felt convincing when I read it, and now I have read Scott’s sort-of-rebuttal and it also feels convincing, and I would go argggghhhh — except the jewelry-prediction example gives me an out, even though it was a trick question.

    For some reason, even though I can’t predict the example behavior, knowing that correct understanding *ought* to make it predictable helps me avoid feeling like I need to throw up my hands and submit to epistemic learned helplessness. I think it’s because I can use “can I predict this behavior now, correctly?” as a check against being bamboozled too much.

    • K4n says:

      slightly related: as someone who enjoyed reading all of Simler’s content, and has also enjoyed reading (almost? there’s a lot of it) all of Scott’s content, does anyone have any really similar sites to recommend?

      I’m aware of the blogroll on the top left here, but I have not exhaustively gone through those websites, and a lot of the themes end up being pretty different.

  6. SpaghettiLee says:

    Your theories all seem heavily focused on external stimuli, either rewards from the subject of the prestige (let’s just say ‘celebrity’ to make it easier) or rewards from other people who prestige them (‘fans’.) Big motivators, of course, but it seems to me that most people who are more socially isolated and not attuned to nor invested in what their social circle thinks of them can still geek out like a champ. Makes me wonder how much is tied to the simple internal stimuli of feeling good about oneself (‘smart people like Elon Musk, so that makes me smart’) that can be used for group signaling but is often a fine reward on its own.

    • James Vonder Haar says:

      Yes, but the reason why it evolved to be felt as an intrinsic reward was because the extrinsic rewards associated with them were common enough in the ancestral environment

    • Earthly Knight says:

      You’re confusing proximate with ultimate explanations. “It feels good” can be a good proximate explanation for why an individual performs a certain action, but it does nothing to tell us why human beings are such that performing that action feels good to them.* This latter question requires us to look at the evolutionary history of the trait in phylogeny or culture.

      *The exception being actions which feel good because they co-opt pre-existing reward circuits, e.g. alcohol consumption or masturbation, which may lack an interesting evolutionary history. But prestige-worship seems prima facie a poor candidate for this.

      • *The exception being actions which feel good because they co-opt pre-existing reward circuits, e.g. alcohol consumption or masturbation, which may lack an interesting evolutionary history. But prestige-worship seems prima facie a poor candidate for this.

        Why is it a poor candidate? From the stories I’ve heard of the ancestral environment there doesn’t seem to be a lot of rock-star level prestige, with the exception of religion. But religion often matches dominance-style status as well, and in any case it too is a good candidate for a non-adaptive trait accidentally formed from the interaction of adaptive traits.

        In general I believe the people making just-so stories about evolutionary psychology tend to overestimate how many traits are adaptive. Consider the fact that as soon as human intelligence reached a civilization-creating stage, it did so. Therefore humans must be the dumbest possible creatures that can create a civilization, and their evolutionary pathway must have been the quickest and most ad hoc possible to reach such a stage. I expect our traits are strongly shaped by the not-yet-understood constraints of such an architecture.

        • RCF says:

          “Consider the fact that as soon as human intelligence reached a civilization-creating stage, it did so.”

          More precisely, the interval between reaching a level of intelligence necessary to create a civilization, and creating a civilization, was insignificant in evolutionary terms. In human terms, it was still a long time. However, there are two further caveats. First, “intelligence level” refers to the species taken as a whole, and upper percentiles can be significantly more intelligent than what’s needed for civilization. Also, while there hasn’t been significant evolutionary change, environmental changes such as better nutrition may have increased intelligence beyond the bare minimum needed to create civilization.

        • Earthly Knight says:

          Sorry: the distinction being drawn here is not between adaptations and byproducts, it is between vacuous (ultimate) explanations and non-vacuous (ultimate) explanations. It may be that our mania for prestige is a byproduct of some adaptation or other, but this hypothesis will still need to be fleshed out by showing which adaptations it is a byproduct of and the evolutionary constraints which gave rise to it. The point I was making is that it does not fall into the narrow category of traits which, like masturbation and certain forms of intoxication, wear their etiologies on their sleeves.

  7. zslastman says:

    The notion of status and signalling that’s so popular in the rationalist community stems, I think, from Geoffrey Millar’s “The mating mind” – Hanson mentioned it as a big influence on him recently. In the “mating mind”, Millar uses the babblers as an example as well, only for him, they’re clearly an example of runaway sexual selection – prestige is their particular version of the peacocks tail. He thinks that sexual selection can drive populations into these funny, stable, peacock-tail equilibria, and that a kind of group selection could then take place between them so that peacocks-tails that benefit the group are also selected for. It’s a nice if almost untestable theory, and I don’t see a reason that it wouldn’t happen, along side other social selective effects.

    BUT – one thing i think you’re forgetting, is that our social mind was shaped for small groups of people people on the african plains. Distant prestigious people without the power to help you wouldn’t have existed. The most prestigious dude was the tribal chief or what have you. That we end up with nonadaptive boners for Elon Musk may just bespeak how out of date our evolved brown nosing behaviors now are.

    • TK-421 says:

      I was thinking along similar lines when reading this bit:

      First he flirts with the theory of a guy called Henrich, who says prestige comes from a desire to learn. I admire and flatter my favorite rock star because I’m hoping I can hang out around him, some of his genius will rub off on me, and I’ll be able to play a wicked guitar riff and win a couple of Grammies myself. This theory makes no sense, I’m not sure how it ever got published, and Simler very rightly rejects it immediately.

      In an ancestral environment where the total pool of human knowledge is small and all or most skills are learnable face-to-face, that seems far less ridiculous.

      • zslastman says:

        Yes, although it’s important and difficult to maintain the distinction between the evolutionary level and the psychological level. Scott seems to feel that our status behaviors is quite influenced by conscious deliberation, in which case an analysis of costs/benefits makes sense. If it’s mostly just an expression of feelings more gut level feelings, then using evopsych to reason about the likely nature of those feelings becomes more important. I’m weary of that in general (evolution’s outcomes are super unpredictable, hence limited predictive power from such analyses) but stuff like ‘we’re adapted for small groups’ seems reasonable.

      • David Moss says:

        Yes and this comes across in “People Will Talk” by John Whitfield (an evolutionary account of reputation). There he notes that people tend to assume that people who are exceptionally great in one dimension are typically perceived to be great across dimensions (roughly via the halo effect). If you don’t know precisely what is contributing to someone’s success (which, in an evolutionary setting you may well not) it makes sense to see who is generally flourishing and generally affiliate with/learn from them across dimensions.

    • > is that our social mind was shaped for small groups of people people on the african plains

      Or maybe HBD, and some minds by something else as well. Note that HBD is not the same as racism. This study was for example entirely conducted among the Han ethnic group, with zero to low racial differences: https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn25538-how-your-ancestors-farms-shaped-your-thinking.

      Thanks for The Mating Mind, though, too bad it is not released for Kindle. Has anyone seen an ebook version of it anywhere?

  8. gbdub says:

    If prestige has an evolutionary basis, why would it necessarily make sense when applied to David Bowie? Celebrity is an evolutionarily recent phenomenon. Could just be that prestige makes perfect sense in small tribes, and it has a weird not-really-failure mode in big societies. In that sense Bowie could be “free-riding” on our attraction to prestige, and Helen Keller “free-rides” on our altruism toward sick or infirm members of our own group (I say “free-ride” not because she doesn’t deserve sympathy, but rather because she was too removed from most people sympathetic to her for affect).

    EDIT: I note that I was beaten to the punch a couple times on this point.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      First, the free-rider objection ought to apply even in evolutionary times.

      Second, I’m not sure hunter-gatherers did defect to other tribes.

      Third, a good evolutionary system should be more targeted than that. Suppose everyone loves Ook because he’s tall and strong. I can hang out with him all I want, but I’m never going to “learn” to be taller or stronger. So when we find ourselves obsessed with people with non-learnable skills today, that should tell us something about the evolutionary case.

      Fourth, separate out the plausibly evolutionary urge from the behavior. We might have an evolutionary urge to suck up to people, but would it misfire so horribly that I can spend time writing stuff about Elon Musk on a blog he’ll never read just because I read some articles about his rockets?

      • Hmmm. I have no idea whether tribe members ever defected (though personally I would guess that they did, if only by sometimes marrying into another tribe) but surely at a minimum tribes must have sometimes divided into two? You wouldn’t want to be picked last, so to speak.

        Also, is it really common to obsess on people whose skills are *obviously* non-learnable? Obviously enough to be easily distinguished by instinct rather than reason?

      • James Vonder Haar says:

        On your fourth point, yeah, I really do think our evolved behavior can misfire spectacularly enough for celebrity to be a trait that wasn’t explicitly selected for but rather an emergent property of traits that were selected for in a different environment. It doesn’t seem like any worse a misfiring than the appetite that led us to conserving fats and calories in the ancestral environment leading us to gorge on White Castle in the modern era. Or, more on point I think, that sexual arousal can end up in fetishism or homosexuality. These systems are incredibly complex, with a lot of moving parts, adapted to one environment in particular. They broadly supported survival in the ancestral environment but they’re complicated enough that they operate on their own internal logic that will not necessarily promote survival in other circumstances.

        • Simon says:

          I’m often a little annoyed by EP’s tendency to search for the very complex, while it may just be very simple.

          Something like ‘Men Evolved To Perform Cunnilingus To Test If There’s Sperm From Some Other Dude In There’ (https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/unique-everybody-else/201302/does-oral-sex-have-evolutionary-purpose-0) seems like a way too complex approach. The very simple approach would be ‘when you’re attracted to someone it makes you happy if they feel good’.

          In the same way Bieber-mania doesn’t really seem like a very complex misfiring with lots of moving parts, but the very simple ‘he’s an attractive man with a lot of status, which girls like’.

          Fetishism and homosexuality are more complex, but go back to at least thousands of years, so I don’t think there’s any misfiring going on.

          Evolved behavior that is truly hardwired in our brains all seems pretty generic to me. When EP moves from ‘we evolved to like calories because it helps us survive’ to ‘we evolved to like green colored chocolate bars because it reminds the inner caveman of the steppe’ it loses me completely.

          • Scott Alexander says:

            “I’m often a little annoyed by EP’s tendency to search for the very complex, while it may just be very simple…Bieber-mania doesn’t really seem like a very complex misfiring with lots of moving parts, but the very simple ‘he’s an attractive man with a lot of status, which girls like’.”

            I think you’re really really missing the point. EP tries to break things down because our “simple” explanations make use of magical thinking.

            Suppose I said “all those scientists who talk about how we’re attracted to sugary tastes because glucose signals high caloric load are overthinking things. We’re attracted to sugary tastes because they’re delicious.”

            This is bad, both because it reifies deliciousness (commits mind projection fallacy) and because it fails to realize that the whole point of this line of investigation is to better understand what, when mind projection fallacy is removed, “deliciousness” really is.

            In the same way, “girls are attracted to Justin Bieber because he has status”? Sure! Now let’s talk about what status is and where it comes from. It’s no more a conceptual primitive than “deliciousness”!

          • sweeneyrod says:

            I think that Simon’s point was that Bieber-mania isn’t caused by his high status, but by his attractiveness. Liking attractive people doesn’t need a complicated evo-psych explanation – attractiveness means displaying signs of being a good mate.

          • Murphy says:

            @Scott

            Thing is, you can take it too far. It’s easy to create or point to things which “should” be delicious because they’re non-toxic, high energy, nutritious etc but which also contain some harmless highly-bitter substances which put people off.

            Meanwhile esters which smell delicious might make me feel like I want to drink the contents of a beaker in the lab. (though I know other things in there are toxic so I don’t.)

            But then we didn’t evolve around chem labs or every fruit in the world or social structures containing billions of people.

            I know it’s possible to come up with just-so stories for this kind of thing but up until the last few dozen generations there likely would have been no such thing as a Beiber-like figure in my ancestors experience, total number of people they’d have been significantly aware of would have been in the 10’s of thousands at most and anyone was likely only a few nodes away from even the grandest living hero they knew of.

          • Simon says:

            @Scott

            But the other side of the sugary tastes comparison is “we’re attracted to chocolate because of the sugary taste because glucose signals high caloric load”, vs. “people love chocolate so much, it must be somewhere in our evolutionary history that we started liking chocolate”.

            Which is obviously false, since the broader, less complex explanation explains perfectly well why we like chocolate, and we don’t need a more specific explanation.

            I often struggle with the question what human fundamentals really are. Before typing this I was listening to a Dan Carlin podcast about child rearing through history, and he mentions rampant physical and emotional abuse and says “we were different people then”.

            But of course we were exactly the same people. Long ago you linked an anti-racialist FAQ that made a really great point about how German people, while staying genetically the same, moved from a collection of more-or-less city-states to a Christian kingdom to atheist fascism to secular progressivism in a little over a century. You could say those were all different kinds of people, but if you are looking for what’s inherent to our thinking, the really deep, hardwired stuff from the H-G days, they all had it.

            Which, to me, seems to indicate that those urges and nudges are very generic. Whether you are a widow in Eastern Prussia in WW2 or a millennial tween in Hamburg longing for Bieber, they both come from a very basic longing, that culture only then transforms into something specific. Looking for EP explanations of these kinds of specific situations just seems to me like trying to build a great bicycle path on a molecular level or to write the best blogpost ever by using binary.

            It’s ‘only’ the very, very deep core of our thinking. Incredibly important to understand, but just not very applicable to specific examples.

          • LHN says:

            Chocolate’s attractiveness seems to be at least partly orthogonal to its sweetness, since it was wildly popular and valuable in Mesoamerica as a bitter drink, and at least piqued the interest of the Spanish as such. (Though it didn’t take them long to add honey or sugar.)

            There’s presumably some evolutionary reason, not originally chocolate-specific, for the our alkaloid receptors being prone to things like theobromine and caffeine (along with similar chemicals in coffee or tea), and mixing it up with sugar and fat helps further supercharge that.

          • Simon says:

            @LHN

            True, it might have been a bad example. But even if we specifically like chocolate because of some alkaloid receptor (I have no knowledge of this stuff), that’s still a perfectly fine explanation and we don’t need to bring EvoPsych into it.

          • Nero tol Scaeva says:

            Ok scratch Justin Beiber. How about women being more likely to give a guy their phone number if he’s holding a guitar?

          • vV_Vv says:

            Something like ‘Men Evolved To Perform Cunnilingus To Test If There’s Sperm From Some Other Dude In There’ seems like a way too complex approach.

            The cunnilingus as rival sperm detection hypothesis seems a bit far fetched, but considering that various animals, such as dogs, practice oral sex as a part of their mating behaviors, I wouldn’t exclude a non-obvious adaptive function.

            The very simple approach would be ‘when you’re attracted to someone it makes you happy if they feel good’.

            But this seems a bit too simplistic. Why do women feel good when they receive oral sex? Why doesn’t penis-in-vagina penetrative sex already maximize their sexual satisfaction?
            I’m not saying that there must be necessarily an adaptive explanation, after all the genital organs of mammals are plumbed and wired weirdly, but investigating whether there is an adaptive explanation seems like a legitimate scientific question.

            In the same way Bieber-mania doesn’t really seem like a very complex misfiring with lots of moving parts, but the very simple ‘he’s an attractive man with a lot of status, which girls like’.

            But the vast majority of girls who like Justin Bieber, hang his posters in their bedrooms, buy his songs, go to his concerts, etc., have a very small chance of mating with him and carrying his child, and essentially zero chance of locking him down in a committed relationship. So why do they spend time and resources in this essentially hopeless pursuit?

            Evolutionary psychology gives an explanation: there were no distant inaccessible celebrities in the environment of adaptation. The closest equivalent to Justin Bieber was the young handsome skilled hunter of the tribe. Clearly, he was sexually and romantically accessible to the girls in the tribe, therefore, behaving like groupies was a successful reproductive strategy for the girls.

      • Gbdub says:

        I have to admit I don’t quite understand why defection is necessary for the admiration/usefulness model to work – the babblers aren’t leaving for other family groups (in fact they can’t – that’s why banishment is effective).

        Giving prestige is useful because it makes the prestigious keep doing the things that earn prestige. I think If they don’t get prestige, they’ll stop doing it and start being a free rider – that’s why altruism alone isn’t stable. I think that’s what Simler meant by “keep them around” because it doesn’t seem that voluntary babbler defection is a thing that happens.

        And in that sense hero-worship behavior starts to make sense. We give prestige to people with skills we can’t learn, because it gives them incentive to keep applying those skills to the group. Even Elon makes some sense – you want to spread his fame far and wide to give him more incentive to keep doing Elon things. He may not know you, but he knows he has a bajillion Twitter followers or whatever, and presumably that gives him some warm fuzzies and motivation. You’re still contributing to his prestige, though admittedly the individual effect size goes down at that level of fame.

        Admittedly that doesn’t solve the “prestige for people I don’t like” problem, but that seems more likely to be a misfire than Elon worship is.

        • JohnMcG says:

          But not only do we incentivize Elon Musk, we inventivize all the would-be Elon Musks who might be deciding whether to build an electric car or do something less beneficial.

          Same with David Bowie. After a certain point, the admiration probably doesn’t do much for Bowie himself. But it does encourage the person with a little bit of musical talent to continue to develop that rather than something else.

          This also works for Hellen Keller. She may not provide much intrinsic value, but her example of overcoming obstacles is one we want to encourage.

          Celebrating these people is a way of declaring what we value, and encouraging others to behave in a similar manner.

          (Note — I initially accidentally hit “report” instead of “reply.” Please ignore the report, and my apologies).

      • zslastman says:

        I think it could, really plausibly, misfire that horribly. We wouldn’t just have an urge to suck up, that’s a complex behavior, and you don’t see a lot of specific, programmed urges like that in humans (have sex with anything doing this specific dance pattern, build this web). Instead you see us having evolved an emotional make up that would have reliably produced the complex behavior in the ancestral environment. The behavior beeing ‘seek powerful and attractive allies’.

        Also I think other factors would prevent helen keller style free riders. She wouldn’t have been given status in a hunter gatherer society, nor would anyone without something to offer you.

        • moridinamael says:

          “Seek powerful and attractive allies.”

          Yes. This has, in fact, already misfired so badly that it led us to create fictional people (gods) of immense power to try to ally with. We don’t even need it to be a real person to try to ally with it.

          If a monkey can gain comfort from a soft doll-mother, a human can gain a feeling of importance from the love of Jesus.

      • Deiseach says:

        Well, in a small group, hanging out with Ook because he’s tall and strong has the benefit (for Ook) of having a bunch of admiring disciples, and the benefit (for you) if someone else attempts to push you about that your fellow fans-of-Ook will come and help you, and maybe even Ook himself, or you can appeal to him to be on your side in a dispute and throw his prestige behind your case.

        Because if Ook wants to keep his prestige and admiring band of disciples, that’s the tat for the tit: he puts his ‘currency’ of superior social standing in the balance pan of the scales for his followers (of course, it gets fine-tuned; if you’re accused of something really bad or are really in the wrong, the hit Ook will take to his popularity and subsequent degradation of his prestige will outweigh the agreement to help out his followers).

      • Mike says:

        You hang out with Ook so you can have sex with his leftovers. At least, that’s been my observation from watching high school athletes and frat boys 🙂

        • Deiseach says:

          Which, again, is Ook sharing his prestige with you. If Ook lets you have his ex-girlfriend or a chance at one of the girls hanging round him, that’s an opportunity denied to the non-fans of Ook.

          And if Ook picks you, rather than new fan Bongo, to get the “leftovers”, that’s reflected prestige that builds your prestige up in the eyes of others: a tangible reward that shows how Ook looks favourably upon you.

          Like the Warboys squabbling over “Immortan Joe looked at me!” “No he didn’t, he was looking in the direction you happened to be!” in “Mad Max: Fury Road” – the halo of reflected glory.

      • Swami says:

        According to my reading of Boehm, the risk of defection is extremely real in nomadic hunter gatherers, and is so on several dimensions.

        First, HGs can and do migrate to different cooperative bands within the larger tribe. They have relatives throughout. However the number of bands is limited and not a decision taken likely. In addition their social status or prestige follows them good or bad.

        Second though, the fundamental unit of cooperation is any number of participants greater than two within the band. Marriage, a hunting party, a friendship, the person we choose to help or share meat with, all these are cooperative relationships on which HGs have exit and entrance freedom. Every time they decide who to cooperate or not cooperate with (based greatly upon prestige or social capital) they form a cooperative group. Associative matching theory suggests people with higher prestige will gain better partners and vice versa. The benefits are both obvious and significant.

        Third, Boehm carefully quantifies that nomadic HGs routinely threaten excommunication for those with bad reputations (the inverse of prestige). They can and do kick out bad eggs, or the band splinters with some going left in the valley and others going right (there are countering pressures to keep band size sufficiently large though). At the most extreme, they execute deviants (the ultimate negative cooperative selection).

        This is all based upon memory of my reading of Boehm and other readings on the anthropology of nomadic HGs.

        By the way, my reading on the open ended prisoners dilemma literature is that it can be greatly solved via exit freedom among equally armed participants. Cooperators can self select thus causing defectors to become cooperators and avoid having to associate with scumbag defectors.

        We evolved in an environment where people wanted to establish and maintain a reputation of prestige for their own genetic benefit. The heuristics were:
        1. gain prestige wherever practical,
        2. mirror prestige because they seem to be doing everything right
        3. Signal prestige so other will think we are great cooperative members
        4. Tear down direct competitors prestige where practical without undermine our own in the process

        I agree with comments that our evolved heuristics probably misfire wildly in a mass communication society of billions rather than less than a hundred or so.

      • RCF says:

        “on a blog he’ll never read just because I read some articles about his rockets?”

        Two main interpretations of this occur to me. First, that the percentage of the total human population who reads your blog is infinitesimal, so a randomly selected person would almost certainly not read your blog, so Elon Musk will not read your blog. The second is that Elon Musk is too important a person to read your blog; he’s too busy doing important-person things.

        To the first, it seems clear that Musk is not a randomly selected person. His attributes, and the blog’s attributes, are such he is more likely than the average person to read your blog (I would be surprised if he is more than three degrees of separation from you). If you are motivated by the possibility of him reading your blog, then your actions are likely to increase that possibility.

        To the second, if you model important people as doing important-people things, and you don’t think they do ordinary things like read ordinary blogs, then an important person reading your blog means that your blog is important.

    • stillnotking says:

      The key point is that it isn’t a failure mode. I haven’t heard anyone suggest that those who idolize Bowie or Bieber are less likely to reproduce, and a prima facie case could be made that they’re more likely, insofar as their participation in celebrity fandom lets them meet potential mates. Perhaps the reproductive advantage in gravitating to cults of personality has nothing to do with the personality himself, but with access to co-gravitants. David Bowie as a human Schelling point.

      That advantage would apply just as much to devotees of poets/musicians/storytellers in prehistory as it does to Bowie fans today.

