The Tautology of the Elites
And the difference between political and technical truths
A few weeks ago we spoke about how institutions are failing.
This week, we’ll talk about how those institutions — and the elites that run them — stay in power despite their repeated blunders.
An easy example to point to would be how our collective sense-making institutions botched COVID. To illustrate just a few mishaps: They said the flu spread more efficiently, asymptomatic patients didn’t transmit it, and containment was possible. They said travel bans were overreacting. That avoiding handshakes was paranoid. That tests were available. That masks wouldn’t work. All of these things came fast and furious in the early months of the pandemic, and we’re still seeing reversal after reversal to the point that even the experts (let alone average people) simply couldn’t make sense out of what was published by “official” sources.
In reality, no one knew what was going on, so everyone used an “appeal to authority” — an invocation of an approved person or brand as authority for why their argument is correct. In a fast-changing world where claims are hard to prove, appeal to authority becomes a natural way to end an argument — and unfortunately as it turns out, run a society during a global pandemic.
Indeed, these appeals to authority run more of society than we realize: Who designs government policies? Experts. Who do journalists quote in newspapers? Experts. And who are these experts? Professors. Who funds these professors? The government. Who votes for the government? The public. Who educates the public? Professors and journalists. Oh.
Balaji calls this the information supply chain: Stanford does a study which gets published in a peer reviewed journal, like Nature or Science. That study is then written about in the New York Times and becomes conveyed as truth. Finally, the U.S. Government then enacts some policy based broadly on that original study, claiming their action is based in science.
This phenomenon is codified deeply into our culture. Take Wikipedia as another example. If you wanted to know where the information came from on a given Wikipedia page, you'd see it came from "reliable sources". Who contributes to those "reliable sources"? What exactly is a reliable source? Wikipedia explains in very clear English what a reliable source is. Get ready for it. A reliable source is a source….that’s reliable.
Is there a mechanism for determining whether the NYT is or isn't a reliable source? Not really. It’s arbitrary. The NYT is grandfathered in. The NYT could write nonsense everyday, but who keeps track? Who even cares? For most people, it all gets lost in the chaos. Sure, they lose some subscribers on the red team. But the blue team cheers and doubles down on their subscriptions.
To be sure, appeals to authority aren’t always bad, and they’re used for a reason. If you’re a journalist or public official trying to figure out a new policy, you often go to the most legible, respected source, like NYT or Harvard. But given there’s no scorecard for accuracy, how do we know who's the best?
Well, because many of the best people see them as the best, and they’ve seen them as the best for a long time, which has strengthened the flywheel. It’s tautological.
I don’t mean to say there’s no filtering process at all, or that it’s totally arbitrary. Smart people can disagree about the accuracy of and politicization within that initial filtering process, but at least there’s an initial filtering process. It’s the continuous filter process that is lacking. Or in other words, once someone has been blessed—as long as they have the morally right opinions—they face little accountability for repeatedly making incorrect claims or wrong predictions.
The tautology of the elites is that elites remain elite because they’re elite. QED.
Indeed, we’ve been appealing to authority for centuries, except the authority we used to call “God” we now call science. In this appeal, we ironically diminish the value of that which we’re appealing to without changing the core authority itself all that much. Science replaced God as the means of explaining the external world when in reality we're using the same explanation with a different term to describe it. “Believe in science,” they say. Sounds to me like the same message in a different frame.
But science has been misused for centuries too. The Nazis misused it for their eugenics program, and the communists misused it for their model of how the economy works. They too said “believe in science,” and they were wrong.
Of course there are scientists who are right — those who do real science. There's Maxwell's equations, Newton's laws, physics, chemistry, etc. But there's also the question of science vs scientism — the contrast between those who do real scientific inquiry and those who launder the prestige of science into fields where it doesn’t apply, where experiments are harder to replicate and it’s more of an art than a science.
The core function of science is not peer review, publishing in a prestigious journal, or having an academic affiliation. It’s independent replication — the repetition of an experiment such that the variance of that experiment can be better estimated.
To say that true scientific inquiry is the same as a general appeal to authority is categorically incorrect. The latter may have the form of science, in the sense that it could be laid out like a logically sound argument, but it doesn't have the substance of science, which is based on independent replication.
And yet, we can’t replicate experiments at the drop of a hat, so we do rely on prestige as a proxy. Because it’s so hard for people to disprove claims, or for us to keep track of who’s been right and who’s been wrong over time, they’re more likely to believe elite media and universities when they say something is true, no matter how often they’re wrong.
Despite how wrong epidemiologists are, despite how wrong nutrition science was for decades—food pyramid anyone?—despite the replication crisis which challenges much of psychology—nothing really changes. When elite media and universities say something is true, people will believe it. Furthermore, often people won’t believe a claim until it gets blessed by the experts.
But just because they say something is true, and just because people believe it, doesn’t mean it’s actuallytrue.
You can see this as the difference between political and technical truths.
Political truths are judged entirely by social consensus — who the president is, whether the dollar has value, or whether the New York Times or Harvard is elite.
But for technology, popularity and truth are not one in the same. Technical truths are things that are true regardless of popularity — the weather, the chemistry of a compound, or the money supply of Bitcoin.
What if we had a way to make political truths more like technical truths — a way to make things based on consensus better align with our objective reality?
Balaji visualizes one solution that he calls the ledger of record — “the set of all cryptographically signed feeds of on-chain data. It subsumes social media feeds, data APIs, event streams, newsletters, and RSS. It'll take years to build, but will ultimately become the decentralized layer of facts that underpins all narratives”.
We’ve created incredible technologies for information distribution, like Twitter, Facebook, and the like, but our technologies for information verification are still very primitive.
More broadly, what would a world look like in which experts could be properly selected and lose their expert status when they’re consistently inaccurate?
Next week we’ll explore prediction markets as one opportunity that pushes us in the right direction.
Until next week,
A phenomenal, germane read: _The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics_ (https://amzn.to/3q6PzMW). It is tangential but helps explain why the proverbial elite—whether political, cultural, or pedagogical—remain in power despite abhorrent behavior and gross misdeeds.
They don't teach the food pyramid anymore. So maybe change does happen?