      • Aegeus says:

        I’d buy that explanation. Being culturally in-tune with your group, being able to talk about the shows you watched or the bands you like or the sports you follow, is a strong unifying tool. I picked up a lot of shows based on someone else’s recommendations.

  9. MawBTS says:

    Take the rock star again. Let’s say David Bowie. When people admire Bowie, are they trying to get him to not leave the group? Is that why people scream and throw themselves at him? What would it even mean for Bowie to leave the group? If he doesn’t have enough groupies, will he defect to North Korea?

    Conjecture: it’s not important that David Bowie isn’t part of your group. What’s important is the fantasy that he’s part of your group. It’s like a role play.

    Talk to someone in the throes of celebrity worship and they’re conversations usually revolve a few common themes. “We have so much in common / Nobody really understands him the way I do / if we ever met in real life I just know we’d be best friends, if only I could talk to him alone for five minutes…”

    Some pathological celebrity stalkers (look up Ricardo López) actually convince themselves that the obsession is mutual – that the celebrity is obsessed with them, can’t stop thinking about them, is watching their house, etc.

    Evolution isn’t optimised for what’s rational. It’s optimised to execute behavior patterns. People will happily accept junk food as a substitute for real food, porn as a substitute for sex, and faux fantasy intimacy over real relationships.

  10. Orphan Wilde says:

    The jewelry question, to me, has a fairly simple answer, that you yourself have talked about, IIRC: Striping. If only one social group is wearing jewelry, it’s the middle social group. If two are, it’s the lower social group, and the upper social group. (Or, of course, the jewelry is completely unrelated to anything, as apparently was the case. Elevating the data and hypothesis to our attention doesn’t say much about our interpretation within the elevated information.)

    I think you underestimate the explanation because you’re concentrating too much on one end of the power spectrum; what does the fan who sleeps with the rock star get from the rock star? I think it’s more relevant to ask what happens to the fan’s prestige when he or she goes back to the other fans; what happens to their status within that section of the power spectrum?

    • SpaghettiLee says:

      what happens to the fan’s prestige when he or she goes back to the other fans; what happens to their status within that section of the power spectrum?

      A not-insignificant amount of jealousy, spite, passive-aggression, and accusations of selling out or somehow being sneaky and unethical, in lots of peoples’ experience. I wonder if there’s a way to rank prestige-oriented groups by how common that reaction is vs. how many fellow fans would be genuinely happy for you and see you as more prestigious by association. (my prediction would be that various teenage-girl-dominated fandoms, liberal arts grad students, and anti-establishment political activists, disparate as they all seem, would come in near the top of the former.)

      • Orphan Wilde says:

        Think of those responses in status terms: They’re attempts to lower your status. Why would they feel they need to lower your status? (Because you’ve just, unfairly in their eyes, gained status, and probably elevated yourself over them.)

        Prestige isn’t a more-altruistic altruistic power ladder. That’s more or less the point of the essay at MeltingAsphalt. It’s just as brutal, and attempts (successful or otherwise) to jump ahead are met with hostility.

      • Fazathra says:

        This is something I’ve always wondered: whether prestige competitions become increasingly zero-sum when there’s less of it to go around. In my anecdotal experience, more successful and “prestigious” people seem to be much more magnanimous and laid back about this sort of thing while the less-prestigious are often more petty and spiteful. Does anybody else have similar experiences?

        Some possibilities are:
        – there is no effect, I just think there is because of the halo effect or similar.

        – declining marginal value of prestige means that prestigious people are more likely to let small slights slide and more able to feel happy about group members rising in prestige

        – people who are naturally more magnanimous and less spiteful tend to be better at gaining prestige for themselves.

        – countersignalling. If you are already prestigious, signalling that you don’t care about relative prestige can add to your prestige

        – prestigious groups can get into virtuous cycles where everybody admires eachother and the pain of being kicked out of the group by being irritating is worse.

        • Orphan Wilde says:

          Magnanimity improves your prestige, so magnanimous people tend to end up higher prestige? (Think about how your attitude towards a celebrity changes if you find out he or she regularly visits cancer wards to cheer up sick children.)

          (This isn’t the only path to prestige, mind, so counterexamples aren’t.)

        • Emily H. says:

          I have noticed this, and I think that ‘declining marginal value of prestige’ accounts for a good bit of it, plus countersignalling. Low-status writer X picks a fight on Twitter with high-status writer Y; X has virtually nothing to lose, since they had no prestige in the first place, and the fight doesn’t have to go in X’s favor for them to gain a couple of curious new fans; Y isn’t going to gain any fans by jumping into the fray, but might lose some, so Y brushes it off.

          The writer Jennifer Weiner has criticized reviewers for sexism because books written by women, and especially books falling into the categories of romance and women’s fiction, don’t get reviewed as often as books by men. And I think she’s basically right; but I also think it backfired on her. “I deserve more prestige than I have” is the wrong kind of signalling, and the more prestige you have the worse it looks, because you’re already a best-selling writer, give it a rest already.

          When I think of cases where prestige isn’t a zero-sum game, I think of John Scalzi’s “Big Idea” series. If anything, he gets more prestige by giving some prestige away; and he gets something to fill his blog when he’s on vacation. But a person who doesn’t have prestige doesn’t have any to give away.

        • Earthly Knight says:

          Suppose that Strategy: Pick Fights gives you a 60% chance of gaining a lot of prestige and a 40% chance of losing a lot of prestige, while Strategy: Build Coalitions gives you a 90% chance of losing no prestige and a 10% chance of losing a small amount of prestige. When you’re on the middle rungs, the high-risk/high-reward Pick Fights will be more advantageous, but when you’ve already maxed out your prestige, you’d be better off switching to Build Coalitions.

    • Mike says:

      Yep. It’s 1. What does this say about me, with whoever matters to you. In your example, the other “fans.”

      • Orphan Wilde says:

        It’s more a rebuttal to the shift from community-prestige to tit-for-tat as different arguments; they’re the same thing. It fits in with #1, because good predictive models tend to be isomorphic in some respects, but there’s no sacrifice involved in “giving your body to Bowie”, or however it was put; the tat is built right into the tit, David Bowie is, in some sense, granting you some level of additional prestige as payment for the sex. We could treat it as a local group dynamic; we could also map it to a single prestige power ladder that you’ve just jumped ahead on.

        So, insofar as we regard having sex as a sacrifice you’ve made to a high-prestige person, you’ve gained considerable prestige in return. It’s not so much a weird divergence of the prestige market as described on MeltingAsphalt as a great example of it.

        • Mike says:

          You could be right, but that will take too much unpacking. 😉 I still think it’s pretty simple: all of the examples (except 5 which adds the system evolution aspect) can be subsumed by number 1. Prestige is tied to a person’s hope (rational or not, depending) that some act or omission of theirs will lead them to be viewed more favorably (however they define it) among those that matter to them (whoever they may be). That is: what does it say about me. Also let me say that I agree with Scott and others that separation of prestige and dominance makes a lot of sense.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Your plausible explanation is wrong, at least in the context of the original (sneaky) problem. I find this is a frequent problem with plausible explanations. For the record, I made the same guess, but I wasn’t able to give it more than 50% confidence, and apparently rightly so.

      I don’t think I’m underestimating that – that’s my point 5 up above. But we still need an explanation of how that dynamic starts.

      • Orphan Wilde says:

        Yep. I knew it was wrong when I wrote it, as you already told me it was wrong. Why, then, did I write it? (Notice the subtle compliment I paid you by mentioning your work in my reasoning? You responded in kind by saying you had similar thoughts. In the context of this blog, where you are the highest-prestige person, you just handed me prestige. Not too much, as you’re correcting me, but a little.)

        I’d hazard a guess that prestige starts as dominance hierarchies which combine with a related sexual behavior – something akin to the handicap principle. “I’m so fit I can afford to waste food.” “I’m so good at fighting I can risk myself protecting the weak.” And so on. (I put absolutely no confidence in this.)

        It clearly happens, so I don’t find the origins particularly interesting, guessing feels too much like rationalizing.

    • You mean Scotts Zebra theory? That is not a human universal, that is almost exclusive to WEIRDs. In a simpler society if the middle group wears gold, the top group just wears more gold. Why? Because they more or less openly admit that status symbols are all about advertising power, a don’t mess with me message. So gold advertises money, which means something like “I could hire thugs to attack you”.

      WEIRDs are an exception, because they try to deny and hide that status is about power, they try to pretend it is about honest admiration. This why for WEIRDS, Justin Bieber has high status, and military generals lower. In a simpler society, the top general is the king, because he has most power, and he has the highest status, and thus wears the most gold. And the the equivalent of Bieber is just a court minstrel, not even in the middle status group, because he may be admirable but totally lacks power.

      Evidence: just look at any painting of 17th century kings. They usually wear more in the way of bling than counts and barons. They advertised power with it.

      More generally, dominance and prestige is usually mixed in status. WEIRDs are weird because for them it is almost 100% prestige and no dominance. Usually in simpler societies, more dominance than prestige. Thus status symbols show dominance. Thus no Zebra Stripes. Dominance, power stacks, prestige not so well, hence Zebra Stripes. WEIRDs distate for dominance is perhaps the most defining Western characteristics. This is why democracy was invented or feudalism ended because somehow most WEIRDS don’t feel dominant ones are totally sexy. They tend to more dislike than admire Putin types. But this is a HUGE human exception.

      • Deiseach says:

        In a simpler society if the middle group wears gold, the top group just wears more gold.

        Well – sumptuary laws were a means of trying to curb and control exactly such displays of wealth and power. Certain colours or combinations of them, certain materials, certain styles, only certain classes could wear.

        If the king showing off even more gold and diamonds than the lesser nobility ends up with the king having his head chopped off by the Puritans or new Enlightened Freedom fighters, then dominance/status display shifts. Once the newly rich can drape themselves in gold and diamonds, not wearing gold and diamonds is a way to signal “I do not need to vulgarly show off my wealth; I demonstrate my status by means of adverting to my good taste and breeding by simplicity and elegance, which reflects my position as one of the long-established and dominant”.

        And so put-downs about “He’s the kind of person who has to buy his furniture” get their edge and are a means of undercutting the ambitious and putting them in their place.

        You can wrap it up as “authenticity” and the likes, but the message we are all meant to take is “I am so important/high-status/powerful/have such high prestige, I don’t even have to show it off and so I can get away with wearing mis-matched socks or a dress cut in the style of three years ago”.

        The jewellery thing is misleading, though; if they were all attending a wedding, there’s a certain expectation of how you dress for such an event, and that is that you dress up – and that may well mean wearing jewellery, even for people who don’t usually wear it.

        So if you have people who had been attending a function where “dressing up” is expected who then go on to an event where it is not expected or a different style is customary, this is going to throw off your gauge of who is dominant/prestigious.

        And even for the conference, it makes a difference: are the three groups all meeting up in the lecture hall/conference centre to listen to Professor Jones’ paper on teething babies and opium, or are they at the final-day formal dinner? Even the high-status no-signalling people are likely to put on a nice string of pearls or Grandmother’s ring for that one (and again, reinforce prestige by the fact that this is family heirloom granny’s ring, rather than the bigger and flashier ring Junior Doctor is wearing – that’s new money and vulgarism, which is lower-status!)

  11. Gunnar Zarncke says:

    It looks as if other primates don’t have prestige. At least if they had the always rigorous Scott would surely have pointed that out. And if they don’t then the early ancestral environment of humans didn’t have prestige. The question is: When did prestige enter the show? Before or after humans had to deal with larger groups?

    Many parts of the argument given above about appealing to our intuition as to the effectiveness of being a fan or rooting for a star may not be applicable if you interpret them as occurring in a community of 100 people. Everybody knows that you are rooting for the great dancer. Him included.

    But if prestige formed later. Or at least when interactions of tribes became more significant another interpretation could be that it is a behavior that is specifically tuned to the seldom but important interactions with travellers. And travellers do come by their very nature with many of the traits described above. Wouldn’t it be nice if we poor dwellers could signal that we root for them so we gain a special place for their next visit? Or same variant of this?

    • Peter says:

      Most of my very limited anthropology knowledge comes from Guns, Germs and Steel, so this is wild speculation. There’s this division of societies into bands, tribes, chiefdoms and states, with most of the really exciting stuff happening between the tribe (small enough for everyone to know everyone else – maximum size about 100-250 or so?) and chiefdom (too for that, so you have to have centralised authority to keep order). Naively I’d expect prestige to be something that accrued to people who were “comparatively well known”, so chiefdom level or above – like your point about everyone knowing the dancer. But there’s another thought.

      GGS tells me that in tribe level groups you often get a “bigman” who has no formal authority (unlike a chief) but is “first among equals” – wikipedia suggests it’s more complicated than that, but you get the idea – it says someone who “can maintain recognition through skilled persuasion and wisdom”. This sort-of looks like “prestigious but not dominant”, even without “comparatively well known”. But it seems to be missing out on some of the aspects of prestige. Also, modern day bigmen seem to spend a lot of time interact with each other, competing to see who can give each other the biggest gift.

      Perhaps Scott’s idea that it’s a hodge-podge, and several different factors are involved, which presumably means you get different types of prestige based on which factors are at work and which aren’t.

      Presumably an actual anthropologist could tell me that I’m talking nonsense here. At any rate, bigmen may well be worth further looking into.

      • Nornagest says:

        I’m not an anthropologist, but I’ve read a good amount of anthropology, and my take is that Guns, Germs, and Steel is interesting and valuable reading but not a good introduction to the subject. The outline you give for the development of authority isn’t wrong, exactly, but it’s too specific; semi-formal authority tends to emerge at the tribe level, sure enough, and “big man” is as good a name as any (although I’m more used to it referring to influential individuals, below the level of chief, in a chiefdom). But kinship and lineage are way more important than that makes it sound like, and dominance is definitely important too.

        Big men in this context don’t just get their status from persuasion and wisdom, but also from having valuable skills, from being or appearing to be good at fighting (sometimes in semi-ritualized duels or contests, sometimes in no-holds-barred warfare, depending on context, culture, and the severity of a dispute), and from being related to big, successful families or to individual high-status people (the one often implies the other). The closer the relation, the better, and tribal societies often have complex and incredibly fine-grained kinship structures that it propagates along.

      • Swami says:

        My reading of the literature (see Boehm as a starting place) is that most HGs were nomadic until the advent of primitive agriculture and that nomadic bands within larger tribes are greatly egalitarian (meaning the males are equal in basic hierarchical status — dominance NOT prestige). Big men with dominance appear when bands become less mobile or nomadic (among nomads any male can take his spears, family and friends and split on an alpha or kill said alpha with a single thrust from behind). IOW big men or chiefs based upon dominance rather than prestige arrive with agriculture or in those rare areas of extremely high productivity (along rivers in the Washington for example).

        It is the lack of exit options which screws over non alphas. Our evolutionary background was egalitarian (think rule egalitarian not outcome egalitarian) cooperators with extensive exit options (see my above comment on how multi dimensional these options were).

    • keranih says:

      I’m not sure that other primates have prestige (or rather, that they don’t have it.) Do we know this?

      If other primates have prestige, what does it look like (and why didn’t Scott talk about it?)

      If other primates don’t have prestige…why are we assuming that this one species of birds has that much in common with humans, when closer relatives don’t? What’s the mechanism for this parallel?

      • Swami says:

        I have repeatedly read that prestige is something which is significant ONLY in humans. Without checking my sources, my recall is that other primates have dominance hierarchies, but that due to cultural communications humans have evolved the novel potential for prestige hierarchies.

        Indeed, I think most of the literature I have read was unaware of these birds.

        But back to the question, I think the consensus view from everything I have read is that prestige is insignificant in existing non human primates, whereas dominance hierarchies are widespread and significant. The explanation for the rise of prestige is based on the role of social capital in a species with significant culture and ability to communicate, share ideas and cooperate with control of free riders (due greatly to our cultural ability to communicate, gossip and build deadly weapons).

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Don’t take this on my (non-) authority. I just read the Simler article. I get the impression chimps have something sort of like prestige – some of them can be good at building coalitions to get power even when they’re physically weaker than another leader – but it’s hard to analogize.

    • Vorkon says:

      I’m certainly no expert on the matter, so take my musings on this with a large grain of salt, but it seems to me that even if chimps don’t have anything that maps directly to prestige rather than dominance, the various sexual social bonding rituals that bonobos are known for seems to map to prestige pretty well. And I’m not even sure if chimps don’t have prestige; dominance is certainly the more obvious driver of their social interactions, but they do form complex enough social structures, with enough jockeying for position without the direct use of violence, that I’m not prepared to say they don’t have something that maps to prestige, either.

  12. Michael vassar says:

    I think that the IPCC plus basic financial economics actually does a much better job than the Koch Brothers in discrediting climate doomsaying. I’m sure anyone even wants to discredit mainstream atmospheric science except to point out problems with the computer models, and If you tried, you’d be a pro at that, but no-one would care.

    That said, without Koch funding for GMU, Robin Hanson et al would have much less of an outlet and this community, for better or for worse, probably wouldnt be talking about status.

    • One reason the IPCC report would help discredit climate doomsaying (if anybody actually tried reading it), is that the high end of their estimate for the Social Cost of Carbon is “31–121 US$/tCO2.” That means a tax of $1 per gallon of gasoline at most (and probably much less).

      Using that as an excuse for shutting down capitalism (or even banning incandescent light bulbs or toilets that work) counts as a classic example of a “motte and bailey” argument.

      • Nornagest says:

        Does anyone except the most obnoxious Bay Area anarchist types, who’d take any excuse to attack capitalism anyway, want to shut down capitalism for climate reasons?

      • Quite aside from shutting down capitalism, the current U.S. gas tax is about fifty cents/gallon and most developed countries are above a dollar. So if the optimal tax is at most a dollar a gallon (I haven’t checked that Joseph is correct on that) and probably less, that suggests that most countries should be reducing their gas taxes, not increasing them.

        Of course, one could argue that there are external costs other than AGW, but that gets us beyond the climate argument.

        • Izaak Weiss says:

          But most gas taxes don’t go towards reducing the impact of carbon. If all gas taxes go towards road maintenance, then we would still need to increase our taxes.

          • Martin-2 says:

            I haven’t looked at the report but I’m guessing where the money goes didn’t factor into the calculation. Rather, the tax is supposed to ensure that someone only buys gas if the benefit to them is greater than the cost to society. The environmental benefits are purely from people buying less gas, not fiscal programs.

          • Nornagest says:

            The environmental benefits are purely from people buying less gas, not fiscal programs.

            That doesn’t make sense. Transportation comes to something like 25% of carbon emissions; we could erase it completely and we’d still be emitting a lot of carbon. Tacking a moderate carbon tax onto gasoline wouldn’t get us anywhere near the levels of emissions that the IPCC wants, not by itself.

            I guess it could just be an example, but I’m not sure what $N/gallon would even mean in a grid context, let alone an agricultural (the other two biggest emitters).

          • Randy M says:

            Guys, he’s describing the costs of global warming, which would be equivalent to $1 per gallon of gas used, not the costs of efforts to mitigate the warming. So if the costs to mitigate are greater than that amount, we shouldn’t bother because we are implementing a cure worse than the problem.
            (I’m not saying I buy the figures either way, but that’s the argument).
            Current gas taxes, while justified in part as vice taxes (efforts at curbing behavior harmful to self or others) are also for road maintenance and general revenue, so it isn’t a logial conclusion that we should necessarily curtail them.

          • Nornagest says:

            Then why express it in terms of dollars per gallon? I know what a billion dollars of budget means, but if you say ten cents per gallon, I have no idea how much money we’re talking about when we integrate over the world population. I mean, I can make an educated guess, but why not just give a dollar value?

          • Randy M says:

            I’d assume because that is a proposed (partial) remedy, and he is trying to frame it in cost-benefit analysis terms.

          • RCF says:

            @Martin-2

            “I haven’t looked at the report but I’m guessing where the money goes didn’t factor into the calculation. Rather, the tax is supposed to ensure that someone only buys gas if the benefit to them is greater than the cost to society.”

            The fact that roads have maintenance costs mean that gas has a cost to society other than climate change. Every gallon of gas represents a certain amount of load on infrastructure budgets.

            @Nornagest says:

            “Then why express it in terms of dollars per gallon? I know what a billion dollars of budget means, but if you say ten cents per gallon, I have no idea how much money we’re talking about when we integrate over the world population. I mean, I can make an educated guess, but why not just give a dollar value?”

            Because the cost per gallon is in some sense more relevant. What does total cost tell you? If I tell you that eliminating gas-burning cars would reduce the cost of climate-change induced environmental damage by $X, how would that be at all informative? What would you do with that information? If someone instead says that it would save 10 cents for every gallon of gas left unburned, that’s really easy to process. We can easily see that that is a trivial amount.

          • Nornagest says:

            @RCF — This might be a perspective thing. The way I see it, if someone tells me that climate change would cost a dollar for every gallon of gas burned, it’s just a factoid — it doesn’t even say what it’ll cost me, because my gas consumption is unlikely to be (globally) typical and because gas is just one piece of the overall carbon picture. Yeah, it’s a more understandable number. But that’s literally its only advantage.

            Full dollar values, on the other hand, give us the ability to talk about carbon on a policy scale, which is less intuitive but in a lot of ways more useful. If someone says that the cost of climate change is going to be N trillion dollars over the next K years, we can compare that number to budgets or GDP to give us an idea of how much real economic impact we can expect, or we can compare it to the costs of mitigation or geoengineering to give us an idea of how much they’ll save us (or not).

            The former might have more oomph to the man on the street. But it’s definitely not more meaningful, not in the sense of being able to do anything with it.

      • James Picone says:

        If I’m reading that section right, that’s the social cost of carbon with a horizon at 2030.

        And something something weakman.

        • James Picone says:

          Actually, now I’m not sure this is true. The phrasing is:

          Allowing for a range of SCC between 4–95 US$/tCO2 (14–350 US$/tC from Tol (2005b) median and 95th percentile estimates) and assuming a 2.4% per year increase (IPCC, 2007b, Chapter 20), produces a range of estimates for 2030 of 8–189 US$/tCO2. The mitigation studies in this chapter suggest carbon prices in 2030 of 1–24 US$/tCO2-eq for category IV scenarios, 18–79 US$/tCO2-eq for category III scenarios, and 31–121 US$/tCO2-eq for category I and II scenarios (see Sections 3.3 and 3.6).

          “Carbon prices in 2030” actually probably means “this is how much CO2 should cost to emit in 2030”, not “this is how much it should cost given the effects up to 2030”. Not sure if I’m parsing this well – I’m not very familiar with this side of the IPCC reports.

          • Nornagest says:

            “Mitigation studies” suggests to me that they’re talking about the cost of carbon mitigation per ton CO2 equivalent emitted, and that they’re trying to get there using a carbon market.

            Those are some pretty huge error bars, though.

          • James Picone says:

            I think the error bars are so huge because a) there’s multiplicative sources of error and b) they’re talking about the endpoint of a trajectory with errors in it.

            For a), uncertainty in climate sensitivity multiplies with the (large) uncertainty in effects of warming to produce really large uncertainties.

            For b), consider that if GW costs 0.5-1%% of GDP to mitigate at 95% confidence over n years, that’s 0.5%-1% of GDP that isn’t going to growth; it compounds.

            Still have no idea how to parse what the statement is there though. It costs that much to mitigate the impacts of climate change in 2030?

      • It’s kind of cheeky to complain about someone else’s motte and bailey when you are treating “AGW believers want to destroy capitalism” as a fact.

  13. Walter says:

    The separation of prestige and dominance makes a lot of sense. Attractive other human at the bar has prestige then?

  14. Ed says:

    I think you could find further enlightenment on this issue if you investigate the Chinese concept of face, in particular distinguishing between “lian” (one’s moral character) and “mianzi” (one’s social standing).

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Face_(sociological_concept)

    “Lian is the confidence of society in a person’s moral character, while mianzi represents social perceptions of a person’s prestige. For a person to maintain face is important with Chinese social relations because face translates into power and influence and affects goodwill. A loss of lian would result in a loss of trust within a social network, while a loss of mianzi would likely result in a loss of authority.”

  15. Tatu Ahponen says:

    Why not see it as an actual form of love? It’s generally understood people are fully capable of feeling love towards other people even if the other person does not love them back or even know that they exist, and in a sense, in this case, there’s less chance of psychological blowback since the object of love is not even capable of rejecting them – and no-one expects the loving party to try to approach their object of love seriously (and if they do it, they’re punished for stalking).

    • Scott Alexander says:

      What we’re wondering about is the unconscious/evolutionary origin. We know why people have sexual / romantic love. What’s the point of this kind?

      • keranih says:

        What’s the point of this kind?

        1) Dedication to another person in a format that doesn’t threaten the child-nuturing pairbond, which eventually led to…

        2) Creating consensus/direction for group action so that community efforts could be channeled towards a goal that was only attainable with the efforts of multiple people. If this was so, then I wonder if Neanderthals had more or less prestige than Hss. It might be that Hsn had less of a tendency to exhibit this, and it was part of their sub-par social skills (the lesser social skills being part of how Hss eventually replaced Hsn.)

        • Jaskologist says:

          Maybe the parent-child bond is the key. We spend a big, formative chunk of our lives in submission to people who are (usually) wiser than us. They can overpower us at the beginning, but parents mostly rely on their prestige to get their children to obey them. Prestige system develops because it allows kids to keep themselves alive, and then extends to other areas.

          Under this theory, you’d expect prestige systems to pop up in other creatures with very long childhoods. I’m not sure there really are any who come close to us, though.

          • FullMeta_Rationalist says:

            This thought occurred to me also, though I didn’t know how to explain it.

          • Randy M says:

            So you’re saying that idolizing a pop star really is a form of rebeling against Daddy?
            (I know, you clearly aren’t)

          • Svejk says:

            I would look at elephants, long-lived reasonably encephalized large mammals with fission-fusion social systems (like human foragers) led in large part by matriarchs on the basis of their extensive local knowledge (and local describes a very large area for elephants). Do matriarchs have prestige? They seem to lead largely by influence predicated on valuable knowledge.

      • Deiseach says:

        If we’re admiring an idol, it’s something to do with “This person is or represents or behaves in a way I find admirable/attractive/worthy of respect/desirous to imitate”.

        So we find something in the figurehead that appeals to us, and we find a point of identification with them (“Justin Bieber understands how I feel as an angsty teenager!”) and that helps with group binding?

        If we’re personally invested in the success of the Leader, not because we’re afraid he will beat our brains out with his club but because we are turning our kinship affinity onto him, then we feel that his successes are ‘our’ successes (and the same way, his failures are ‘our’ failures). So there is strong, coherent, structure and following and the group functions better: our (tribal) Dad can beat up your (tribal) Dad so we bask in reflected glory and have the reward of feeling good?

        I admit, I don’t know how this works when it comes to fictional characters; I love Dumas’ Athos to bits (even as I recognise that the novel character is problematic) and why that is (apart from, as above, recognition of traits we share, similar values, and seeing a lot of myself – including the flaws – in him and vice versa) I have no idea 🙂

      • tcd says:

        “What’s the point of this kind?”

        As an aside, a lot of the prestige-seeking behavior (where A wants to gain prestige from a link to B) seems to be co-opted mating behavior. How often do you see people who desperately want to join a group (for non-sexual, prestige purposes) come off as excessively flattering or defensive of the group’s honor. On the receiving end this often feels internally like they are sexually courting you, when in context you know that is not the case.

      • John says:

        Q. What is the point of children playing make-believe?

        A. Fantasy is practice for the real thing.

        On the empirical research angle, someone could study whether/how having a developed fantasy relationship with a fictional character or an inaccessible celebrity prepares the lover for the real thing. I expect it helps, at least at the start.

  16. Jacobian says:

    Scott, I think you’re misrepresenting Simler’s theory a bit. Scroll down to the two paragraphs towards the end titled:
    * Should an upstart beta male challenge the alpha to a showdown?
    * Should the alpha male allow the beta to mate?

    First of all, it doesn’t sound like you admire the Koch brothers at all. It should be obvious that they don’t engender the same emotions at all in your head as Elon Musk or David Bowie do.

    But let’s get back to the point: humans and babblers have prestige because they evolved in stable, static groups. As others mentioned, celebrity is a recent phenomenon, so imagine yourself instead in a tribe of 25 people, and Elon Musk is one of them. Certainly, he would be the alpha male on a prestige basis because of his huge potential to contribute to the group. Because of that, you can’t force him out of the group (beta challenging alpha) because no one will support you. If you’re deferential, Elon won’t force YOU out (alpha allowing beta) because you’re useful. If you don’t participate in the prestige economy (by being either prestigious or admiring), you’re at a huge risk since for both early humans and babblers being kicked out the group usually equals death.

    If you’re stuck on an island with 30 teenage girls and Bieber, Darwin would suggest that you learn the lyrics to “Baby” right quick.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I don’t admire the Koch brothers per se, but what I’m saying is that I would still treat them with certain behaviors appropriate for very high status people, and I’m not sure why. It’s not because I’m afraid of them – there’s a limited amount they can do to hurt me and I doubt they’d trouble themselves over it if I just ignored them or was slightly rude. And it’s not because I admire them. So what is it?

      Now that I’m putting it like that, it seems obvious that the answer is “some sort of primal evolutionary instinct for dealing with high-status people”, but I worry maybe that breaks Simler’s dominance-prestige dichotomy.

      • Sokka says:

        I think the dichotomy should be broken. The two concepts seem complementary to me; one is treating people well to avoid negative consequences, the other is treating people well to court positive consequences. It seems quite reasonable to use similar and overlapping mechanisms to deal with the two, if there’s even a difference in them at all beyond the expected differences in reactions to positive and negative feedback.

      • Agreeing with Sokka…

        You aren’t worried that the Koch brothers will hurt you. But it might occur to you that they could easily double the amount of money spent on research to avoid the development of lethally malevolent A.I. Or fund some other useful cause. Or, less directly, put you in contact with other wealthy people who might be willing to help push projects that are important to you. Being friends rather than enemies, or even neutral, with powerful people can be useful in a lot of different ways.

        What I find more puzzling is the case of a strong prestige/admiration link for people who will never know you exist.

        • Cauê says:

          What I find more puzzling is the case of a strong prestige/admiration link for people who will never know you exist.

          Adaptation-executers-not-fitness-maximizers. In the evolutionary environment, if you knew of someone they knew of you as well.

      • [This was a response to someone suggesting that my post about carbon taxes was in the wrong place. The response seems to have ended up in the wrong place too.]

        You are correct. From time to I apparently fail to take the last step in posting a comment without realizing it hasn’t been posted. I then am given that post when I try to respond to a different comment in a different thread. I post it, and it shows up in the wrong place.

        If I notice it in time I delete the post and repost it in the right place, but sometimes I don’t.

        • The response seems to have ended up in the wrong place too.

          Sorry, my fault. I deleted my question, since it seemed redundant once you’d answered. I didn’t realize that would break the threading.

      • Jacobian says:

        If you feel an urge to be deferential to the Koch brothers, it’s largely because they are admired by many other people (such as my 50,000 colleagues when I interned at Georgia-Pacific, a Koch Industries company). That goes back to Simler’s point: prestigious people aren’t strong by themselves (like a dominant alpha), but due to their broad base of support in the tribe.

        That’s why Simler emphasizes that in prestige dynamics, admiration comes first. A dominant male would be dominant everywhere, but you gain prestige only if the tribe is geared to admire your specific skills. As an obvious example, I doubt that either Bowie, Mush or Koch would hold a lot of prestige in a prehistoric hunter-gatherer tribe.

        • Scott Alexander says:

          But my point is that rationally I don’t expect to ask the Koch brothers for a favor, nor would I expect them to grant it based on me having a two minute conversation with them on a plane.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            No, but they might.

            If some magic spell happened that meant I had a 1% chance of winning the $100 million Lotto, but I had to stand in line for an hour to buy my ticket, I’d do it. Even though I know it probably won’t happen.

    • Max says:

      If you’re stuck on an island with 30 teenage girls and Bieber, Darwin would suggest that you learn the lyrics to “Baby” right quick.

      Great arguments up until this point. If you stuck with Bieber your best bet is to outright kill him and become the sole male of the group with unlimited access to females (who will quickly forget Beiber and start worshipping you as the only available male and thus their chance for procreation)

      • Jacobian says:

        Max, you’re right, that’s what my genes would want me to do. What my brain would want me to do is to swim the hell away from that hellish island in any random direction 🙂

      • Scott Alexander says:

        I feel like this ends with me telling Justin Bieber his eye color.

      • Edward Scizorhands says:

        I would probably kill myself before dealing with 30 teenage girls.

    • Swami says:

      I agree with the general direction of Jacobian’s comment but actually have a correction.

      “…humans and babblers have prestige because they evolved in stable, static groups.”

      In my research on the broader topic of cooperation over the last few years I have come to the opposite conclusion on humans (I have no opinion on Babblers yet). It was the existence of non stable groups which in part led to the emergence of prestige. The story in brief:

      Culture, communications, gossip, deadly weapons and the benefit of cooperative bands co-evolved.

      Absent exit options, anthropoly and history reveals the emergence of big men, Chiefs and stationary bandits.

      Among pre agricultural nomadic hunter gatherers (our likely evolutionary environment), humans had exit options to other bands within the tribe. They also had access to weapons of deadly force. These threats restricted the rise of alphas among nomadic HGs.

      Competition for cooperation among a species which can communicate and coordinate actions led to the emergence of prestige and social capital.

      In the evolutionary background, having the friendship or even the perception of friendship with a Koch or Bowie would be evolutionarily advantageous. First, we can learn from those with prestige. Second, we want those with prestige to be our friends, partners, lovers, husbands, hunting buddies. Third, we want others judging us as potential partners to want to cooperate with us. Being seen with or acting like higher prestige is a useful heuristic.

      • science says:

        What did these years of research look like on a day to day basis? Were you digging up fossils and midden pits? Sequencing DNA to build phylogenetic trees? Observing great apes in Africa? Primitive tribes in the Amazon? Running large N psychology studies on US undergraduates?

        • Swami says:

          I believe Boehm’s data specifically involved a comprehensive review of the entire anthropological literature in existence at the time in the study of nomadic foragers. He spells it out in his books and articles. He has tables on the various societies and what kind of punishments they take and when they take them and so forth.

          The game theory tests often run on “Weird” students, and that is its primary defect.

          • science says:

            I’m confused.

            You wrote: “In my research on the broader topic of cooperation over the last few years …” followed by very strong claims both of the particular (pre)historical kind and of the sweeping explanatory kind.

            I asked you what research allowed you to make such strong claims, and in response you tell me that Boehm did an anthropology literature review and made tables of punishments meted out by then contemporary nomadic foragers societies. Also some (other?) people run game theory tests on college student but you don’t think much of them.

            I hope you can see where my confusion lies.

          • Swami says:

            Oh, you meant what did my “research” look like. Got it.

            My research was simply reading the relevant literature on the topic. Would you like me to expand on my summary, something which goes beyond a casual blog comment? Please let me know.

          • Svejk says:

            Swami is recapitulating a widely held idea in modern anthropology that nomadic human forager groups generally exhibited ‘fission-fusion’ social dynamics including the right to exit. Upstream in the conversation he mentions that he is basing his statements largely on the work of Christopher Boehm, who has done a lot of work (generating and curating primary data) on dominance interactions in small-scale societies.

  17. “If I ever need an entire field of science discredited, now I’ve got an in with some people who are really good at it”

    I understand the Koch-funded Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature study discredited the theory that there hasn’t been any global warming. I suppose they are really good at it.

    • Echo says:

      When Evil People do things we approve of, it’s only because they’re incompetent failures at their real nefarious plans. They’ll go back to being criminal masterminds as soon as they do something we disapprove of.
      For example, that one time Bush helped an old lady cross the street? He was obviously planning to push her into traffic, but a Daily Kos blogger heroically saved her by distracting him with jeers.

      • Nornagest says:

        It’d usually be more realistic to say we think it’s a ploy to win people over, or to get them to drop their guard. Though in the case of the temperature study, yeah, that’s probably gonna be assumed to have backfired.

        • “backfired” is a little tricky.

          The usual claim is that the Kochs, or whatever villains are blamed for the existence of criticism of CAGW, know perfectly well that their criticism is wrong but fund it for corrupt reasons. But if that’s the case, then the Kochs would have known what result the BEST study would produce.

          To maintain the backfired thesis, you either have to assume that they believed the scientists doing the study were themselves corrupt and willing to produce bogus evidence, which doesn’t seem very likely, or that the Koch brothers believed in the position they were arguing for, in which case they may be wrong but no longer look like villains.

          • I guess the obvious question is how did they react to the study?

          • Nornagest says:

            Simplest explanation from the Kochs-are-evil perspective would be that they expected the study to be corrupted, but underestimated the integrity of the people running it.

            Or, slightly more sophisticated, that they’re planning to run legit studies until one turns up negative results by pure p<0.05 and then market the hell out of that.

            I personally lean more towards the sincere-but-wrong perspective, but I generally try to avoid hypotheses that involve a villain.

    • Glen Raphael says:

      I understand the Koch-funded Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature study discredited the theory that there hasn’t been any global warming.

      That’s a bit of an overstatement. What BEST did was effectively rule out one kind of conceivable bias in the land temperature record while leaving open the possibility of other forms of bias. The kind of bias BEST checked for wasn’t necessarily likely but it was the easiest thing to check. So BEST had a bit of a drunk-searching-under-the-lamppost aspect to it – but even fruitless and unlikely-to-succeed searches can be productive if they conclusively tell you where the keys aren’t.

      To elaborate: Constructing a land-based temperature record requires a LOT of subjective decisions, each one of which is an opportunity for confirmation bias to creep in and influence results. You have to somewhat arbitrarily decide stuff like:

      – which land-based thermometers should we include in our sample?
      – how do we handle thermometers entering/leaving the record?
      – how do we handle explicit station moves?
      – how do we handle implied station moves (that is, the temperature level suddenly changed in a way that suggests there might have been a move, but the record doesn’t show there actually being one)?
      – how do we handle other obvious or subtle data errors we may spot?
      – how do we adjust for likely-or-known local Urban Heat Island effects?
      – how do we adjust for likely-or-known Time of Observation changes?
      – how do we adjust for other changes in how temperature is measured (eg: new digital thermometers replacing old analog ones, new kinds of Stevenson Screens being installed…)?
      – how do we adjust for other local known environment changes?
      – if we use a grid pattern: what grid shape and size do we use? How many observations constitute enough to include that grid square? How do we handle nearby squares that don’t have enough coverage – do we interpolate and if so how much?
      – if any of the above decisions are made via an algorithm, which algorithm do we pick?

      If the people who are making these sort of decisions are highly motivated to find a big warming trend, they may find themselves inadvertently steered towards picking choices that result in a bigger rather than a smaller net warming trend. Given that none of these questions have a well-defined right answer, the easiest way to answer them is to just pick some way of doing it that seems vaguely plausible/defensible and then see if the results look right. But if you’re expecting a lot of scary warming and one of your choices makes the warming look less than scary, you might be inclined to say “hmm, that doesn’t look right!” and look harder at the other possible choices, whereas if it looks about as scary as expected you might say “yeah, that looks about right!” and use that method. Or if it looks much MORE scary than expected you might pick that method AND publish an exciting journal article on how “Global Warming Trend Is Even Worse Than We Thought!”

      There’s really no way to check the net combined impact of these sort of decisions. About the best we can do is perform a sanity check by comparing recent trends to the satellite record. (The satellite record requires a lot FEWER subjective decisions to get an equivalent level of recent coverage so it might be somewhat less prone to that sort of bias.).

      So what did BEST actually demonstrate?

      BEST ruled out these two factors as a source of the warming trend:
      (1) deliberate fraud at the level of computer code
      (2) accidental programming errors in the computer code

      The BEST group said “if we try to replicate what those guys SAID they did, using the data source they SAID they used, do we get approximately the same answer they did? And the answer was: yes we do. Therefore, the warming trend we see in GISS et al is NOT due to somebody setting a “Trend=X” variable somewhere or some grad student forgetting a semicolon. Which should make us update our priors in the appropriate direction.

      In short, I propose this revised conclusion:

      “The Koch-funded Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature study discredited the theory that the warming trend in HadCRUT/GISS is due to fraud and/or programming errors.”

      (The charitable explanation for BEST is that the Kochs were legitimately curious as to what the result might be and interested in advancing the cause of science in that area. In funding BEST, they took one area of contention pretty definitively off the table and thereby somewhat raised the caliber of subsequent discussion.)

      • Glen Raphael says:

        And while I’m at it…this is why we lukewarmers tend to be skeptical of both small after-the-fact “adjustments” to the data and big after-the-fact methodology changes (eg: dropping HadCRUT3 in favor of HadCRUT4) that somehow invariably increase the apparent very recent warming trend compared to continuing to analyze the data the exact same way we were doing it last month and last year.

        Now, it’s certainly possible James Picone is right to think each new way the IPCC crowd picks to “adjust” their data and/or analysis methods is purely and simply a better way of looking at what’s going on, but each new change introduced is also a new opportunity to put somebody’s thumb on the scales and get a more-convincing-looking result.

        (As of 2012, HadCRUT3 suggested a warming “pause” this century. So in March 2012 HadCRUT4 was introduced, which did not.)

      • James Picone says:

        (The satellite record requires a lot FEWER subjective decisions to get an equivalent level of recent coverage so it might be somewhat less prone to that sort of bias.).

        This is hilariously false. Look up one of the satellite methods papers some time. Alternately, consider this list of corrections made to the satellite record. I don’t think there’s a single adjustment in the surface temperature record that is even close to a 0.1c/decade effect on the trend. Satellite data requires splicing together several different satellites, correcting the data for orbital decay, properly weighting incoming infrared radiation in various wavelengths to generate the different ‘bands’ (TLT, TMT, etc.), deciding which satellite datasets are sensible, gridding and all the assumptions associated with that, figuring out how to deal with a complete absence of polar data, etc., and all with the benefit that you can’t even observe the instruments you’re using to see if they’re doing okay. The satellite data is useful. It’s great to have. But it’s not a better measure of surface temperature than the surface temperature datasets, even before the point that they’re not measuring the same thing (surface temperature is not lower-trophosphere temperature).

        To your broader claim, I’m reasonably confident that BEST used their own algorithms rather than replicating the GIS or HADCRUT algorithms.

        I’d be less skeptical of the “surface temperature record is flawed” opinion if it didn’t seem like a lot of the people expressing it are impervious to evidence. I vaguely recall Watts publishing a paper with some scientists that demonstrated that ‘well-sited’ stations, by his methodology, had the same trend as ‘poorly-sited’ stations. Here‘s the paper, here’s a quote:

        Temperature trend estimates vary according to site classification, with poor siting leading to an overestimate of minimum temperature trends and an underestimate of maximum temperature trends, resulting in particular in a substantial difference in estimates of the diurnal temperature range trends. The opposite-signed differences of maximum and minimum temperature trends are similar in magnitude, so that the overall mean temperature trends are nearly identical across site classifications.

        Watts happily posts innuendo about UHI, still, even after that study.

        Similarly, no attention being paid to the various corrections and adjustments in the satellite datasets. You accuse climatologists of ignoring the beam in warm values to find the speck in cold values based on very little evidence; I think I’ve got the evidence to justifiably claim that people who doubt the surface temperature record are often guilty of paying no attention to the adjustments and records that suit them.

        (As of 2012, HadCRUT3 suggested a warming “pause” this century. So in March 2012 HadCRUT4 was introduced, which did not.)

        If the ‘pause’ is susceptible to the tiny changes to recent data in HadCRUT4, it wasn’t a real feature to begin with. The adjustments for the last decade are smaller than the uncertainty in individual temperature values – 0.1c is the uncertainty, the differences for recent values are ~0.06c.

        And we’ve got a pretty good understanding of where they come from – better coverage in the Arctic.

        • Glen Raphael says:

          I don’t think there’s a single adjustment in the surface temperature record that is even close to a 0.1c/decade effect on the trend.

          Again, here is a link contrasting HadCRUT3 versus HadCRUT4. The change in trend for the 2000s was certainly of that magnitude.

          (I don’t deny that it’s hard to compute a satellite record, or that there was a big change back in 1998. In large part I just like the idea of averaging temperature across nearly the entire globe with just a few devices rather than combining records at a thousand tiny pinprick nonrandom locations skewed towards airports and places where the most people live.)

          (Though I don’t really want to get into UHI here. Maybe we can save that for some other time.)

          If the ‘pause’ is susceptible to the tiny changes to recent data in HadCRUT4, it wasn’t a real feature to begin with.

          The word “pause” can of course have multiple nuances of meaning but in this case I was referring to the “pause” shown at that link: a decade-or-so of completely flat trend looking back from when the new version was introduced. Even an infinitesimal upward correction could still serve the rhetorical purpose of changing no warming into some warming…and that change was much more than infinitesimal.

          • James Picone says:

            Again, here is a link contrasting HadCRUT3 versus HadCRUT4. The change in trend for the 2000s was certainly of that magnitude.

            1979->1998 is 19 years – so slightly longer than the trend you’re discussing – and also isn’t specifically selected to be a period of maximal trend change (it was the entire satellite record at that point in time).

            The broader point I’m making is that I have literally never seen someone skeptical of surface temperature adjustments (or, in the case of HadCRUT4, someone skeptical of adding additional data) ever question adjustments in the satellite records, nor the actual satellite records, despite their much greater complexity and history of getting things horribly wrong.

            (And, of course, no attention is paid to trying to remove short-term variation to reveal the long-term trend – a pretty big chunk of the reason the satellite records have a lower trend, especially over the 2000s, is because they have a much larger response to ENSO behaviour. 1998 is huge. It’ll be interesting to see whether or not 2015 ends up being a similar peak in RSS and UAH.)

            (I don’t deny that it’s hard to compute a satellite record, or that there was a big change back in 1998. In large part I just like the idea of averaging temperature across nearly the entire globe with just a few devices rather than combining records at a thousand tiny pinprick nonrandom locations skewed towards airports and places where the most people live.)

            The problem with this is that the satellites don’t measure temperature. Sure, they avoid some of the homogenisation/coverage problems (not all of them, of course, because you need to homogenise different satellites instead of different weather stations, and the satellites don’t last as long, and they have just as many coverage problems with the poles as the surface station data), but they’re also inferring temperature based on transmitted IR radiation, which is way, way more complicated than anything the surface temperature datasets are doing. They literally run weather models to try and infer how much water vapour is in the air under them because that affects transmitted IR and can throw off results. The various ‘heights’ that the satellites measure at are inferred by different-weighted combinations of different frequency bands of IR, with the weights determined semi-empirically.

            The word “pause” can of course have multiple nuances of meaning but in this case I was referring to the “pause” shown at that link: a decade-or-so of completely flat trend looking back from when the new version was introduced. Even an infinitesimal upward correction could still serve the rhetorical purpose of changing no warming into some warming…and that change was much more than infinitesimal.

            This doesn’t really engage with the point I’m making – statistically-real features don’t just vanish because some data changed less than the uncertainty in individual measurements.

            As it happens, the 2000-2012 trend still includes zero at 95% confidence. 0.134 +-0.199c/decade, according to the SKS calculator, or 0.112 +- 0.178c/decade if it’s endpoint-exclusive (Which I don’t think it is). I just don’t think it means anything. For reference, the first assessment report was written in 1990. The trend 1970->1990 is positive, and even statistically-significantly so (And looking back on it with the benefit of hindsight, we know there’s a changepoint around 1975). The trend 1900->1990 is about half the size but also much more strongly significant. What did the FAR say about that?

            The size of this warming is broadly consistent with predictions of climate models, but it is also of the same magnitude as natural climate variability. Thus the observed increase could be largely due to this natural variability; alternatively this variability and other human factors could have offset a still larger human-induced greenhouse warming. The unequivocal detection of the enhanced greenhouse effect is not likely for a decade or more.

            That is, they were statistically responsible. If you want to play the short-timespan game, what about the trend from 1992->2006? It’s 0.297 +- 0.166 c/decade – much higher than the 0.170 c/decade trend from 1975 to the present day. And it partially overlaps the ‘pause’! I guess after warming up stupidly fast the globe decided to slow down.

          • Glen Raphael says:

            If you want to play the short-timespan game, what about the trend from 1992->2006?

            See, I picked “until 2012” because that is when HadCRUT4 was introduced (though “until 2015” would have produced a similar result), and I picked “starting from 2000” because 2000 is a big round number”. Human beings for some reason find spans like “this century” or “this decade” weirdly compelling. So, your turn: on what basis did you find the range 1992-2006 salient?

            I guess after warming up stupidly fast the globe decided to slow down.

            See, I’d be fine with that interpretation of the data!

            More seriously: the message I’ve been hearing from your side (even prior to “An Inconvenient Truth”) was not just that a positive warming trend exists but that the warming trend is accelerating. Has that claim been dropped? To me it seems like going from:

            “Global warming is happening at an accelerating rate!”

            to

            “Global warming is happening at a merely linear rate”

            to

            “We can’t statistically rule out with 95% confidence that global warming might still be happening at a linear rate.”

            …feels like a substantial backpedalling. Especially when combined with a Charley Brown-esque “Just wait ’till next year!”

          • Glen Raphael says:

            The broader point I’m making is that I have literally never seen someone skeptical of surface temperature adjustments (or, in the case of HadCRUT4, someone skeptical of adding additional data) ever question adjustments in the satellite records

            IIRC, the main reason people were skeptical of the adjustments is that adjustments were being made under cover of secrecy. This has gotten a LOT BETTER in recent years, but it used to be the case that “value-added” temperature data would just change with no announcement or explanation. After somebody NOTICED it had changed – and that the recent warming trend had “gotten worse” due to the change – we’d be told that the adjustment had no net effect because there was just as much downward as upward adjustment…which was true but irrelevant because all the downward adjustment was in the distant past and all the upward was more recent so the change actually did increase the apparent trend.

            When people asked if they could maybe examine the raw data so as to check on the validity of the adjustments, they were told that the raw data is proprietary – the “value-added” data was all we could have. Because of secret agreements. Agreements with who? Can we maybe ask them if it’s okay to share now? Or leave them out and just look at the other data that’s NOT secret? Sorry, no; the very existence of the secret agreements is itself also secret. So we can’t tell you which country’s data is the secret data. And we lost the agreements anyway. The dog ate it.

            So far as I know, the satellite record was never subject to these sort of shenanigans. Occasionally it gets adjusted but when it does there’s a prominent release note, a clear analysis of what happened to the trend and why and the people who have an interest in double-checking the work never have any trouble doing so.

            Actually checking somebody’s work is hard but checking if it’s POSSIBLE to check is much easier. Claims that you can’t check because there’s a secret contract we can’t show you that says you can’t is catnip for those already inclined to expect bias.

  18. A part of this that I have observed is wanting to have your picture taken with the prestigious person. Arguably that fits the “I can prove I am associated with him–there he is with his arm around my shoulder” version.

    So far as wanting to have group members who do things for the group, I’ve discussed an economist’s version of that in several places, including the third edition of _The Machinery of Freedom_, under the category of the economics of vice and virtue. It may work best when there is a residual claimant, willing to offer you up to the full value you contribute to his group by your virtuous behavior.

    • SpaghettiLee says:

      I’ve heard people say that “I got my picture taken with him” has replaced “I bought his album/movie”, which the internet has decreased in value pretty much infinitely. Also why concerts are so much more expensive than they used to be. It’s an inherently exclusive experience. Makes sense to me.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Yeah, but I imagine showing someone the picture and saying “I met him by coincidence on an airplane” – in other words, admitting that I don’t have special skills that cause the prestigious person to seek out my company. You have to assume that everyone’s being really irrational: “Part of me knows that it was just a coincidence, but part of me is still impressed anyway!” This could work, but it seems inelegant as an explanation.

      • In my observation, there isn’t any logical implication that the picture is a result of special skills. It’s just evidence that you were near the person in question and he was willing to spend twenty seconds being photographed with you.

      • baconbacon says:

        Which is best,

        1. I have a picture of myself with a celebrity, want to see?

        2. I have a new picture of Mittens, want to see?

        3. I have no new pictures.

  19. Nornagest says:

    I notice that a lot of your objections rely on really famous people, like literally one in a million, and I’m not sure that makes evolutionary sense. When you’re living in a forager band of fifty people, there are no David Bowies in your world. The coolest people you know are just that, people you actually know, and who can be expected to know you. Even in an early agriculturalist city of, say, a thousand, you’ve still got a good chance of knowing the coolest guy in your subculture. Tit-for-tat at the very least makes a lot more sense in that context.

    On the other hand, I’m not sure it makes sense for other reasons. People don’t actually respond that well to fawning sycophants. Alliances work best from a position of mutual admiration, where you have both respect for the other party and value of your own that you can show. Put them on too high a pedestal and you’re saying that you have nothing to offer the object of your admiration, and therefore that they have no incentive to give you what you want.

    I’m not sure how to reconcile this. Maybe the celebrity thing is a spandrel, emerging from some kind of coolness superstimulus that never would have come up in the EEA.

    • Sokka says:

      I don’t think it can really be true that you haven’t got anything to offer the object of your admiration. If we’re staying at the hunter-gatherer level, you can’t really have too many people offering you food and furs.

    • Kaj Sotala says:

      Was about to comment something similar. I was going to frame it as “when considering possible objections to evolutionary hypotheses, start by ignoring every objection whose proposed counter-example assumes the existence of some form of mass media”.

  20. baconbacon says:

    A couple of people have mentioned the starting point for iguring this out in looing to human evolution.

    Prestiege isn’t just “i like that guy a lot” its about “lots of people in my in group like that guy a lot”. When you take a group of people you will inevatably get conflict. sorting out conflict via voilence is generally bad for the idividuals (even the winner can be injured) and bad for the group. Mutualy selecting a 3rd party to be an arbitor is the best way around this. Prestiege allows for a lot of things in an arbitor. 1. He has something at stake (his reputation) so he doesn’t want to make clearly bad decisions. 2. He is well known and respected by most of the group. Someone rejecting him is bad signalling either about the strength of their case or about their group identity/affiliation This allows you to cut through wasteful arguing and proposing of clearly biased 3rd parties (mygrandpa is a great arbitor, let him decide!).

    Prestige is (probably) about signalling between group members about what is important value wise and who can be trusted to work with.

  21. Jaskologist says:

    I think you are mistaken here in mixing up sexual desire with prestige. The groupy(‘s DNA) is attracted to Bowie to get some of his genes, increasing her offspring’s odds of success. It’s not an altruistic move to sleep with him. It may well be driven by the fact that his prestige helps out, but it could just as easily be driven by Genghis’ dominance. The prestige is a separate thing from the sexual desire, needing a separate explanation.

    • Cauê says:

      Status has a Schelling point-like component, in that you respect people that you expect will be respected by other people, recursively. This is clear for “dominance” in that this is how authority holds itself together, but I’ve always understood it being a factor in “prestige” too (I’m not entirely convinced that the dominance/prestige is cutting reality at quite the right joints). It’s also a factor in theories of sexual attraction, in that you’re better off mating with someone other people are attracted to in order to maximize your offspring’s chances of being attractive to many people.

      So, the fact that groupies want to sleep with him is a component of his status, as well as being caused by it. The circle starts from something external, like physical attractiveness, wealth, talent, etc., but gets self-reinforcing.

      People haven’t talked much about beauty in the comments. I’ve always observed that beautiful people (men and women) tend to get prestige from beauty alone, but that doesn’t seem to fit in the models being discussed.

  22. SUT says:

    Watching “Beasts of no Nation”, a thought struck me: this must have been what war was like for the ancient Greeks. The film’s an interesting study on the topic of prestige and dominance in war tribes.

    As Peter points out above, you really shouldn’t extrapolate from babblers to modern day celebrities* like Bowie for whom broadcast technology has increased their reach 10000-fold. Groups of ~300 are about as far as you should go, so the high-school homecoming king is probably the best model organism for evobio style prestige.

    *”Historical” celebrities are still valid though as they often competed in small groups of royal courtiers. Christopher Columbus strikes me as a great example based on the risk he took, and the title he demanded for himself when he succeeded.

  23. speakers says:

    #4 seems like it’d be associated more with someone that had a dominant status as opposed to a prestigious status. If I’m expecting some benefit from them, it seems like they’d be in a dominant position. I would remove that. I think the “signalling to other people” is by far more important.

    In fact, I’d argue that the babbler’s “prestige” example is misguided as well. Suppose I work for a company that requires a lot of political wheeling and dealing to be successful. I have a lot of connections in politics, but no real power in the company. Presumably, I’d still have a lot of “prestige” due to my connections, but really I’d consider that dominance. My connections might help out the group as a whole, but it secures me a dominant position. In addition, I’d want to sabotage anyone else trying to move in on my connections, as that would threaten the security of my position, and thus my dominance.

    • Orphan Wilde says:

      So prestige can be used to further dominance? …makes sense.

      • speakers says:

        I wouldn’t say that prestige furthers dominance, I’m saying that any scenario where there is a tit for tat relationship is one based on dominance not prestige. The babbler that spends the most time being lookout isn’t doing it for prestige, he’s doing it to maintain dominance. He is vitally important to the group, and is thus dominant. If anyone else tries to be lookout, they are threatening his group necessity, and thus his dominance.

  24. HeelBearCub says:

    The naive answer is that they’re simply doing what’s best for the group — because when the group succeeds, everyone ends up better off. But this kind of straightforward altruism simply isn’t found in nature.

    This simple brush-off of the “group outcomes” theory seems too simple to me.

    Take three groups of babblers. Both group 1 and 2 contain helpful babblers. Group 1 also has the characteristic of rewarding helpful babblers. Group 2 does not. Group 3 is composed of only selfish babblers.

    In the beginning group 1 and group 2 both do well. Group 3 begins losing populaton to predators and losing chicks to malnourishment. After several generations Group 3 does not have enough babblers to hold onto their two nesting grounds and are forced out by group 1 and group 2 babblers. Group 2 also far fewer helpful babblers than group 1, as the free riders have come to dominate. Eventually the descendants of group 2 lose their nesting location to descendants of group 1, because the overall fitness of group 1 is better.

    Looked at this way, prestige is the reward that allows helpful babblers to continue to exist, solving the free rider problem. I think it is important to distinguish between intra-group competition and inter-group competition.

      • HeelBearCub says:

        @Scott Alexander:

        I don’t think anything in the Pinker article really addresses what I am saying.

        Note that ALL of the individuals in group 1 benefited. The genes that code for the combination of helpfulness and prestige were successful in out competing other gene packages. Each individual in the group is benefiting from the gene package.

        It’s not that I am saying that the gene package is not being selfish, merely that the selfishness manifests as group cooperation and that the selfishness would not work if it did not actually result in the whole group being better off.

      • zslastman says:

        Group selection *could* plausibly work if there’s something stabilizing the pro-group behaviors against defectors. Sexual signalling equilibria, for instance. The problem is this is hard to test, because those kinds of equilibria don’t spring up a lot outside primates, and there are lots of alternative patterns of selection you could also use as explanations.

        • HeelBearCub says:

          @zslastman:

          Well, the theory seems to be that babblers provide a perfect example of how the pro-group behavior is stabilized. Prestige comes from pro-group behavior and is rewarded by additional mating opportunities. Defectors can be kicked out of the group (and have worse outcomes.)

          • zslastman says:

            Yep, that’s what the Miller argues in ‘the mating mind’ (see my comment above). Difficult to know how much of a factor this was in human evolution.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @zslastman:
            “because those kinds of equilibria don’t spring up a lot outside primates”

            This contention strikes me as odd, because group helping behavior seems fairly common in mammals and many flocking birds. Wikipedia list a number of examples of altruistic behavior down to the level of even slime molds.

            Here is an example of a different solution to “encourage group cooperation but punish free-riders.”

            So I’m curious what light you can shed on the contention.

          • zslastman says:

            @HeelBearCub below
            (Sorry ran out of levels to reply)
            The equilibria I’m referring to are sexual signalling equilibria, in which group members compete to demonstrate fitness by helping the group. This doesn’t seem to happen very often.
            The article you referred to is still about reciprocal altruism. There’s no problem with that. But Human cooperation goes way further than being reciprocal – that’s more of a puzzle.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @zslastman:
            Alarm calls seem like a decent example of altruistic behavior that is not intrinsically reciprocal (there is no good way of only warning those who reciprocate). And they are common in a wide range of species.

            If you accept that warning behavior is adaptive and advantageous overall, it seems trivial to then posit that it would be selected for and therefore result in increased mating opportunities. Competition then seems to follow as well.

            I guess I am not seeing this big, bright line of “oh, well that is just reciprocal”. When a herd of grazers puts the young on the inside of the herd and the fit males on the outside, is that always directly reciprocal? Or is it merely indirect but stable? Mobbing behavior in birds (and other colony breeding animals)?

            Again, I am not claiming that it isn’t adaptive or selfish. It’s clearly adaptive! That is why we see the behavior so much.

  25. mayleaf says:

    It feels like a core component of the admiration-impulse is “wanting to give appreciation/respect to people who provide things we value” — maybe because we want to incentivize people to create valuable things. This explains why we admire famous musicians, famous writers, Elon Musk, etc: we respect the things they’ve created and provided for us.

    Admirers don’t expect any personal reciprocation from prestigious people, but they do expect them to keep doing admirable and prestigious things, and often feel very personally affronted if they don’t (e.g. indie music fans who get angry when their favorite band “sells out” and changes their music style to become more mainstream; mentors and teachers who get upset when their favorite student who had “so much potential” goes into some a career that “wastes their talent”). Even if I never get to talk to Elon Musk, I still derive value from innovations like Tesla Motors and SpaceX. But if Elon Musk started creating things I disapproved of — or if he stopped innovating altogether — I’d feel sad, disillusioned, and maybe even a little hurt.

    This also explains why admiration is used as ingroup-signaling: if we admire people for creating things we value, then who I admire says a lot about what I value, and I can expect that other like-minded people will admire the same public figures that I do.

  26. Doctor Mist says:

    I was going to make the point that you should be looking at the ancestral environment, but everybody else did. I hadn’t thought of asking whether prestige really originated that far back, so I’m glad Gunnar Zarncke did.

    I wonder if it’s just an epiphenomenon of consciousness. Dennett’s book on humor (which I strongly recommend if only for all the jokes it contains) proposes that humor is related to the minor rush we (have evolved to) feel when putting facts together into a theory, except that it’s a bigger rush because the facts are on their faces less likely to be related.

    So I’ve got lots of Justin Bieber records, and he therefore occupies a certain niche in my brain, but look! here is the actual person taking up space just like people I’ve never heard of, whose physical existence occupies a very different niche. But they’re the same thing! How cool!

    This seems to me to explain why you might get excited about a Koch brother even though you’d rather send him to North Korea. Any person you’ve read about in the newspaper, or read a book by, is subject to this humor-like unexpected juxtaposition if you meet him in person. You take the selfie for the same reason you pass on a good joke.

  27. Vaniver says:

    Heroic leaders like George Washington (except more alive).

    Actually, this might make the point even clearer–anyone who you would do something because they would have wanted you to, but they’re dead, is someone whose power operates by prestige rather than dominance. I’ve done things Benjamin Franklin’s way several times, not because he can punish me for not doing it, but because I like the guy and trust him. (Shame that preservation technology of the day was inadequate.)

    • Scott Alexander says:

      This is actually a really good point. We honor George Washington all the time these days, we name stuff after him, we take off from work on his birthday. Maybe the same mechanisms that cause us to do this to honor a dead person also operate in our respect for the living?

      • JuanPeron says:

        Anecdotally, I have on more than one occasion discovered that a person I consider prestigious is alive when I thought they were dead, or vice versa. It produces very little change in my view of their prestige.

        On some level, I think prestige is a general-purpose word for “non-enforced alignment”. Everyone I think of as prestigious has at least some property that I respect or desire. I’m starstruck by Bowie not because I want to be a famous guitarist, but because I want to be talented, creative, and successful at my chosen career. The Kochs, if nothing else, are razor-sharp businessmen and major funders of charity (and I wouldn’t mind being incredibly rich to boot). That awe and hesitation to approach feels like a reaction to seeing someone do very well at at something I desire to do well.

        If dominance is power by fear of consequence, is prestige power by admiration?

  28. Jeremy Schmitt says:

    There’s a difference in usefulness between Child Hellen Keller and Adult Hellen Keller. The kid’s a free rider. The adult is an outspoken socialist who goes on lecture circuits and points out the link between poverty and disease. Adult Hellen Keller is no free rider.

    Although you might think she’s a nuisance.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Yes, but there are probably a zillion socialist lecturers approximately as good as she is. She’s famous because she’s blind and deaf. Random Socialist Lecturer #3458501 doesn’t get nearly as much prestige as she does.

      • HlynkaCG says:

        …and there is some debate as to just how much utility a lecture produces compared to a doctor or plumber, and is it better to have a blind deaf doctor than a sighted one?

      • Deiseach says:

        She’s famous because she’s blind and deaf.

        She’s famous because that’s the sanitised version of her story that has been transmitted (over here as well) to school children about the child Helen Keller. Very few ever learn about the adult Helen Keller and her subsequent career.

        The woman who was a campaigner has been reduced in the public mind to Inspirational Disabled Kid, the Hallmark Movie of the Week for Deaf-Blind-Mutes. The same way Florence Nightingale was reduced to the Lady with the Lamp, fitting in with the comfortable conventional imagery of the Angel in the Household, the Eternal Feminine being nurturing and comforting to the stricken male, and carefully leaving out that she was a prickly customer who went head-to-head with the system in place and over-rode all the best advice of the time as to what she should and should not do.

        You see it in hagiography all the time, but secular society too is very adept at turning its heroes into plaster saints and smoothing off or ignoring the inconvenient sticking-out bits.

        • Amelia says:

          Thank you, I was going to say the same thing. She was NOT famous for merely being able to function while deafblind. She was a radical socialist activist, for fuck’s sake, and blisteringly intelligent. She would have been exceptional even if she hadn’t been disabled.

          I’m pretty put out that Scott Alexander would be so dismissive of her legacy, frankly.

          • Vorkon says:

            At least he doesn’t think she should have been exiled to North Korea, though! :op

          • E. Harding says:

            Well, Scott’s version of her legacy is her actual legacy. People’s legacies and what they actually did are sometimes not quite the same thing.

          • FullMeta_Rationalist says:

            Frankly, I didn’t know anything about her (until now) except that she was blind & deaf and therefore Courageous (TM). It doesn’t surprise me that she was also an accomplished social activist. But “accomplished social activist” wasn’t really the narrative I had absorbed-by-osmosis during my childhood.

            [ * The More You Know * ]

      • John Sidles says:

        Scott Alexander asserts [dubiously] “She’s [Hellen Keller’s] famous because she’s blind and deaf.”

        With respect, the origins of Keller-variety humanist charisma are considerably more nuanced than that.

        Consider, for example, the rehearsal of the then-unknown congenitally blind piano prodigy Nobuyuki Tsujii with the conductor James Conlon at the 2009 Cliburn Competition.

        Hmmmm … how exactly does a blind pianist respond to the conductor’s visual cues? Answer … by listening to the baton swishing through the air.

        And yet, the most charismatically thrilling aspect (for me and many) of the video of the 2009 Tsujii/Conlon rehearsal — from an empathy-positive perspective that is — is not Nobu’s hands but rather his mother’s hands … which she struggles to hold behind her back to hide her wringing of them, in anxiety at the public judging of her disabled son.

        This is the real-life subtext that makes the Tsujii/Conlon rehearsal as thrilling as any opera.

        What can we conclude?  From a post-rationalist empathy-positive perspective, the assertion “Hellen Keller’s famous because she’s blind and deaf” makes about as much sense as “Nobu’s famous because he presses the right piano keys in the right order.”

        Empathetic humanist narratives are not mainly about Helen or Nobu as extraordinary individuals … they’re mainly about the extraordinary communities that hold them in the light.

        Needless to say, these pro-empathy narratives arouse legitimate anxiety in ultra-rational LW and NRx folks … anxiety at the prospect of being increasingly marginalized by a world whose professions, enterprises, and popular cultures are increasingly (yet non-rationally) empathetic.

        At least, that’s how we fellow-swimmers see it!

        • Randy M says:

          “post-rationalist empathy-positive perspective”
          I’ll bite; I don’t recall seeing this particular phrase before. Can you explain it in a sentence or two?

        • John Sidles says:

          RandyM, thank you for asking a terrific question.

          The term “post-rational” was chosen (by me) after rejecting “irrational” and “non-rational” … indeed the phrase “extra-rational empathy-positive perspective” would have been even better (as it now seems to me) .

          The modern-day progressive “extra-rational empathy-positive perspective” (as I conceive it anyway) grows from the same intertwined Spinozist, Collegiant, and Anabaptist roots as the Seventeenth century Enlightenment. These intertwined roots are surveyed in (for example) the radically conservative historian Leszek Kolakowski’s survey “Dutch seventeenth-century non-denominationalism and Religio Rationalis: Mennonites, Collegiants and the Spinoza connection” (2004)

          Very regrettably, Kolakowski’s essay is not on the internet (AFAICT), and indeed the Roman Catholic Church, which holds the copyright to many of Kolakowski’s essays, is seemingly content to allow many of Kolakowski’s more provocative works to go quietly out of print (gotta avoid that Streisand Effect!).

          As for modern-day exemplars of Spinozist, Collegiant, and Anabaptist “extra-rational empathy-positive perspectives” … I will think for a day or two before posting examples … examples that some SSC readers are ideologically conditioned to attack … ouch!

          The challenge is not that these modern-day Spinozist / Collegiant / Anabaptist exemplars are few, weak, abstruse or irrelevant, but rather that they are many, strong, concrete, and radical (these are the folks that the NRxer’s deplore as Cthuhlu’s fellow-swimmers).

          So it’s tough to chose the best among them.

          In the interim, impatient SSC readers won’t go wrong in reading ultrahigh-prestige mathematician Michael Harris’ extra-rational construction of modern-day mathematical practice — particularly Harris’ Chapter 3 “Not Merely Good, True, and Beautiful”  — whose implications for the extra-rational construction of social privilege were discussed in another SSC comment.

          • Randy M says:

            … so that’s a no, then?

          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            @ Randy M:

            What is obscurantism?

          • Randy M says:

            Vox, there’s a few of ways to take that.
            If that’s a subtle rebuke of me for refusing to put the effort into studying enough to make out John’s response, I’d respond that he is free to elaborate further but I don’t think it is wrong to ask him to try to describe briefly and in his own words the core of this argument so us that are not steeped in whatever niche academic field he is coming from can appreciate his point.

            If you are, as I think is more likely, telling me not to bother because clear communication is not his goal, but rather he wants a facade of intellectual superiority from which to snipe, well, I am trying to be charitable and give a chance to refute that impression.

          • John Sidles says:

            Randy M fairly asks for a bumper-sticker summary of “extra-rational empathy-positive cognition”.

            To answer, it is natural to adapt a famous definition from the ultrahigh-prestige humanist/computer scientist Donald Knuth:

            “‘Rationality’ is what we understand well enough to explain to a computer;  ‘Extra-rational empathy-positive cognition’ is everything else we do.”

            In particular, “Extra-rational empathy-positive cognition” encompasses all the cognition that makes us want to sing and dance and laugh … as shared cognitive activities.

            As psychiatric clinicians appreciate full well, humans who are unable to sing and dance and laugh with other humans are in pretty sad shape.

            Compare (e.g) Spinoza’s designation of hilaritas as the highest human virtue.

          • Nornagest says:

            So, in other words, you don’t know.

          • Randy M says:

            Thank you for the more straightforward clarification. It appears I was prodding for illumination of something of a tangent then, for what seemed to be the key to your philosophical perspective is more akin to a round-about way of describing that which, in conjunction with pixie dust, allows for human flight in certain well-known tales?

          • John Sidles says:

            Nornagest says: “So, in other words, you don’t know”

            Well, at least one of us doesn’t know … yet anyway.

            I’ll try to find and post better examples of extra-rational cognition in a day or two!

            In the interim, it’s hope-inspiring that Squidward and SpongeBob can find common ground.

            As for conveying these trans-rational notions any more simply than SpongeBob SquarePants, it’s not obvious (to me) that this is feasible. `Cuz actually, SpongeBob and his friends do a pretty terrific job of it.

          • John Sidles says:

            Randy M wonders  “[Is extra-rational cognition] that which, in conjunction with pixie dust, allows for human flight in certain well-known tales?”

            No, it’s that communally performative cognition that inspirationally flowers in careers like Helen Keller’s and Nobu Tsujii’s, and even Sir William Osler’s …

            The Problem of
            the Crippled and the Maimed

            American Journal
            for the Care of Cripples

            Sir William Osler, 1917

            There has grown up as a department of surgery the branch known as orthopaedics — the original meaning of which was the straightening of crooked children; but it is now applied widely to the relief of deformities and disabilities of all kinds. All of us really needed this art — some in minds, others in bodies, many in both!

            In this regard, our century has no shortage of urgent need, no shortage of inspiring narratives, no shortage of honorable traditions, no shortage of effective communal actions … and no shortage of new STEM resources of incredible scope and power (the latter being my own particular interest).

            One reason that my comments embrace modernist language — especially the language of modern mathematical discourse in general and Michael Harris’ writings in particular — is that the constipated language associated to ideological extremes (both left and right) inadequately spans the unbounded scope and the unrelenting pace and the unprecedented ambition of modern STEM advances in relation to empathetic considerations and objectives … especially medical ones.

          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            @ Randy M:

            It was the latter. I didn’t mean to disparage you in any way.

            But good luck!

          • Randy M says:

            For future reference, is X-RM+ restricted to the domain of communal performancy by the impaired, or is that just one area in which it is observed, partaken in, or what have you?

            Also, is it necessary to end every long post with a “therefore, rightists suck” (paraphrased)?

          • John Sidles says:

            Your point is very well taken, Randy M … “right” has been amended to “ideological extremes (both left and right)”. Thank you, and I’ll try to do better.

            In regard to human limitations as illuminated by human achievements, it was Osler’s conclusion (in the quote above) that “All of us really need this [healing] art — some in minds, others in bodies, many in both!” Emphasis added by me.

            Personally I think that the everyday lives of everyday people (children especially) are filled with marvelous and courageous achievements … and the appreciation and cultivation of these marvels and this courage is what extra-rational cognition is all about.

            In Osler’s words “All of us really need this art.”

          • Fazathra says:

            @John Sidles

            I’ve tried to follow most of your discussions in good faith, and I’ve even read some of the links you provide, yet I still have absolutely no idea what you are talking about. Can you please abandon your experiment with modernist comment writing for just one post and explain simply, in your own words, and with no spambotty links to seemingly irrelevant articles what exactly this “extra-rational empathy-positive cognition” is and why it is so important so poor rubes like me have a hope of knowing what is going on?

            Thanks.

          • John Sidles says:

            The Knuth-comment (above) already gave the one-sentence definition of “extra-rational empathy-positive cognition” (which here is repeated):

            “‘Rationality’ is what we understand well enough to explain to a computer; ‘Extra-rational empathy-positive cognition’ is everything else we do.”

            As for the performative implications, William Osler’s (Daniel Sokal-praised) lecture “Aequanimitas” (1889) and Donald Knuth’s Foreword to his own book 3:16 Bible Texts Illuminated (1991) spell out these implications much better than I could, in the plainest of language.

            SSC readers who lack the time or inclination to contemplate these much-praised scholarly works, won’t go far wrong by reflecting upon their own favorite episodes of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and/or SpongeBob SquarePants, both of which artfully, hilariously, and gently introduce preschool viewers to the performative elements and moral context of “extra-rational empathy-positive cognition”.

            So far as I know, no-one has ever argued that the citizens of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and/or SpongeBob’s Bikini Botton are (or at least should be!) rational self-interested economically efficient actors who are performatively governed chiefly by their inherited sociobiologically determined predilections … any such commentary would be hilarious in its own right!

          • FullMeta_Rationalist says:

            Randy, I think John Siddles is making an appeal to empathy by knocking down the Straw Vulcan.

            John, the Straw Vulcan fallacy has been discussed at length before. Empathy and logic are not mutually exclusive. And there’s no reason to call their combination “super empathic ultra rational expialidocious”.

          • John Sidles says:

            FullMeta_Rationalist avers (correctly) “Empathy and logic are not mutually exclusive.”

            And neither encompasses the other, right?

            At least not in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, or in Bikini Bottom.

            From (Daniel) Sokal’s review of Osler’s Aequanimitas

            “Osler’s scholarship is not tainted by pretentiousness: ‘You remember in the Egyptian story, how Typhon with his conspirators dealt with good Osiris’ — well, no, I remember no such thing, but this ignorance engenders curiosity rather than shame.”

            Among the most regrettable traits of ideological extremists — equally on the right, the left, and even along eccentric ideological axes — is that ignorance begets not curiosity, nor even shame, but rather fear, anger, intolerance, divisive rhetoric, personal abuse, censorship, and ostracism … and which lead in consequence to flat-wrong policies that are grounded solely in willful ignorance.

      • Desertopa says:

        The consensus at the time seems to have been that she was an uncommonly good public speaker and advocate, not just surprisingly good given her disadvantages. Her blindness and deafness probably served to make her much more noticeable and memorable, but I think it’s a serious overstatement to say that there were “a zillion” socialist lecturers at her level.

  29. Decius says:

    I support the musicians that I support because, among other reasons, I want people who are considering whether to become musicians to correctly perceive that if they are good at it, they won’t starve to death. (and if they are literally the best at it, they will get rich!)

  30. onyomi says:

    “So when two babblers compete to stand guard duty, for example, they’re actually jockeying, selfishly, for prestige within the group.”

    Reminds me of Chinese people fighting to pay the bill.

    • nydwracu says:

      Happens in America every time my family goes out to eat.

    • MicaiahC says:

      So, I have an amusing anecdote regarding this.

      One time I went out to eat with some (Chinese) family friends, and I was deep in conversation with one of them when a sudden loud *clang* and the table started shaking a bunch. I thought it was a plate falling on the ground.

      It turned out that my conversational partner, the INSTANT the waitress had brought the check to the table, turned around and smacked her hand hard over it. At this point, there was only a five second long squabble because someone already had physical possession of the prize.

      I have never been more impressed at a dinner squabble in my life.

  31. onyomi says:

    I do wonder sometimes about what would be an appropriate way for me to behave and/or how I would actually behave were I to meet a major politician whose policies I largely disagree with. I’d like to think I would tell them my opinion in a polite way, but I’d probably just be super nice and polite.

    Though it’s interesting, I do think a lot of the benefit to you of sitting next to the Koch brothers is then getting to tell the people in your group that you were chatting with the Koch Brothers. Even if they are not on your team, they are very high up on the other team, which implies to your team that maybe you are the sort of person who deals with high level people–so maybe you are actually a high-level individual in their team, even if their team is anti-Koch Brothers.

    Like if I said to someone “I was playing golf with Barack Obama the other day and I told him we really need to cut it out with this Syria nonsense,” then, assuming people actually believe me, that would actually maybe be even more high status because it implies I’m not only on a level to talk to Barack Obama, I’m on a level where I can feel comfortable contradicting him in person.

    Therefore, it’s hugely in my interest to talk to Barack Obama, regardless of what I actually say to him.

    That said, I think politicians in particular present a mixture of dominance and prestige. If I really piss off Barack Obama he can theoretically cause a lot of problems for me, though he’d probably be too busy to worry about it; thus I am actually a little afraid of him in a way I am not of Justin Bieber. And if I actually ingratiated myself to him he could open a lot of doors for me; so in that sense it makes sense for me to kiss up to him even if the primary benefit I get from having interacted with him is in later getting to talk about it to my own circle of acquaintances.

  32. Qiaochu Yuan says:

    I don’t buy your rejection of either the learning or the babbler hypotheses, and for the same reason. There’s a cognitive / evolutionary boundary (or fitness maximizer / adaptation executer) issue: the claim is (probably) not that people are explicitly System-2-reasoning about how to keep prestigious people around / learn from them, but that evolutionary pressures favoring keeping prestigious people around / learning from them created System-1 urges to like them more.

    I actually quite like the learning hypothesis (the System 1 / evolutionary version, not the System 2 / cognitive version), which is one I’ve idly entertained when thinking about this issue on my own. It explains an observation that I think none of your hypotheses do, which is inspiration: e.g. Nicki Minaj inspiring young women to stand up for themselves and be more feminist, etc. Extrapolating wildly into the ancestral past, imagine that I really admire the best hunter in my tribe because wow he killed 30 pigs last week, that’s twice as many as anyone else, cool! What might that cause me to do? Follow him around, hang onto every word he says, watch him hunting… everything I should be doing if I wanted to learn how to hunt as well as he does.

    The modern incarnation of hanging onto, say, every word that Justin Bieber says is not a System 2 plan to learn how to be a pop star from Justin Bieber but (maybe) a System 1 adaptation for learning things from skilled people that isn’t executing quite as intended.

    • Deiseach says:

      Is Bieber a good example? He seems to be precisely the kind of “learn how to be a star” model that means “any moderately good looking young male or female with a passable singing voice and who can be trained to perform a few rudimentary dance moves and pout at the camera for the music video can be made into a star for a while”.

      There’s a formula for churning out boybands (and girlbands); Stock Aitken and Waterman had more or less a factory production line of hit singles (and the accompanying necessary singers) during the 80s-90s, and modern TV talent shows and the likes of Simon Cowell continue to produce the one-hit wonders and their bubble of instant and fleeting fame.

      Bowie (David Jones as was) might not be imitable unless you have actual real talent, but Bieber is very much in the mould of those whose success can be emulated by those hungry for fame and with a small smattering of the necessary qualities (and an even larger helping of the arguably more important willingness to do anything and let yourself be shaped by the handlers in order to get fame).

      As for Nicki Minaj and feminisim – oh, dear. The young are always very susceptible to the idea that flashing your tits is, somehow, “empowerment” and “sticking it to The Man”. No, children, what this is is The Man exploiting your tender flesh and sex appeal to sell the product and then you’ll be dropped when you are no longer able to be a pneumatic figure in a skin-tight see-through dress.

  33. Jeremy says:

    Anybody want to start a crowdfunded movement to arrange a meeting between Scott and Elon Musk? It probably wouldn’t be that hard.

    • Winter Shaker says:

      What would the money do? I don’t imagine Musk taking time out of his schedule to meet random admirers for cash, and I don’t expect Scott is unable to finance a plane trip to wherever Musk lives, so I can only assume that the payment would be to some sort of agency that sets up hilarious mishaps that get two people talking to each other who wouldn’t otherwise have met.

      And if that agency doesn’t yet exist, well, there’s your start-up idea 🙂

      • Deiseach says:

        I don’t imagine Musk taking time out of his schedule to meet random admirers for cash

        But isn’t that the whole principle behind “Pay $X00 for a plate at our charity gala and meet Famous Sportsman/Rockstar/Actor/Politician etc.”? Or why retired politicos can make money as after-dinner speakers? I think only the most devoted would really want to listen to ex-Prime Minister Blony Tair talk about his time in office for the content of the speech, but a lot of people are going for precisely the reasons of prestige/charisma*/eminence mentioned; the glamour of power (or former power) casting its halo over the holder (or ex-holder) and “rubbing off” by contact or proximity.

        *I think Blair and his ilk have about as much charisma as a dead herring, but some people must find them noteworthy, if they’re willing to pay to be in the same room as them.

        • John Schilling says:

          Those sorts of events are mostly for monetizing the fame and prestige of people who have more fame/prestige than they do money. Athletes and celebrities past their prime, high-profile politicians with civil-service pay scales, that sort of thing. The wealthy businessmen are the ones in the audience.

          Musk, probably has more money than prestige. More importantly, what prestige he does have comes from using his pre-existing money to buy stuff that is cooler than what other rich people buy, so he’s running that process in the opposite direction. Highly unlikely he will be participating in an event where the goal is to get people to pay for Musk-access.

          But if someone wants to set up a Scott-Elon meeting, both have a significant interest in the niche area of AI risk awareness and mitigation, and both are at least modestly prestigious spokesmen in that area, so there’s a common cause to work with.

        • Winter Shaker says:

          Okay, fair point; I should have phrased that as ‘I don’t imagine Musk taking time out of his schedule to meet one random admirer for cash, outside of a specifically pre-planned fundraising event. Maybe that’s what Jeremy had in mind.

          • Jeremy says:

            I was thinking of taking out advertisements publications we think Elon is likely to read that say “Attention Elon Musk: The Esteemed Scott Alexander Desires a Meeting with You” and feature a full page picture of Scott. It would be weird enough to probably attract some attention from people besides Elon, enough to the point that he probably would agree to a meeting just out of curiosity (or alternatively, someone with connections could see the advertisements and arrange it). I think it’s just weird enough to work.

            I don’t think this technique would work if everyone did it, for obvious reasons, but I think Scott has enough of a pretense to meet with Elon that it has a pretty high chance of success through one means or another.

  34. Echo says:

    I’m not sure even the Koch brothers could sort out North Korea at this point. But it would be pretty cool to give them free reign to try.

    Didn’t Denis Rodman pretty much defect to NK? How does he fit into the model?

    The “learning” model pretty much describes how I act around better artists, so there’s at least something there.

    • alexp says:

      Even the Koch brothers?

      That’s interesting. I know a lot of people generally like them or at least support the causes that they support. I’ve never heard of anyone who’s opinion of them is so high that they believe that have the best chance of anyone to fix North Korea.

      • Echo says:

        If there were a hundred men like them, they might have parity with the left-wing billionaires who pour, for example, $1.2 million into state senate races.
        We might be outspent 50 to 1, but at least the media pays 50 times as much attention to vilifying our spending, right?
        And there are rather a lot of people in this country who have opinions they couldn’t get away with voicing in places like San Francisco…

        But no, they couldn’t fix North Korea. I was just trying to turn Scott’s petty spite in a positive direction, rather than whine about it.

        • Echo says:

          Oh, apparently that $1.2 million went up to $2.7 million over lunch. Good old Bloomberg found some more loose change under the couch cushions, I guess.

          Funny how the press quotes his organization exclusively, and doesn’t bother accusing him of “buying votes”. A magic (D) after someone’s name sure does wonders to their media image.

  35. tgb says:

    I think that the dabbler theory is less unreasonable once you throw in the hypothesis that the evolution of human minds is lagging behind societal change. Elon Musk and Justin Beiber are the super-stimulus for this system that triggers even though our societies are so large now that the tip-top people are so far removed from my average life that they never reciprocate my deference. But I’m still a machine wired by whatever helped my ancestors survive, and that machine says “see prestige -> pay deference.”

    Or maybe not. This hypothesis brings us dangerously close the realm where I can explain any possible behavior with “it’s just an evolved trait over-matching a pattern,” and so can predict nothing, let alone doctor’s jewelry.

    Edit: though of course now I see that Qiaochu Yuan said approximately this in a better way.

  36. Nombringer says:

    First time commenter but long time reader, so this is the point where I feel I should start contributing rather than leeching.

    EDIT: What is the formatting to put text in bold? I’m sure I’m probably missing something obvious but I can’t find it.

    I think a lot of your objections are (uncharacteristically), summed up by you taking an inside view and looking at internal motivations rather external observations. Likewise I think Su’s contention can be answered in a similar way.

    In this case, these theories, as well as evolution in general are not based on, and do not involve internal motivations. I think other posters seem to have touched on, or implied this kind of theme, however I feel there is merit stating it directly.
    Yes, these theories do not make as much sense in the context of the internal motivations of humans today, or even (I would contend) in tribal times. They are not meant to and they are not designed to. I think many of the problems people have concerning the intersection of evolutionary theory and psychology stem from this very simple point.
    The external theory explaining your behaviour when you take that picture with the koch brothers has nothing to do with your internal motivations when you do so.

    For a parallel, consider the minefield of evopsych in relation to gender mating preferences;

    Consider the premise that a large portion of the criticism of this field comes from the intuition that “X group doesn’t think like that”

    Now thats probably deserving of a full post in itself, but my guess is (and I may be off the mark here) that most readers would not consider that an unfounded hypothesis. In my experience at least, this is one of the first objections that non-academics will raise.
    It is obvious in this case, that the ‘mistake’ is conflating the internal motivations of *how* someone might choose a mate which is of course, distinct from the external explanations of *why*.

    I think a lot of your objections fall into the same category; these evolutionary theories should not make any psychological claims about thought process’ relating to prestige, but rather provide an external explanation and predictions of why they are *net* advantageous.

    And this brings me to my take of su3su2su1’s original contention. The actual status symbols themselves are object level, determined by internal preferences. These theories make no claim about what type or form that it will take.
    It makes no more sense than to ask economists what to guess what form a physical form currency in a specific economy will take.

    Economists don’t make theories about what credit cards and coins look like, nor should they make claim too. They are working at a higher level of abstraction.

    I see this situation as analogous; people are getting layers of abstraction confused.

    • brad says:

      I think a lot of your objections fall into the same category; these evolutionary theories should not make any psychological claims about thought process’ relating to prestige, but rather provide an external explanation and predictions of why they are *net* advantageous.

      And this brings me to my take of su3su2su1’s original contention. The actual status symbols themselves are object level, determined by internal preferences. These theories make no claim about what type or form that it will take.

      What *do* these theories predict? Bonus points for something otherwise non-obvious and that is capable, at least in principle, of being disproved.

      • Dues says:

        This sounds like a fun challenge. Here is a random economic theory you might not have heard of:

        The larger a society is, the more likely it is to have physical money.

        Explanation: everyone needs thing like food, shelter, etc. to survive and we usually don’t want to stop with just surviving it’s easier to get more thing if you cooperate with a group and that means either bartering, which is hugely time intensive or using a unit of exchange ie money. money tends to be easily spent (you don’t want to sell a half a cow), easy to carry (can’t put a whole cow in your pocket), and has a stable value (gold, salt, iron, cows).
        And do you know what spend well, weighs nothing, and has value in every society? Prestige! but since prestige only really works when you know everyone, the larger your society, the more likely you are to use physical money.

        And if you’ve ever wondered about why some economists think of money as a sloppy technological substitute for tribal status, just reread the story of those birds competing for dangerous, high paying jobs and low cost housing so they can buy sex and bribes.

        • brad says:

          Is the claim that the purported fact that “The larger a society is, the more likely it is to have physical money” is strong evidence that small societies use prestige as a money substitute (or that money is a prestige substitute in large societies)?

          That seems like quite a stretch, particularly given that 1) your own post gives an alternate explanation having to do with bartering and 2) some of your claims re: prestige make no sense — like that it has a stable value and can be easily spent.

    • Echo says:

      comments use html formatting. It’s like being back in middle school 😀

      • Scott Alexander says:

        Your middle school had HTML comments?

        • Echo says:

          The school BBS did, and that’s when we were taught HTML. By high school everything on the internet was bbcode or formatting menus.
          Also, who ever wrote in raw HTML after their first Hello World websites in class?

          • keranih says:

            People who graduated high school while the USSR was still a going concern?

            (There still are a couple of us out here…)

          • LHN says:

            Some of us graduated college when the USSR was still a going concern. (Not for long afterward in my case. But I know there are people here older than I am.)

            And I was handcoding html for our institution’s website till last year. (Not exclusively, but it was often easier to make minor changes that way.)

            I think most sites on which I comment still use HTML or a subset for things like italics, bold, quoting, etc.

          • Echo says:

            Oh, I wasn’t mocking it. I’d kinda prefer HTML over the hundred different varieties of markup language littering the internet these days.

          • John Schilling says:

            I wrote a small commercial website in raw HTML about six years ago, and keep it maintained for the community that still finds it valuable. Rather klunky by modern standards, but it gets the job done. If I had to do another, I’d probably do it the same way. If I were going to do three more like it, or something big and ambitious, I’d invest in better tools and the skill to use them. Or just hire a professional.

            I also still occasionally code in Fortran, though for any new builds it’s C++ with minimal ++ing.

  37. FullMeta_Rationalist says:

    Jewelry is not a signal that is specific to the medical community. Rather, it’s a signal which society at large recognizes. Since all three attendant groups of people rank highly on the general social ladder, I’d expect all three to fall into the counter signalling stripe of “no jewelry — not because I’m poor but because I’m authentic.” If the medical community were to internally stratify, I’d expect their signaling hierarchy to revolve around an object only the medical community would recognize. Examples I have none, since I am not a doctor.

    —————————————

    As others have said, I find it odd that you would frame sex with David Bowie as a “sacrifice” and not a tactic to make fabulous, musically-prodigous babies. Simler even points out that the babblers are willing to sacrifice everything except mate selection, because that’s what the sacrifices are meant to improve.

    —————————————–

    Simler also wrote an article called the economics of status. IIRC, he argues that status functioned as currency before currency became physically manifest in grains and sea shells. What we often call social norms can be thought of as status transactions. E.g. “please and thank you” involve lowering one’s own status in return for some favor, which the second party is free to accept or reject.

    I believe I’ve mentioned before that patronage is a vote for an entity’s continued existence. If we extend our understanding of patronage to include status as well as physical currency, I’d interpret the phenomenon of modern celebrity to map to a donation. The celebrity might not meet all their followers in person, just as you Scott may never meet those who donate to your patreon account. But the size of a concert may serve as a pretty good proxy of their status. This gives Bieber an incentive to stick around.

    I.e. Justin Bieber knows he’s famous, and therefore recognizes that he has accrued a significant amount of social credits in his psychic bank account which he can cash out on at a later date if he so chooses. If tomorrow Jay Biebs were to found the Church of Bieber Fever, I think a small demographic of his most devout followers would not hesitate to join. If tomorrow a hacker named 4chan were to ask Bieber’s followers to cut themselves in His name, I’d hazard (pun intended) that his most commited fan(atic)s would not hesitate to cut themselves. And when his next album comes out, his most loyal disciples will not hesitate to pitch a tent outside the record store the night before it hits the shelves.

    ——————————————

    I feel like “suck up –> learn skills” has its place, even if it doesn’t explain everything by itself. Because my social instincts tell me that is definitely a thing.

    In another essay called personhood, a game for two or more players, Simler discusses personal identy in terms of social interfaces. People trust a stable identity much like they trust a mature API. A stable identity is predictable and safe to interact with. When people try to “find themselves”, it seems they’re experimenting with interfaces in order to do find one their community respects.

    I can’t remember if this was original to him or me, but I remember feeling struck by how this seemed to explain Role Models and Mimicry. In the economic model described above, it would seem that trying to “find one’s self” maps to finding a business model which generates enough status to make a profit.

    Just like in enterprise, the social business model doesn’t have to be novel. If a highly successful company already dominates a market niche, the easiest thing to do for a rookie is to copy the most conspicuous aspects of whatever makes that company successful. E.g. I hear that lots of companies interview candidates with elliptical-curve type questions as though they were Google, even though the actual job involves little more than php boilerplate.

    So it follows that when angsty preteens see all the status Jay Biebs has accrued, they reason “hey, our values fall into the same niche. Maybe I can copy his social business model and everyone will think highly of me.”

    —————————–

    I recognize the name Zahavi as the guy behind the Handicap Principle, which sounds like it dovetails into ecclesiology.

    • FullMeta_Rationalist says:

      I was also thinking, some people get annoyed when others copy them while others feel honored. For the former it would make sense for someone to want to maintain a monopoly on their reputation for being “that guy (who’s best at X)”. While Bieber, who cultivates his celebrity, resembles a franchise.

      A franchise has rules that the followers must conform, because the reputation of one franchisee reflects that of the rest. In this sense, a stereotype (if you squint) almost looks like a brand. Conformity is enforced by “Bieber’s favorite color is red. What a coincidence, my favorite is also red! I am therefore holier than thou.” Transgressions are enforced by “How could you like green! Bieber hates green! YOU MUST BE A WITCH.”

      The “legal” difference between a competitor and a franchisee is that a franchisee has a licence to use the brand logo. Substance without logo (and therefore without license) is labeled “poseur”.

      The behavioral difference between a competitor and a franchisee is that the competitor will vehemently deny any relation to the celebrity in question (even if the mimicry is conscious), while the franchisee will pay tribute to the celebrity with advertising any chance they get. (How do you know if someone is vegan? They’ll tell you, any chance they get.)

      This is starting to look predictive. E.g. I’d expect franchises to engage in witch hunts (“he’s not confirming but hopefully he’ll fall in line”), while competitors to dismiss each other as inauthentic (he’s trying to conform to the alpha and let’s hope he fails”).

      Additionally, I’d expect the monopoly types to be found in in the highest (counter signalling) or lowest (no signalling) strata of the hierarchy, while I’d expect the franchise types to be found in the middle (normal signalling) stratum. Like how Microsoft is generally more prestigious than McDonalds, which is generally more prestigious than [insert mom & pop store]. Barriers to Entry or profit margins may have something to do with this.

      • FullMeta_Rationalist says:

        In retrospect my comments seem rather large. Should I get my own blog? or do you guys not actually read the shit I write to begin with.

        • Nombringer says:

          I just posted for the first time here and I’m having thoughts along the same line, let me know if you find a solution.

        • Richard says:

          I’m thinking that anyone coming here for one of Scott’s 10 000 word posts can take a 328 word comment in stride.

        • Randy M says:

          I’ve followed commenters hyperlinked-names through to their blogs about 3 times since this site has been up; I’ve read probably 1,000 or so lengthy comments, although not necessarily every word of each.

        • Svejk says:

          Your ideas are intriguing to me and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter.

          I have no problems with long comments.

    • Deiseach says:

      Use of “suck up” seems to me better fitting with dominance rather than prestige. Most people, after all, use “suck up” in a pejorative sense; you’re trying to get in good with someone perceived as powerful, but not necessarily admired or regarded with affection.

      The big boss who can make your working life a misery gets toadies who suck up to them. The inspirational leader who makes everyone feel “yes we can!” does not, generally, get referred to in terms of people sucking up and being lick-arses.

  38. Ada says:

    “If the Koch Brothers defected to North Korea, that would be great”

    Oh, come on.

    No it would not be great for people with enormous resources and the ability to cause a lot of harm to defect to a side even worse than the one they’re on now. Call your feelings for the Koch brothers dominance instead of prestige if it makes you feel better but it would not be great if they defected to North Korea, at all.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Realistically, the Koch brothers get executed in like three minutes.

      • onyomi says:

        Actually, I think not: petty dictatorships are as much, if not more susceptible to prestige as anyone else: look at the DPRK’s actual behavior: their official stance is that the United States is evil, but if a former US president or basketball star expresses an interest in visiting, they’re all smiles, and will even give up hostages, etc. Because the fact that a US president or even basketball star wants to talk to their leaders helps put them on a more equal footing with the US in the minds of their people, even as that footing is still officially strongly adversarial.

        And no one is more beloved than a prominent defector from the other side: if the Koch brothers actually moved to North Korea, they would be like parading them around every two seconds saying, in effect: “SEE, SEE American capitalism is doomed! Even their richest, most prominent industrialists would rather move to our socialist paradise than stay in that hellhole!”

        I think this is also why Republicans especially love minority and/or female Republicans, atheists love former evangelicals, Salon loves people who claim to have once liked Ayn Rand, etc.

        • Randy M says:

          “I think this is also why Republicans especially love minority and/or female Republicans, atheists love former evangelicals, Salon loves people who claim to have once liked Ayn Rand, etc.”
          One of these things is not like the other…

          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            @ Randy M:

            Well, it is if you regard the Republicans as the party of white men and the Democrats as the party of women and minorities. Then, any female or minority Republican is a traitor to his or her fellow coordinators gender or race.

            I don’t think it’s too much of an exaggeration to say that leftists regard someone like Clarence Thomas as a “former black person”. When identity is politics, you lose your identity when you change your politics.

          • NN says:

            @ Randy M:

            Well, it is if you regard the Republicans as the party of white men and the Democrats as the party of women and minorities. Then, any female or minority Republican is a traitor to his or her fellow coordinators gender or race.

            I don’t think it’s too much of an exaggeration to say that leftists regard someone like Clarence Thomas as a “former black person”. When identity is politics, you lose your identity when you change your politics.

            See also the #BobbyJindalIsSoWhite hashtag.

      • Whatever Happened To Anonymous says:

        And you’re fine with that?

    • Daniel Kokotajlo says:

      There’s an important difference between the side they are on now and the side they would hypothetically defect to: the first side is over here, the second is over there.

      Being over there, the Koch brothers’ power and influence would mostly be confined to changing things over there.

      (If you are egalitarian, and are equally concerned about the people over there as the people over here, then the above argument doesn’t work–except that in the case of North Korea, it’s hard to imagine the Koch Brothers making things worse, since things are so bad already.)

      • Randy M says:

        There is not a lot of difference between “over here” and “over there” when one is talking about funding and advocacy. The move would largely be symbolic (and likely have a big effect on their own comfort levels, of course).

    • Linch says:

      It’s not at all obvious to me that this will be a bad outcome for N. Koreans. The Koch brothers are significantly more liberal than the Kim family.

  39. Mengsk says:

    I would say that there are two different mechanisms here, which are both being called “prestige”, one that is felt towards people in one’s immediate acquaintance, and one that is felt towards more distant figures or archetypes or characters. When a person idolizes a celebrity, I think it’s probably activating the neural circuitry that would, in the past, have been reserved for priests and gods. Most teenage girls will never interact with Justin Beiber (or David Bowie) any more than a citizen of ancient Greece would interact with Zeus, and the parallels between rock concerts and a old timey pagan rituals practically draw themselves.

    Contrast that with the friendly, day-to-day respect that a person pays to a beloved teacher/boss/superior officer. I wouldn’t even use the same words to describe these behaviors. I’d say the Babbler theory explains the more parochial, mundane sort of prestige a lot more readily than the sort of celebrity adulation that was used to frame the majority of this post.

  40. The human analogue I thought of when reading about the little birds wasn’t anyone famous, but the president of the local PTA (and her underlings). They put in a ton of effort organizing PTA things for free. The rest of us, whose kids get to enjoy PTA-funded things at school, are essentially free-riding on these PTA moms. For this, we all make an effort to be polite to the PTA president, thank them for all of their hard work etc.

    Certainly the school benefits from these moms, so it makes sense that we are nice to them, so that they will keep putting in all that hard work.

    The question, then, is, Why do they do it?

  41. Brian Slesinsky says:

    I wonder if this all has to do with attention. Famous people can say things and other people will pay attention to them. If they call someone, others will return their calls. If you have an interaction with them, they might say something nice about you in public (even if you only know them slightly) and then more people will know who you are and you would have higher status with others. (But they could also say something bad about you, so there is a risk.)

    This fits with the idea that even people with no identifiable skills who are “famous for being famous” can play this game. It doesn’t really matter how they got famous, just that they are.

    Furthermore, you don’t really need any interaction with them. You can get attention just by observing someone famous and talking about them, particularly if they’re doing something interesting. People will listen more to stories about famous people, so that’s another way of getting attention.

    And actually you don’t even need to be *present*. You can get attention by telling stories about the famous person second-hand (that is, gossip).

    And you know what, they don’t even need to be *a person*. Being present at a famous event will give you something to talk about, too, even if you didn’t do anything.

  42. Richard says:

    Marginally related to the Koch brothers discussion above:

    How on earth did the red tribe drop the ball on global warming?

    When I first got interested in climate change back in 1984, it was all Margaret Thatcher going “we need to do something about global warming or we’ll all wade in rivers of molten lead” and the left was all like “There’s no such thing as global warming, if anything it’s cooling, it’s just an evil plot to close down the coal mines”

    How, when and why did that get completely reversed?

    • Jiro says:

      Because the left has used global warming as support for their preferred policies, such as higher taxes and ideological opposition to technology (particularly for the proles–nobody throws away their iPad or their private jet on the grounds that the electricity it uses contributes to global warming). In some alternative world, belief in global warming means you pretty much have to support nuclear power or some other right-preferred policy, and it would then be the left that denies global warming.

      • Vox Imperatoris says:

        Precisely.

        Scott’s old passage about how to sell climate change to conservatives is relevant here.

        The problem is that the issue has now become politicized, and so “global warming exists” is now a point against laissez-faire capitalism, fossil fuels, the evil Koch brothers, and probably even gun rights and a free market in healthcare.

        So, purely unrelated to the facts, you can expect everyone who favors anything in the space of libertarianism and free-market capitalism to doubt catastrophic global warming—and anyone who supports a strong interventionist state, restrictions on technology and increasing energy use, “limits to growth”, etc. to believe in catastrophic global warming. And obviously any evidence for global warming of any sort will be put into the same conceptual box as catastrophic global warming.

        I myself am skeptical of catastrophic global warming. I observe that almost all the scientists who study this tend to fall in the camp biased in favor of catastrophic global warming, and even they don’t project catastrophe as likely. Moreover, if the people who endorse catastrophic global warming are wrong about every other similar issue that I have thoroughly investigated, I don’t have much confidence in the accuracy of their projections (which does not go to show that people on my “side” who have not investigated the issue either are any more likely to be right).

        Also, I am very disappointed in Scott’s unwarranted drive-by attacks on the Koch brothers (who—even if they are dead wrong on climate change—have done an enormous amount to support political change that he does endorse), but that has been covered extensively above.

        • Jiro says:

          Scott’s old passage about how to sell climate change to conservatives is relevant here.

          I actually responded to that when it was originally posted. I thought it was misaimed because he had the arrow of causation reversed: leftist politics isn’t being used to sell climate change, climate change is being used to sell leftist politics.

          • Mary says:

            Yeah, I see that a lot in conservative objections. Sure there are the objections that we are in an interglacial period, of course the earth is warming, or the models have yet to be produce a single correction and so are Wrong (which is Basic Science), but a big one is that for some reason, the leftist solution for global warming is exactly their solution for everything else, namely give them more power over the economy.

          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            @ Jiro:

            Oh, I think the arrow of causality goes both ways here, at different times and places.

            You take a guy who already hates laissez-faire but who hasn’t thought much on climate change and tell him: “Guess how the unbridled forces of corporate greed are destroying the planet this time? That’s right, melting the ice caps and flooding the world!” So now he becomes a firm believer that climate change is going to destroy civilization.

            Then that same guy can go and say to his to his friends who might support some particular free-market policy: “The idea that the ‘invisible hand’ will somehow lead companies to serve the public good is a childish fantasy. Just look at the example of climate change!”

            But the first step is a necessary precondition for the second. The left can’t use global warming to support leftism unless they already believe in global warming. And they didn’t randomly start believing in global warming. A few scientists and intellectuals came up with global warming, saw it as the latest confirmation of their anti-capitalist worldview (and I don’t imply that they did so as a sinister conspiracy), and they convinced the rest to switch from worrying about acid rain, global cooling, resource depletion, nuclear winter, and the ozone layer by appealing to their leftist politics.

            Then the broad masses of the left, convinced of the truth of global warming, use it to reinforce their own leftist beliefs. As Yudkowsky (and I think Scott, too) have said, it becomes a self-reinforcing mesh of ideas. Whenever they doubt economic leftism, they remember global warming as evidence for its truth. Whenever they doubt global warming, they remember that it coheres with economic leftism.

        • Cet3 says:

          All drive-by attacks are equally warranted, only the offended parties change. Unless there’s a perfect overlap in terms of in-groups and out-groups between writer and reader, these sorts of micro-aggressionsslights are inevitable. So either learn to suck it up, or find a proper echo-chamber, because it isn’t going to stop.

          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            @ Cet3:

            Yes, all drive-by attacks are unwarranted.

            That’s why I prefer to go here instead of some site that engages in constant facile, drive-by criticism, like /r/libertarianism, Salon, or even Reason. Scott is a lot more open-minded and intellectually charitable than even a lot of bloggers I do agree with on the merits of the issues (such as Don Boudreaux or George Reisman).

            I know where to go to be preached to from an economics textbook—and I will sing along with that choir! I also know where to go to be preached to from the pages of a Dickens novel.

            Scott’s value-added is that he tends to present the best case for both sides—and often looks at issues in a novel way.

      • > Because the left has used global warming as support for their preferred policies, such as higher taxes

        Ot they sincerely believe its a real problem, and want to solve it in the way they rolve most things.

        • Vox Imperatoris says:

          The fact that the left sincerely believes in global warming does not mean that don’t use it to support their preferred policies. Quite the opposite.

          I sincerely believe that the Soviet Union did in fact collapse. I use this as one point in the case against socialism, and to promote my preferred policies like having fewer regulations.

          But this is not the only way the collapse of the Soviet Union could be used. An anarcho-communist could use it as an example of the failure of trying to build socialism through state coercion. It is my other preexisting beliefs about the theoretical workability of socialism that stop me from using it like this.

          Leftists sincerely believe that global warming is a fact. They use this as a point in favor of the need for greater government restrictions on energy production, the need for government to check reckless corporate greed that endangers the planet, and in general against the idea that we can just let the market work things out. But just like I already have other reasons I don’t like socialism, they already have other reasons they don’t like oil companies, multinational corporations, and unregulated competition.

          Jiro’s point was that, if the preexisting beliefs of leftists were different, they might use their belief in global warming to advance very different goals.

          (Also, you laughed at the idea that some people want to use global warming to “destroy capitalism”. Sure, not all leftists want to destroy capitalism. But about half of the young people in America have a more favorable attitude to “socialism” than to “capitalism”. Their idea of “socialism” is still a market economy, sure, but “capitalism” is not synonymous with “has markets of some sort or other”.)

          • “The fact that the left sincerely believes in global warming does not mean that don’t use it to support their preferred policies. Quite the opposite.”!

            It’s a fact that AGW is only of instrumental value to the left? Although they don’t say so? anyone can accuse anyone of having hidden motivations, it’s poisoning the well.

            “I sincerely believe that the Soviet Union did in fact collapse. I use this as one point in the case against socialism, and to promote my preferred policies like having fewer regulations.”

            But you’re accusing the left of not caring about GW per se. Again, there’s an important difference between using it to “support their policies”, (ie using it only instrumentally, as a means to an end), and wanting a cooler Earth as a goal.

            “But this is not the only way the collapse of the Soviet Union could be used. An anarcho-communist could use it as an example of the failure of trying to build socialism through state coercion. It is my other preexisting beliefs about the theoretical workability of socialism that stop me from using it like this.”

            So various people use various things instrumentally to promote pre-exisitng goals. This specific case doesn’t follow from that. It is reasonable to suppose that the Left want to solve GW using taxation, restraint on corporations,etc, because the want to solve GW, and they standardly think those things work to solve problems.

            “the idea that we can just let the market work things out. ”

            And how does that work? Aren’t corporations who are responsible about their negative externalities going to be out-competed by ones that just dumpt the problem on someone else?

            “Also, you laughed at the idea that some people want to use global warming to “destroy capitalism”. Sure, not all leftists want to destroy capitalism. But about half of the young people in America have a more favorable attitude to “socialism” than to “capitalism”.”

            Yeah, but they probably think Germany is a socilaist country. I’ve been laughing at that too.

          • Vox Imperatoris says:

            @ TheAncientGreek:

            Suffice it to say, I think you are completely misunderstanding me. I am saying only that the left do in fact use global warming as a means to support their preferred policies.

            I am not saying that they do not sincerely believe in it.

            I am not saying that it is only of “instrumental” value to them.

            I am not saying that they have hidden or bad motivations in doing so.

            I am not accusing them of “not caring about global warming per se”. The example of the Soviet Union was supposed to illustrate that one can care about an issue per se and also use it to promote other goals one has.

            It is reasonable to suppose that the Left want to solve GW using taxation, restraint on corporations,etc, because the want to solve GW, and they standardly think those things work to solve problems.

            Right, and this is what I also think.

        • Quite – just as many right-wing folk want to address GW using right-wing approaches such as the carbon emissions market.

          If we can agree that there is a genuine problem, then we can argue about what to do about it and when. But it is aggravating that we don’t seem to be able to reach a consensus on the first point, and it is hardly surprising that said aggravation can lead to aggressive tactics. (I’m not saying that’s a good thing. It’s just not a surprising thing.)

          • “right-wing approaches such as the carbon emissions market.”

            Not that that’s a *free* market, it’s an artificial construction imposed by various governments. It’s much more of a centrist/third way kind of thing than an actual Right kind of thing.

          • Is it really all that different from the way traditional right-wing government would deal with any other externality? (I suppose perhaps I’m talking about right-wing in the international sense, rather than in the US sense.)

          • FacelessCraven says:

            @”Is it really all that different from the way traditional right-wing government would deal with any other externality? (I suppose perhaps I’m talking about right-wing in the international sense, rather than in the US sense.)”

            It fails the ideological Turing test for me, at least. I guess I can’t speak well to the international right wing, though.

            Carbon Markets appear to be a sin tax disguised badly as a “market solution”. Their goal and primary effect is to make economic growth and development more expensive and less efficient, by forcing the productive portion of the global economy to subsidize non-productive portions.

            Geoengineering, with the promise of offsetting the harmful effects of growth without impeding growth directly seems like a much more right-wing solution.

          • I really think you’re conflating “economic growth” and “carbon emissions”. Increased carbon emissions are not inherently necessary for economic growth, after all.

            If the only true right-wing solution to addressing people dumping too much carbon in the atmosphere is geoengineering, I wonder what the only true right-wing solution to addressing people dumping too much sewage in rivers is? Genetically engineered fish, perhaps? 🙂

          • hlynkacg says:

            Harry Johnston says: Increased carbon emissions are not inherently necessary for economic growth, after all.

            The availability of cheap and reliable energy is the main thing that separates the “third world” from the “first world” it’s the difference between going to the Laundromat and washing your clothes in the river.

            Until we see a reversal on people’s attitudes towards Nuclear power and utility-scale solar that energy will be dependent on fossil fuels.

            The carbon emissions market is basically an attempt to “sell” a tax on things like laundry and fresh produce because the Malthusians think that we have too many washing machines and refrigerators.

          • @Harry

            The point is not so much that a government of the right would use a carbon market, but a government of the centre or (modern) left might as well. It’s a compromise.

          • @hlynkacg: out of curiosity, who is objecting to solar?

          • Doctor Mist says:

            out of curiosity, who is objecting to solar?

            Nobody; you’ve mis-parsed his sentence. He meant “Energy will be dependent on fossil fuels until nuclear power isn’t crippled by public fear and until solar power scales to utility levels.”

            I’m not sure we actually need both (and maybe he wasn’t claiming that) but it would not surprise me.

          • FacelessCraven says:

            @Harry Johnston – “If the only true right-wing solution to addressing people dumping too much carbon in the atmosphere is geoengineering, I wonder what the only true right-wing solution to addressing people dumping too much sewage in rivers is? Genetically engineered fish, perhaps?”

            Say rather, the right-wing solution is to build a sewage treatment plant, and the left-wing solution is to tax flush toilets. One attempts to mitigate the harmful effects of a necessary action, and the other tries to keep that necessary action from happening to prevent the harmful effects. Uncharitable, perhaps, but no more so than engineered fish I hope.

            “I really think you’re conflating “economic growth” and “carbon emissions”. Increased carbon emissions are not inherently necessary for economic growth, after all.”

            They really are, it seems to me. The carbon we emit comes from generating and using power, which runs pretty much our whole society. Cutting emissions is not cheap or painless, which is why it’s been so hard to do. Again, global combined GDP is 77 trillion annually. What’s your estimate for the size of a global compulsory carbon market?

          • @FacelessCraven:

            Keep in mind that I’m arguing that carbon markets are basically a right-wing policy, not that carbon taxes are.

            On the other hand, if you don’t tax flush toilets, how are you going to pay for the sewage treatment plant? For that matter, if you don’t tax carbon emissions how are you going to pay for geoengineering?

            Personally, letting people reduce or offset their emissions themselves, in any way they see fit, using a market-based model, seems to me to be more right-wing than making them pay the government to clean up after them does. (Though either would IMO be more sensible than the government taking the money but not doing anything useful with it.)

            The carbon we emit comes from generating and using power, which runs pretty much our whole society.

            Ah, that’s a good point. I imagine I’m underestimating this factor, because almost all of our power comes from hydroelectric – the coal plants only ramp up during shortages. Most of our emissions are due to agricultural exports.

          • Cauê says:

            Ah, that’s a good point. I imagine I’m underestimating this factor,

            That’s kind of a big thing to leave aside. What do you think the resistance to restriction on emissions is about, if not this?

            Also,

            On the other hand, if you don’t tax flush toilets, how are you going to pay for the sewage treatment plant? For that matter, if you don’t tax carbon emissions how are you going to pay for geoengineering?

            Does the funding have to be… thematic?

          • That’s kind of a big thing to leave aside. What do you think the resistance to restriction on emissions is about, if not this?

            You don’t need to rub it in! It did always seem odd to me that industrialists in general (as opposed to oil companies) should be opposed to these controls, but, well, it does affect the shipping of goods and suchlike, and I figured perhaps some kinds of factories still produce relevant emissions directly for some reason, or perhaps it was a genuinely ideological objection without direct personal motivations.

            This explanation makes much more sense. (Though I’m still a little surprised to find what seems like such a primitive technology in such widespread use in what I’m always inclined to think of as a wealthier and more technologically advanced nation than my own.)

            Does the funding have to be… thematic?

            Not necessarily, as far as I’m concerned. It’s just that using general taxation to provide a specific service doesn’t seem very right-wing to me. And in these scenarios it would constitute a form of corporate welfare, so I can’t see the left wing being very happy about it either.

            (If we were actually talking seriously about geo-engineering it would be further complicated by the international nature of the problem. Any division of costs that didn’t at least partially reflect the extent to which particular nations had contributed to the problem would be a difficult thing to sell to the rest of us, or so it seems to me.)

      • That’s only half an explanation. There are any number of issues whee the existence of a problem is acknowledged by both left and right. but they propose different solutions. However, in this case the right prefers some form of denialism,..or rather the american right does. In Europe there is cross party agreement on GW, outright denialism is completely fringe, and conservative leaders like David Cameron wand to build nuclear power stations.

        It looks rather like the US right made GW into a possession of the US left by choosing to deny it rather than offer their own solutions. That isn’t a situation that was ever caused by the left wanting to solve it with left-wing solutions, it was caused by their own preference for denial over alternative solutions, A preference that perhaps followed the template of evolution denialism.

    • James Picone says:

      DDT, CFCs and acid rain were all popular vaguely-politicised left-of-centre issues prior to climate change. I suspect that came about because the people that cared at first were a) corporations with interest in DDTs/CFCs/not having to spend money to not emit SOx or NOx and b) the kind of people who read books/news about how something a corporation is doing is poisoning us all.

      Corporations are right aligned, people who read books/news about corporations sucking are left-aligned, so environmentalism was set up to be left-aligned at the start.

      (One of these days I should dig up some stuff on CFCs from back in the day. I reckon I could find some clear parallels in the CFC argument to the global warming argument – I certainly recall seeing industry spokespeople claiming it was all nonsense and CFCs were perfectly safe. Might be instructive.)

  43. DrBeat says:

    “If there were no cavemen like David Bowie (probably a safe bet), then maybe our evolutionary instincts don’t apply to his case.”

    I am disappointed that you did not make this some kind of reference to Oh! You Pretty Things, and making way for the homo superior.

  44. ioannes_shade says:

    This sentence is incomplete: “It’s that I don’t want to be a rock star, and if Bowie offered to train me, I’d Simler rejects i”

  45. Daniel says:

    I think fanworship is, like primitive religion, a “fictive kinship”.

    If you perform rites of loyalty to Bowie, and show off totems of Bowie, you prove that you are a true member of the tribe of Bowie. Therefore, you deserve respect and support from other members of the tribe of Bowie.

    When the tribe of Bowie is small enough, you might get love and attention from Bowie himself. As the tribe of Bowie gets larger, you don’t expect attention from the tribe-founder, but you do expect other members of the tribe to support you and display respect for you.

    Indeed they *have* to display respect for your loyalty-totems (“ooh, nice autograph!”), in order credibly to command respect in turn from others for *their* loyalty-totems (“is that the limited edition shirt?”). It’s a self-sustaining cooperation/admiration facilitator.

    In other words rockstar fandom operates the same way as clan ancestor-gods.

    Well, except that it’s mostly about respect rather than killing other clans and taking their cattle. But then *that* was mostly about respect too.

    We’ve just cut out the cattle-thieving middleman.

    …and replaced him with a limited-edition autographed vinyl LP.

    • Deiseach says:

      We’ve just cut out the cattle-thieving middleman.

      …and replaced him with a limited-edition autographed vinyl LP.

      Or the bootleg recorded on your smartphone of the last-minute ‘intimate venue’ gig where Rock Starr turned up to play an acoustic set in small hip café-bistro in your (and their) home town 🙂

  46. Daniel says:

    I’m not sure that rockstar fandom works the same way as doctors’ professional prestige, because rockstar fandom is much more about “worship” (member is not like founder) than about “imitation” (member is a lesser version of founder).

    Also, I’m not sure that conspicuous displays of your leader’s power (wearing expensive jewelry on behalf of your mate) work the same as conspicuous displays of your loyalty and connection to the leader (wearing a shirt the rockstar autographed for you).

    So there may be multiple kinds of prestige at work here.

  47. DiscoveredJoys says:

    I generally look for opposing speculative ‘evolutionary processes’ on the basis that a stable evolutionary process outcome usually requires positive and negative factors to maintain that balance. So my suggestion is that while individuals forming a ‘dominance’ hierarchy might result in a stable group structure I would also expect some ‘counter-dominance’ effect to have evolved which de-stabilises the monolithic group structure.

    ‘Prestige’ could be such an evolutionary process if it allows sub-groups to form. As a test I’d expect hierarchy within the sub-group to be independent of main group dominance. Perhaps dominance/prestige processes facilitate splitting of groups when they become too large? Still operating through individuals though.

    You don’t need much processing power to identify prestige, just some emotional response to association with the prestigious, and a consequence of how we paint our own meanings on events in the world. Might I recommend a TED talk on George Clooney’s Cooties
    https://www.ted.com/talks/paul_bloom_the_origins_of_pleasure/transcript?language=en for a take on the idea of status through association?

  48. Deiseach says:

    First he flirts with the theory of a guy called Henrich, who says prestige comes from a desire to learn. I admire and flatter my favorite rock star because I’m hoping I can hang out around him, some of his genius will rub off on me, and I’ll be able to play a wicked guitar riff and win a couple of Grammies myself.

    Anyway, to get away from the morass of politics, the above sounds like the theory of emulation, e.g. speaking of Renaissance painters, the idea was that by striving against one another in a spirit of emulation (which meant recognising excellent work by a rival and attempting to surpass it), then masterpieces were being created all round. It was harnessing envy to a useful end – if I want the same prestige and recognition, I must put forth all my powers and produce work even better than the work being praised.

    The desire to learn came in because if your rival had a superior technique you would want to copy it, or learn it for yourself, or learn an even better snazzier new technique.

    So it’s not so much “Joe Soap wants to become a star like David Bowie by hoping talent will rub off”, but “Joe Soap has a poster of Bowie on his wall, plays guitar, sings, founds/joins a band, and wants one day to be as big and famous and well-regarded himself, with Bowie as model to be emulated and surpassed”.

    I don’t know if that’s exactly what Henrich is saying, but it makes more sense to me than what (you are saying) Simler is saying Henrich is saying 🙂

  49. Rachael says:

    Just wanted to say this bit was brilliant: “The new point is that prestigious people do good things for their flatterers in particular. It’s a tit-for-tat relationship: show David Bowie your tits, and he gives you some tat.”

  50. schall und rauch says:

    I don’t think that prestige-respect is neccessarily linked to any type of signaling at all.
    I have prestige-respect about a lot of people, even if I don’t communicate it at all to anybody else. I have absolutely no problem living out a temporary fandom of one person and seeing/reading everything that I can about them on the net and thinking about how cool they are. Almost certainly, they will not know about this.
    Prestige-respect towards a certain person is for me not something I need to share or tell others about, but can be reflected in my private thoughts only.

    • moridinamael says:

      I agree. You are merely recognizing that their plumage is exceptionally lush and well-groomed. All the signalling explanations are second-order game theoretic consequences of this first phenomenon.

  51. Hi Scott,

    >His theory (which he adopts from various psychologists and animal behaviorists) is that status separates neatly into two systems: dominance and prestige.

    This is handy, because increasing both increases testosterone. Read Kemper’s “Testosterone And Social Structure”, awesome book. A meta-analysis of research available back then (early nineties). He uses eminence instead of prestige, but same thing – socially valued accomplishment.

    I think your good old That Other Kind Of Status was the best approach: it is far more about feeling you have status than actually having it. I guessed at some political implications here: https://dividuals.wordpress.com/2015/10/22/virtual-and-real-status-left-right/

    Anyway, the point is, prestige is quite simply a thing which if we feel we got more of, we produce more T. What more real-life prediction you need than a saliva test?

    How could this evolve? If prestige / eminence is socially valued achievement, most likely it is all about being really heroic at defeating the neighboring “caveman” tribe. The evolutionary purpose of in-group social cooperation is out-group social competition. See the Ecological Dominance – Social Competition model.

    If you read e.g. Ancient Greek stuff or Iceland sagas, “I dream of doing great deeds, the kind that will be sung about for generations” means “I dream of killing a lot of soldiers in battle from the neighboring polis”

    Kicking outgroup ass transforms into ingroup prestige, eminence or glory, may not necessarily transform into dominance.

    • “prestige is quite simply a thing which if we feel we got more of, we produce more T. ”

      That doesn’t explain anything..why should the thing with those particular characteristics be associated with testosterone?

  52. John Sidles says:

    Scott Alexander asks “[Is it credible that] I admire and flatter my favorite rock star because I’m hoping I can hang out around him, some of his genius will rub off on me, and I’ll be able to play a wicked guitar riff and win a couple of Grammies myself. This theory makes no sense to me.”

    Mathematician (indeed, Fields Medalist) Michael Harris’ recent notably excellent book (as it seems to me) Mathematics Without Apologies: Portrait of a Problematic Vocation (2015) speaks directly to the issues that Scott raises.

    In particular, Harris’ chapter two “How I acquired charisma” associates to “charisma” pretty much the same qualities (as far as I can tell) that Scott Alexander associates to “prestige”.

    Natural questions are:

       • So how does one acquire (mathematical) charisma?
       • Can non-charismatic folks learn to be charismatic?
       • And does Harris’ book tell how?

    Regrettably for rational-minded SSC readers, Harris’ book provides no actionable prescriptions … indeed, Harris’s book sedulously avoids the itemized “topic-comment sentence structure” — with lovely bold-faced typography! — that the conclusion to Scott’s essay “Contra Simler on Prestige” deploys to soothing rational effect.

    Instead Harris gives us long often rambling narratives, commonly lacking explicit motivation, that typically arrive at no very evident conclusion … accompanied by numerous citations (more than five hundred in Harris’ book), voluminous endnotes (sixty-eight pages!), and extended erudite quotations (all of which is why Harris is my hero): …

    Harris quotes Weber  “The word charisma colloquially means a kind of personal magnetism, often mixed with glamor, but [philosopher Max] Weber chose the word to designate the quality endowing its bearer with authority (Herrschaft, also translated domination) that is neither traditional nor rational (legally prescribed). Charisma is (in the first place) ‘a certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which he [sic] is set apart from ordinary men [sic] and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities.'”

    So how does do persons (and communities) become endowed with powers that others perceive as “exceptional” or even “superhuman” or “supernatural”? If the answer were rationally prescriptive, then everyone would have these powers … which they don’t (or do they?).

    Harris does suggest answers (implicitly if not explicitly). Regarding which, a good starting point is Harris’ discussion of (the mathematical concept of) yoga … which per Harris’ admirable index is discussed on pages 186-7 and 229.

    In practice … the Harris-compatible notion that not only mathematics, but science and engineering and even medicine too, can charismatically embrace mathematical yogas that “maximally substitute considerations of universality and naturality for considerations of physicality” has become performatively central to our own engineering/medical research seminar.

    In summary … throughout the STEM professions (from mathematics to medicine) prestige is all about charisma, and charisma’s all about yoga, and yoga most definitely can be creatively borrowed, learned, adapted, applied, and taught.

    According to one reading of Harris, anyway!

  53. *epiphany*

    In traditional societies dominance was far more important than prestige. The whole Western progress-left-liberalism thing even way back to ending feudalism was about shifting focus from dominance to prestige! Dominance status was rebranded as oppression. Being an enlightened intellectual is prestige status. It is all about a direct competition between the prestigious left and dominant right!

    This is why Western liberals have these complicated Zebra Stripes status, because prestige is complicated! Dominance status symbols are far easier: if in a traditional society wearing gold shows off power and dominance, the king just wears more gold than the nobles! No Zebra Stripes.

    In a traditional society prestige hardly mattered. Todays almost invisible (low prestige) dominant military generals were Princes and Counts, and todays high-prestige pop star could have only been unimportant court minstrels for them! Dominant status far, far outweighted prestige status.

    All this was changed by intellectuals. Classic case of high prestige progressive intellectual: Voltaire. The pop stars are just coattailing on the new high status of prestige which was made by intellectuals.

    This explains the whole history of progressivism excellently! Our challenge as Reactionaries is only to explain why is it bad? Why being ruled by the prestigious, which is always more consensual, worse than being ruled by the dominant, who just scare you? Most likely candidate: because dominant power still exists, dominance (sovereignty) is conserved: but now it is more invisible and unaccountable.

    • Viliam says:

      This reminds me of how various violent people say they want “respect”, when in fact they want other people to fear them. You can’t get the same kind of “respect” Albert Einstein has by threatening someone with a knife in a dark alley.

      So it seems to me plausible: in the most brutal society, fear is the only form of “respect” available. (Anyone who wants to try some more fancy version of “respect” gets killed.) The society must be civilized enough to allow some kind of non-violent competitions — then you can get other forms of “respect” by winning at them.

      Our challenge as Reactionaries is only to explain why is it bad?

      Because relationships based on something other than plain violence are hypocritical… I guess… and must therefore be eliminated from the Reactionary paradise.

      • Well, this would only serve as a very very rough estimate. About as rough as calling planet Earth uniformly blue. True, but only from a million kilometers away.

        The concept of dominance is a finer dish than what simple thugs can cook from it. One very good source is the elaboration of the “sublime” in http://www.gutenberg.org/files/15043/15043-h/15043-h.htm#A_PHILOSOPHICAL_INQUIRY any ideas of the majestic, the awe-inspiringly dreadful derive from it. There could be hardly such a thing as an action movie or a good hack-and-slash fantasy novel without some aesthethical appreciaton of this. Dominance in the sexual context can be incredibly sexy, in the social context exciting and dangerous, it underlies the most impressive schools of construction of castles and cathedrals, and so on. Even a Harley bike’s aesthethics emit waves of dominance. Let’s not understestimate it. Thugs with knives are just the worst fast-food version of this dish.

        Respect in thug language primarily means the lack of disrespect, which is the lack of challenging or insulting behavior, but yes, it is achieved through fear. Another aspect is a genuine respect for someone who has the courage to stand up for himself. It is the classic Culture of Honor thing, read this: http://righteousmind.com/where-microaggressions-really-come-from/

        It is not purely about scaring each other but also about choosing allies. If you try to bully someone and he gives you a knuckle sandwich, which is the Culture of Honor appropriate answer, you know that if you befriend him, he will be a useful ally. This is also part of these respect stuff.

        >So it seems to me plausible: in the most brutal society, fear is the only form of “respect” available. (Anyone who wants to try some more fancy version of “respect” gets killed.)

        No, you are far too pessimistic regarding thus. May i ask, does it trigger negative experiences in you? You sound a bit like a middle class guy thrown in the Russian military with hazing and all that. But anyway, in reality, even in the middle ages defenseless, non-scary monks got respect from knights.

        The whole thing is far more broad. I know middle-aged men who have an almost gay attraction to Putin’s dominant personality and they are not literally gay, it just excites them in a way that may be slightly erotic but not overtly sexual.

        Reducing it all to fear would predict a history where before the modern era everybody secretly dreams of rebellion. But in reality there is such a thing as honestly liking dominant bosses. The clue is that you assume if he is tough, he will also be tough to the enemy of your tribe.

        >Because relationships based on something other than plain violence are hypocritical…

        We are quite frankly not the evil you are looking for. Relationships based on love are perfect. The state, government is practically the only exception, as it is essentially based on violence so rather not be too hypocritical about it.

    • Alrenous says:

      Dominance is the art of using defection. Prestige is about cooperation. Dominance is dyscivic. As always, there is no real essence to left or right – at best, left is a particular tribe or clan and right is merely not-left.

      The best solution is to have clearly defined groups, where status implies access to communal resources, and status is assigned by a particular kind of merit – by which member going to use the resources mainly to enrich the group. It’s debatable how ‘utopian’ this is, but it’s obviously the best possible strategy, leading to the richest, most powerful groups. Note this at first glance orthogonal to dominance, and upon a second look contradictory to dominance. If someone can gain status by merit, why are they trying to gain status through threats?

      “It’s a damned lie, that’s what’s wrong with it.” One of the major illnesses of modernity is pretending dominance is prestige, e.g. the social contract.

      So, what’s going on with the military? They should have dominance, but don’t.

      Humans are in the process of evolving away dominance entirely, due to its dyscivic effects. No matter how strong the strongman is, he can be overwhelmed by a small fraction of those he’s trying to dominate, if they coordinate. Thusly, humans evolve envy and spite, to coordinate taking down the strongman.

      As a result, military might depends on legitimacy, which is necessary to counter the nascent anti-dominance instincts. However, the modern military’s legitimacy depends on exactly not asserting dominance. If they start throwing around dominating orders before the Cathedral, the Church of the Vote, have thoroughly beclowned themselves, they will lose their legitimacy and not be obeyed.

      I suspect the Cathedral is also aware of this, which is why they persecute anything which embarrasses them to such a degree.

    • Randy M says:

      ” Our challenge as Reactionaries is only to explain why is it bad?”

      That souds rather like you are predisposed to hate progressivism, even if it is good. Surely you mean, “If this is true, why do we get bad outcomes x,y,& z?” or such?

      • Vaniver says:

        It means that if it is in fact not bad, then Reactionaries have misjudged the issue / this isn’t the heart of it, and then one should not be a reactionary / reframe things.

        • When you study something for a long time from many angles, and it looks bad, and you suddenly find one new angle that makes it look better, the instinctive Bayesian does only a very small updating – or even figures there is something wrong with the new angle.

      • Predisposition happens when you are completely new to studying an issue. I am doing this for… 15 years? Roughly. It is simple this angle that is a new idea. Beyond personal experiences, I’ve read enough books to clearly see it is a problem (for a simple introduction, just pick up Theodore Dalrymple’s Life At The Bottom) I am just weirded out, because this new angle presents it as a far better than the old ones.

    • In traditional societies dominance was far more important than prestige. The whole Western progress-left-liberalism thing even way back to ending feudalism was about shifting focus from dominance to prestige!

      “Traditional” means more things than just “feudal”. You can only switch from dominance to prestige if prestige is available, so where did it come from?

      It seems to be the case that in the other kind of traditional society, the Dunbar number sized band, were much more co-operative and egalitarian than feudal societies, and we can suppose that it would have been in the interests of such groups to expel or kill domineering members, so as to avoid ending up as their slaves or concubines. (Cf the assassination of Caesar to preserve the republic).

      That being the case, such societies aren’t going to be run by domination, so they need another kind of leadership/coordination. Domination is leadership based on threat, prestige is leadership that advertises itself as unthreatening, hence the association of prestige with largesse, and the fact that people like to copy, imitate, and agree with prestigious people..that’s how the prestigious exert a co-ordinating influence without threat.

      “All this was changed by intellectuals. Classic case of high prestige progressive intellectual: Voltaire.”

      Chicken and egg. How do intellectuals spread the idea of prestige if they don’t already have prestige to do it with?

      Post-feudal societies din’t invent prestige, they made a partial return to it.The engine of captialism is individual striving, and that requires a kind of egalitarianism, an egalitariansim of opportunity (WEIRD types aren’t too bothered that Elon Musk has such good outcomes). This half-egalitariansim, actually meritocracy, brings a return to prestige with it, especially where late capitalists societies enjoy long periods without serious external threat.

      “This explains the whole history of progressivism excellently! Our challenge as Reactionaries is only to explain why is it bad? ”

      I’m glad I’m not beholden to do that.

      • >You can only switch from dominance to prestige if prestige is available, so where did it come from?

        Religion (reformation), new sciences, nobility of the robe.

        >It seems to be the case that in the other kind of traditional society, the Dunbar number sized band, were much more co-operative and egalitarian than feudal societies, and we can suppose that it would have been in the interests of such groups to expel or kill domineering members, so as to avoid ending up as their slaves or concubines. (Cf the assassination of Caesar to preserve the republic).

        Dunbar number != fscking huge Roman empire. If we want to look at something actually documented, yet “barbaric” society, Icelandic Sagas.

        >and we can suppose that it would have been in the interests of such groups to expel or kill domineering members, so as to avoid ending up as their slaves or concubines

        Domineering bosses are horrible as long as it is peace. They make good war leaders when their aggressive energy is directed outward.

        This is one of very very basic truths that is ignored today and explains so much. People don’t like to be oppressed. In peacetime. If there is any conflict or hatred towards another group, the dominant, oppressive leader or structure is instantly seen as the honestly liked and admired strong leader to leads us to crush them. This is why dominance every had a chance. Without this the french revolution would have came like 400AD. It was always the external threats that made people go “we need a strong king”.

        >Domination is leadership based on threat, prestige is leadership that advertises itself as unthreatening,

        Again, domination is effective, loved, respected leadership in case of conflict. Think of it as domination is popular at war and prestige at peace. Churchill.

        > How do intellectuals spread the idea of prestige if they don’t already have prestige to do it with?

        Not the idea of prestige, the idea to move power and status over to prestige, away from domination. They had it. Reformation, new sciences, arts.

        >Post-feudal societies din’t invent prestige, they made a partial return to it.

        if it means the renaissance rediscovering the ancient arts and sciences, correct

        >The engine of captialism is individual striving, and that requires a kind of egalitarianism, an egalitariansim of opportunity (WEIRD types aren’t too bothered that Elon Musk has such good outcomes).

        Broadly yes, prestige = merit/ocracy

        >I’m glad I’m not beholden to do that.

        It is not holding, it is bayes. After you studied something for 10-15 years from many angles and you have a million information why it is bas, one surprising angle does not make you update it into good, it is more likely to see an answer elsewhere.

        • “Religion (reformation), new sciences, nobility of the robe.”

          No, no no, same problem…these things PRESUPPOSE prestige..why listen to Beardy Guy ina Dress if you don’t think he’s prestigious.

          “Domineering bosses are horrible as long as it is peace. They make good war leaders when their aggressive energy is directed outward.”

          I agree Strongmen/war leaders are something else again.

          “It was always the external threats that made people go “we need a strong king”.”

          You are presupposing a prestige/dominance choice, although you don;t have a non-circular explanation of where prestige comes from.

          “Not the idea of prestige, the idea to move power and status over to prestige, away from domination. ”

          Again. presupposing that prestige exists in some sense, that people are already wired up for it and only need to be told whom to respect.

          “>Post-feudal societies din’t invent prestige, they made a partial return to it.

          if it means the renaissance rediscovering the ancient arts and sciences, correct”

          It means individual effort and ambition, orientated towards prestigious role models.

          “It is not holding, it is bayes. ”

          Another nail in the coffin of “LessWrong has raised the raiotnality waterline”.

  54. Viliam says:

    Not sure if it was mentioned somewhere, but famous people seem useful for coordination. When hundreds of fans admire the same celebrity, don’t look only on the relationship between the celebrity and the fans, but also on the relationship between the fans. Former strangers suddenly have something in common.

    The question is, what makes a coordination around people better than e.g. coordination around really impressive trees? Also, why do we need two mechanisms, when coordination around dominant people could work just as well?

    I guess that coordination around dominant people would drag the fans into too many conflicts. With celebrities, you can admire even multiple competitors at the same time. So you can get the benefits of coordination without the costs of conflict. You can coordinate a minority group without declaring a suicidal war on the majority. However, maybe the prestige mechanism has evolutionary origins in the dominance mechanism; it just got modified to serve its own purpose better. We still have some overlap: people do admire powerful individuals; and different groups of fans sometimes do fight against each other.

    I also suspect that signalling cynicism, popular among highly intelligent people, may be responsible for their proverbial lack of ability to cooperate.

    • “The question is, what makes a coordination around people better than e.g. coordination around really impressive trees?”

      Co-ordination requires intelligence.

      ” Also, why do we need two mechanisms, when coordination around dominant people could work just as well?”

      Co-ordination around dominant people tends to serve the purposes of dominant people.

      It seems to be the case that in the other kind of traditional society, the Dunbar number sized band, were much more co-operative and egalitarian than feudal societies, and we can suppose that it would have been in the interests of such groups to expel or kill domineering members, so as to avoid ending up as their slaves or concubines. (Cf the assassination of Caesar to preserve the republic).

      That being the case, such societies aren’t going to be run by domination, so they need another kind of leadership/coordination. Domination is leadership based on threat, prestige is leadership that advertises itself as unthreatening, hence the association of prestige with largesse, and the fact that people like to copy, imitate, and agree with prestigious people..that’s how the prestigious exert a co-ordinating influence without threat.

      > also suspect that signalling cynicism, popular among highly intelligent people, may be responsible for their proverbial lack of ability to cooperate.

      I suspect that people with valuable slkills don’t need to band together to exert influence.

  55. Sophie Grouchy says:

    It sounds like people are talking about prestige as if it were zero sum, but I don’t think that’s the case. Or rather, your position on the Prestige Totem Pole is, but the absolute amount of prestige in a community is not.

    One way this plays out is that you can raise your own prestige by raising someone else’s. Send out an email thanking Alice and Bob for their help running an event. Write a Facebook post about how Carol is the best friend ever because she helped you unpack after moving. Give an award recognizing Dave for his achievements. All these actions raise your prestige AND the other person’s prestige without lowering anyone else’s.

    There can be communities that have high total prestige, in that members are recognized for their unique skills and tend to help each other more frequently. And there can be communities of low total prestige, in which case dominance probably plays a stronger role.

    Given that a high total prestige community sounds like a better place to be than a low total prestige community, you may want to work towards that culture. One way to do this is to give other people prestige.

    So, Scott. Thanks for writing this blog. It’s one of my favorite things to read. Also, the commenters here are wonderful.

  56. moridinamael says:

    Peacock feathers, right?

    A high place in a dominance hierarchy means you are genetically healthy and well-fed. There’s obvious evolutionary pressure to be big and healthy and well-fed which applies to almost all animal species, and being big and healthy and well-fed almost always affords more mating opportunities.

    A high place in a prestige hierarchy means you probably live in a society sufficiently comfortable that there are lots of big, healthy, well-fed individuals running around and, if you’re one of them, you can invest your resources in other pursuits. The college bro who learns to play guitar is not displaying his unique or significant contribution to the society. Learning to play guitar is almost a *minimal* step that he can take to show off his excess resources. Bowie is demonstrating that he has so many goddamn excess resources that he can become THE BEST musician.

    I mean, in my gut, I don’t care that Einstein contributed a lot to society. What I *feel* is that I respect/admire Einstein because what he did was hard to do. Meaning most people can’t do it. Meaning (according to my brainstem) he must not only be genetically healthy and well-fed, but must also have a vast excess of resources.

    Einstein’s peacock tail is tall and lush. That’s 90% of it, I think.

  57. Michael K says:

    At the risk of distraction from the Koch discussion and GW/anti-science (can’t believe nobody mentioned Matt Ridley’s take https://quadrant.org.au/magazine/2015/06/climate-wars-done-science/), I will address the main issue of the post.

    Whatever the origin of the supposed dominance/prestige dichotomy, it fits with commonly observable processes and would be predictive.
    Organisations championing social causes get created by brilliant individuals of great prestige. The founders’ successors in the organisation are necessarily less so. So the mode of operation switches from prestige and charisma to dominance and bullying.
    From appealing to vurtue and discussing treatises to witch-hunts and gulags.

  58. Lumifer says:

    I am not sure why prestige is made to be so complicated. I understand it as *success*, specifically, recognized, socially approved success. Within this framework it’s pretty obvious why you both want to have prestige, and want to associate with prestigious people, ideally mix your genes with theirs.

    The babbler example doesn’t look convincing. Put on the statistician’s hat, think about multiple comparisons and the diversity of animal behavior out of which you can pick the right example to suit your fancy.

    As to the status/signaling theories not having predictive power, well, the thing is that signaling is VERY culture- (and even subculture-) dependent. Without knowing the culture, you can’t understand its signals and so, obviously, can’t predict them. Taking the jewelry example at face value, people who actually hang out in the doctors’ community and go to medical conferences should have no problems answering the question — note that good signals must be understood. An outsider, of course, would have no clue, but that’s not an argument against the status/signaling theories.

    • ” am not sure why prestige is made to be so complicated. I understand it as *success*, specifically, recognized, socially approved success. Within this framework it’s pretty obvious why you both want to have prestige, and want to associate with prestigious people, ideally mix your genes with theirs.”

      Why don’t you want dominance? Why don’t you wan’t to turn prestige into dominance? It’s a lot more effective to spread you genes by becoming some Genghis Khan figure, rather than some Albert Einstein figure.

    • Because success depends on the approval of others. Why do they give it?

      Prestige maps well to merit, yes, the dilemma is what exactly is in it for you to socially approve it? Social approval is something you do, not something that just exists. What is in it for you to actually admire it? We know group selection is fairly weak stuff. It is a better angle to not use that too much and find a personal advantage for the admirer. Like, if I praise this guy, and associate myself with him, do I also get seen as a cool one? Or, if I praise this guy, do I get to learn from him?

      And what both Scott and Melting Asphalt just forgot that there is sometimes an opposite drive, a social custom to NOT give prestige to socially useful acts. It is called in HG “insult the meat” when hunters bringing down meat, others say it is crap, it is worthless etc. basically so that the hunters do not get much prestige for it. It is really weird because it sounds like a poor motivation.

      • If success is just being praised and popular, then it is a synonym for prestige, and therefore no explanation of it. If success is reproductive success, then prestige is inferior dominance. The puzzle remains.

  59. Vorkon says:

    When I first read this title, I could have sworn it said “Contra Slimer on Prestige.”

    I was all, “WTF? What does Ghostbusters have to say about prestige? Wouldn’t it make more sense for this to be titled ‘Contra Venkman on Prestige’?”

    It was still an interesting read, but I’m somehow disappointed I’ll never get to read the essay I thought this might have been. ;_;

  60. ADifferentAnonymous says:

    Prestige systems are self-reinforcing.

    That is, rewarding people who produce public goods for the group is itself a public good for the group, so doing it well can earn you rewards (or not doing it can bring punishment). The quoted blurb doesn’t say what would happen if a babbler refused to reward prestige, but bet they would lose some of their own prestige.

    Certainly this can be a stable equilibrium; the most worrying thing is that this mechanism could produce a stable equilibrium around almost any behavior.

    • ADifferentAnonymous says:

      I’d predict that babblers would compete over chances to suck up, but the two ways they do this are by mating, which they compete over anyway, and by not challenging to fights, which is a non-exclusive good. But humans certainly compete over chances to suck up.

  61. TomA says:

    The “prestige” behavior is likely to be a proclivity (soft bias) with evolutionary origin dating back to hunter-gatherer times. Ancient HG tribes likely had a pecking order and evolved a feedback mechanism to aid in selecting for favorable traits among the group and its leadership. Dominance encouraged fitness and strength. Prestige feedback likely encouraged lower-tier favorable behaviors such as loyalty and clannishness (group altruism).

  62. Max says:

    In my simple mind it summarizes to this :
    Roots of altruism are in in evolutionary benefits of teammaking. Prestige/Dominance games are mechanisms of it. Dominance being older and more widespread and prestige selectively evolved among more socially sophisticated species

  63. Wrong Species says:

    Your post starts with a question on evidence for signaling theories, but never answers it. Are there any studies done that gives evidence one way or another on these ideas?

  64. WS says:

    Prestige might be mostly about validation. People like it when their preferences/tastes/beliefs have a powerful champion.

  65. RCF says:

    “Helpfulness, bravery, heroism: these birds seem like regular Boy Scouts. At least on the surface.”

    How in the world are the Boy Scouts still be used as the go-to example of positive character traits? They may not be quite as bad as they were a few years ago, but the BSA, as an organization, stands for dishonesty, bigotry, and all-around assholery.

  66. DrBeat says:

    Does every behavior really need explanation as an evolved fitness mechanism?

    I mean, like, do you think the halo effect is actually an important behavior adapting people for fitness in social environments? I don’t think you do; it’s a side effect of the ways our brains process things and assign traits. So why does there need to be an evolutionary explanation for celebrity-worship?

    • “So why does there need to be an evolutionary explanation for”

      “Need” is too strong. But evolution provides an explanation for things in a sense in which random causation doesn’t, so it is interesting, and perhaps productive, to try to work out plausible evolutionary explanations. Sometimes, of course, they will be wrong.

    • Cet3 says:

      Because certainty feels good and uncertainty feels bad. Similarly, it’s emotionally satisfying to attribute purpose to observed phenomena. The rest is mostly rationalization.

  67. 1212 says:

    Thanks for posting this. I don’t think in terms of status so I can’t just lift your ideas out and put them in my brain but I think this has slightly disentangled something in my head and if/when that subtly helps me I’m unlikely to notice, so I should say now: thanks for the free conceptual work. Its helpfulness can easily go unnoticed.

  68. Saul Degraw says:

    Late to the party and after scanning the comments. I am going to posit these things.

    1. Everyone thinks “The person I dislike signals. I am sincere.”

    2. Does this make singnalling something like Schrodinger’s Cat? People signal and are sincere at the same time.

    3. An example is that people often accuse getting a college education (especially at a place like an SLAC) as a singaling act. Isn’t it just a signal to call a Wesleyan/Swarthmore/Vassar/Smith degree a signal?

    4. Is an accusation of signaling compatible with western democratic ideas that there is not one form of the good life but multiple forms of a good life? If every one needs to find the good life as they see fit, how can anything be a signal?

    Note: I went to Vassar.

    • Vox Imperatoris says:

      I’m not as gung-ho about signaling theory as some people here, but you are not understanding the economistic notion of signaling correctly.

      In this theory, sincerity and signaling are not mutually exclusive. In fact, sincerity is one of the best ways to signal because it’s hard to fake! So your point #2 is correct, but they do not regard this as a paradox or contradiction.

      You also do not have to be consciously aware that the purpose of your behavior is signaling in order to be signaling. A famous example used by Robin Hanson (the master of explaining everything via signaling) is spending on medical care for your dying parents. You want to express (to them, to others, and to yourself) that you are a good person who loves his parents. What better way than to spend hundreds of thousands to give them a few more weeks on earth! This is almost certainly not cost-effective in terms of real benefits to you or them, but the problem is that any cold-hearted bastard could tell the doctors to turn off the ventilators and give them lots of morphine. That’s cheap! So maybe if you take the latter option, you’ll stay up at night worrying that the real reason you did it is because you were too callous to pay to help your parents.

      Or imagine that you are a criminal and get a bunch of ugly tattoos all over your face. You may very well sincerely get them purely because you think it’s badass. But it also serves as a strong signal to gangs looking for loyal recruits. It says: this man will never have good job prospects in law-abiding society; he’s in the “game” for life. This is a better way to determine who will be loyal than to ask people: “Would you rat me out and enter the Witness Protection Program?”

      The thing to realize is that economistic theories of signaling are not about individuals’ inner psychological motivations. They are more about explaining why people end up being motivated by their normal human emotions to undertake very particular kinds of actions that don’t otherwise make sense. People get face tattoos because the tattoos seem badass. But, ultimately, they seem badass because they are a good signal. (A lot of this divide is closely related to Scott’s recent article “Contra Caplan on Mental Illness”.)

      • science says:

        How does Hanson going about proving or at least providing evidence for the rather astonishing claim that healthcare isn’t about health?

        It seems like the project of figuring out why people are motivated to do things that look irrational is a lot harder than coming up with any plausible rational rationale and saying — well that must be it. For that method to work the entire space of plausible rational rationales would have to contain only one member.

        That’s even leaving aside the problematic reliance on the strong form of the homo economicus axiom.

      • Saul Degraw says:

        This makes sense. Signaling is one of my least favorite things used on the Internet because it seems mainly used against the other tribe while not realizing your own signaling.

    • Cet3 says:

      Signalling theory is a simple idea that can easily generate an explanation of any conceivable human behavior. What’s not to like?

    • RCF says:

      I think there’s some confusion as to what the term “signaling” means. There are two main uses that I’ve seen. One of them basically just means “pretension”. The other is the concept of costly signaling, which is often abbreviation to “signaling”. Getting a degree from Vassar is alleged to be a costly signal. Calling getting a degree from Vassar signalling would not be costly signaling. So you seem to be calling it pretentious to dismiss getting a degree from Vassar as a signal.

  69. “su3su2u1 challenged status/signaling theories of human behavior: can they make any real-life predictions? Hi”

    Might that be setting the bar too high? We have various theories of language. but none of them can specify which exact string of phonemes or written symbol will communicate what.

  70. This article is very similar to my own blog article from a few months ago: Cooperative vs Dominance Based Status. My own article is shorter and contains less details, and less supporting reference to babblers, but I dislike the conceptual slicing here and think cooperation and learning exchanges is a better way to approach it than prestige.

    -Prestige-admiration does not capture the core social and biological mechanisms and purposes very well. It just implies we like somebody. If we’re going to propose concepts like this they should be as close to any mechanisms we can discover as possible.
    -Admiration confuses desire to emulate with an instinct to reward. Someone admires their enemy, though they still oppose them. A sadistic person may admire a killer, though there is no sense of wanting to reward them for being part of a coherent group. Admiration conflates copying behaviours with social reward behaviours too much.
    -Admiration and prestige by this definition seem to almost but not quite circular. Assuming prestige is having lots of admiration, what is admiration? It’s not just liking someone, but liking someone due to status doesn’t give us information. Cooperation gives a clearer idea of what is meant.

    But this kind of straightforward altruism simply isn’t found in nature.[1] It’s not game-theoretically stable, thanks to the free-rider problem.

    I think this statement is misleading. There are three main mechanisms by which altruism can develop in nature – kin-selection, group-selection and genetically based reciprocity (which does not always require personal gain). They are perfectly stable given the right conditions. Humanity is a great example, as he basically goes on to acknowledge. However, he seeks to reduce it to rational self-interest, which would be an incorrect (and I think politically motivated) statement in the case a genetically evolved altruism.

    (Scott)I worry no one theory can completely explain prestige. It seems to me to be a combination of several different things:

    Seems like a good approach to me, with some sensible sounding mechiansms. And I think my cooperative-status could probably use improvement on this front too. However, I feel like your list is leaning towards being overly cynical by excluding rewarding pro-group behaviours. Not everything is superficial signalling. Genetically evolved altruism can manifest as an authentic desire to reward high performance cooperative behaviour, without desire for personal gain. I think it’s hard to over-state how much that sort of thing is important for group success, especially before we externalised it in a financial system.

    • >-Prestige-admiration does not capture the core social and biological mechanisms and purposes very well. It just implies we like somebody. If we’re going to propose concepts like this they should be as close to any mechanisms we can discover as possible.

      The mechanism is the admired person gets a testosterone boost. See Theodore Kemper, 1990.

  71. JohnMcG says:

    Another incentive for your hypothetical deference to the Koch Brothers is sort of a classism. If you behave yourself around the Koch Brothers, there’s a greater chance you’ll get to hang with Elon Musk.

    Even if we assume that Musk hates the Kochs, if you spent your airplane ride harranguing the Kochs about how awful they are, how they are helping to doom the world, and that you wish they’d defect to North Korea, you would gain the reputation of a kook who can’t handle himself around famous people.

    Now, if I’m Elon Musk, despite your professed admiration, there’s still a chance you disagree with me on something, and might use our meeting to harrangue me about this. Best not to take the risk.

  72. whatnoloan says:

    Hm, so many “contra” posts! Well, Scott Alexander, could they be exalted contras?

  73. 1. Your list of possible explanations for prestige needs a number zero: prestige as soft power. When humans developed enough linguistic skill, and weapons technology to allow N individually weaker tribe members to gang up on and defeat one individually stronger alpha male, would-be leaders responded by developing unthreatening forms of leadership. This theory, and I think only this theory, explains the association between prestige and generosity (and frugality). The would-be exerciser of soft power needs to demarcate themselves form the tyrannical bully by sensing out the message “If you let me run things, I am not going to just take your stuff..see how I like to share! How little I needs for myself!”.

    2. The framing of the “learning” theory of prestige has been in terms of practical skills, making Hellen Keller a puzzle. But humans need to learn values as well as facts and skills, and the Helen Keller Story is well suited to teaching values of fortitude and overcoming obstacles, even if Keller ended up with no more skill than anyone else. Value-learning also explains why we admire historical, legendary ad mythical figures. (“Some talk of Lysander, some of Heracles/Some of Alexander and such great men as these…”).

    3. Value learning overlaps with group formation and membership signalling. Even if your admiration of distant or dead figures doesn’t put us into contact with them, it can put them into contact with other people who admire them, and therefore share values with you. For barely a century, we have been able to advertise our ideals by carrying a plackard,. or wearing a printed tee shirt. Being a known admirer of such-and-such a figure is a way of concretely communicating abstract values.

    4. Prestigious artists are another puzzle , as they arent’ providing either practical skills or obvious political-style leadership. However, the arts can communicate values, and the performing arts can form groups, get people together, at the concrete level. It is notable that performing artists tend to accrue the most prestige. A sculptor might be considered “important” by an academic, but teenage girls don’t have posters of sculptors. It seems likely that in prehistory music and co-ordnanted movement were used to rally bands before a raid.

  74. Anr-X says:

    (Sidenote, I think ‘leave’ would translate to ‘stop producing whatever they produce’, not ‘literally leave for North Korea’. So, if more people are really into a singer, this might improve their content – they have more resources, more motivation, more people know about their content so you get more derivative content, etc. Which, if I like their content, is clearly advantageous to me. On the other hand, if everyone stopped paying attention to them, they might fade away.)

    I’m confused as to what the celebrity examples have to do with the doctor examples.

    Celebrities seem to be a group focus thing, like I think Scott has written before about churches – groups together can do what one person can’t do, a focus helps keep everyone together, everyone being fired up is useful for this, etc.

    That seems completely different from um, the hierarchy meaning of status, which is about what the group values, and sort out the group in general, rather than one person.

    And like, they’re not separate, because you can get to be a celebrity through hierarchy-status, and celebrities also tend to be given hierarchy-status. But since both celebritiness and hierarchy-status gives you power, while conversely power can be something a group values and thus makes a hierarchy-status based on, they’re not in fact separate from dominance either.

  75. Kevin Simler says:

    Thanks for the great write-up Scott. You’ll have to forgive me for not jumping in on the comments thread here. I was off getting married when you posted this :). And by the time I returned, it was too late.

    Anyway, I went ahead and responded to most of your concerns on my blog. Bottom line: I did a poor job explaining what it means to be on someone’s “team.” I probably should have used the word “friendship” or “alliance” or “coalition” instead. I hope it’s clearer this time; I really want to do justice to Dessalles’ theory.

    http://www.meltingasphalt.com/social-status-ii-cults-and-loyalty/