If there is one conventional belief that I find difficult to grasp, it’s the belief that right now life is at an all-time level of misery. This isn’t just a mistaken belief: It’s flat-out wrong. And so I figured I’d write a quick post explaining why I think it’s easy to overcome some of the easy ways to be pessimistic today.
Reason for Pessimism #1: The World Is Going to Shit
Donald Trump, hypersensitive PC college kids, the Alt-Right, the NCAA, Brexit, Justin Timberlake’s half-time performance at the Super Bowl. Things have never been worse.
Reason for Optimism #1: Actually, Things Are Getting Better.
Reason for Pessimism #1 couldn’t be less true. By nearly every measure of prosperity, life is getting better. Whether we’re measuring human longevity, access to clean water, infant mortality, economic well being, murder rates, or nearly any other objective measure of what it means to live a good life, we’re now living in the best time ever to be alive.
The other day I watched this video by the brilliant Christoper Boehm where he explained something I had never heard before: Ethnocentrism is a human universal.
According to Boehm, all humans (particularly the males) in their default setting are racist and violent. All humans, given the right conditions, can be prone to acts of murder, violence, and even genocide. What’s also interesting is that we are uniquely violent. The only species that are known to engage in conspecific acts of coordinated violence are us and chimpanzees, our closest relatives. And this has been going on for about six million years, since the days of the earliest proto-humans. That’s a long history of murder and mayhem.
Reason for Optimism #2: Modern Culture Is Making It Better
In some modern late Pleistocene-appropriate cultures (modern hunter-gatherers), adult death rates from murder or warfare are as high as 35%! (Hill, Hurtado, & Walker, 2007). What we can infer from these data is that we are perhaps four orders of magnitude less likely to die a violent death than our pre-modern-cultural ancestors were. Or, stated another way, our lives are about 10,000 times safer than they used to be.
Reason for Pessimism #3: Our Institutions Are Rotten
Reason for Optimism #3: Our Institutions Are Better than Almost All Institutions Ever
But we’re trying to make them better. We’re trying to make laws more inclusive and accepting. We have laws to help the poor, the downtrodden, and minority groups. Throughout most of history, no one bothered. Traditionally, if you were a small tribe next to a big tribe, the likely result was utter annihilation and extinction.
If you compare our laws today to what they were a generation ago, we’re doing better. If you compare our laws to our laws a little further back, we’re doing way, way better. As Theodore Parker once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Reason for Pessimism #4: There is Human Misery Everywhere, Every Day
With more than seven billion people floating around on this blue orb, someone is going to be suffering at all times. As I wrote last year:
There are about 400,000 murders a year, which averages out to more than 1000 every day. It’s safe to say that at nearly all moments, someone is either killing someone else or in the process of making it happen. That’s a sobering thought. Probably too much for the human brain to fully comprehend or absorb while still functioning. If we did choose to focus on that fact all the time, it would be hard to get motivated or feel good about anything.
Reason for Optimism #4: There Has Never Been Greater Innovation in How to Make Life Better
None of this is to say that life isn’t better today for some than for others. Nor is it to say that we shouldn’t work harder to make it better. But it isn’t said often enough that in the aggregate, the evidence shows that life is getting better.
Regardless of what you read, there are more reasons for optimism today than pessimism. The question is: where are we going to direct our attention?
A world constructed from the familiar is a world in which there’s nothing to learn … (since there is) invisible autopropaganda, indoctrinating us with our own ideas.
— Eli Pariser
Back in college, I did the study-abroad thing in Europe. I was living in Barcelona, and I used my Eurail pass to go to Genoa, Italy. I went to Genoa because it seemed like it might be less touristy than other parts of Italy. The first trip every kid with a Eurail pass did was Rome and Florence, so I wanted to try something different. Genoa was on the water, near Cinqueterra, not too far from Barcelona, and judging from the pictures I had seen online, looked like whatever the 20-year-old version of me imagined to be authentically Italian.
I brought with me my Let’s Go Europe guidebook. I ripped the pages out of the section on Genoa and stuffed them in my pocket, so as to not stand out too much as a tourist. I was self-conscious about not wearing clothes that stood out as too American-y, so when I arrived, I tried to blend in to the bustling if not somewhat grimey city that was Genoa.
Of everything I read on Genoa in Let’s Go, what I was most excited about was this small, super friendly, cheap, hole-in-the-wall family-run pasta place, with Mom serving the pasta, and with Dad and Grandma making it in the back. Pasta was my favorite food growing up, so going to a real Italian pasta place sounded like the coolest thing on earth to me. I had to check it out.
The restaurant was nowhere near the hostel I was staying, and so I had to navigate three buses to get there, getting lost multiple times on the way. It was early May, but unseasonably warm and humid. The buses were crowded. I was sweating on those around me and they were sweating on me.
The restaurant was at the top of a steep hill and then down an alley. It was as close to a literal hole in the wall as any restaurant I had ever been. I opened the door, tried to mumble a few words of half-Italian, half-Spanish, and a surly-looking woman pointed me to a table. I peered around the room, and of the ten tables in the restaurant, probably eight of them had a Let’s Go book.
In my quest for an authentic Italian dining experience, I had trudged across Europe, to a remote part of a dingy Mediterranean town, taking three buses, only to find myself in what must have been the only restaurant in the city whose patrons were mostly American college kids.
The split-brain confabulation studies are fascinating and fun. But that’s not what I’m questioning. What I’m questioning is how, in my efforts to learn new and different things, I keep converging on books that talk about stuff I have already read.
A little more than month ago, I had never heard of Jordan Peterson. And then I heard about him in this article by Conor Friedsdorf of the Atlantic. And within days, I saw a few people posting about their own 12 Rules for Life, riffing off the title of his new book. And then I figured I’d write my own version. And then I noticed a friend writing about him on his blog, and how he was reading about Jordan Peterson everywhere, too.
In a matter of days, Jordan Peterson went from someone I had never heard of, to someone who was everywhere I looked online.
Kudos to his publicist.
If you come here often, you may have noticed that I occasionally post links to other sites.
I take articles from my favorite sites and blogs, including Kottke.org, the Browser, 3 Quarks Daily, the Legal Theory Blog, Semi-Rad, Crooked Timber, Marginal Revolution, Slate Star Codex, Shtetl-Optimized, and Calculated Risk. I’ll copy and paste whatever I find into Evernote and then write about them here.
And then I kept noticing that the links I was saving were appearing on my other favorite sites. Somehow, in my quest to find new and interesting links to share with people online, I had converged upon the same articles everyone else thought were interesting and worth sharing.
I live in a town near lots of running, biking, and hiking trails. In the last few years, an increasing number of apps provide descriptions of the trails, and users rate the trails based on their experiences. With so many trails, only a few get the best reviews. One of those here is the Monarch Crest Trail, which is considered among the best biking trails in the country. But it’s also more crowded than parts of Central Park in NYC every weekend from late June through October.
But then, there are also lots of other trails that are only slightly less beautiful than the Monarch Crest Trail where you can spend a holiday weekend and often not see another soul.
I’ve always prided myself on trying to be different in what I do. When I travel, I like to seek out experiences that aren’t super touristy. When I read, I like to learn stuff that’s different from what everyone around me already knows. When I go outside to play, I’d rather it not be at the Grand Canyon on a holiday weekend.
But clearly, try as I might to be different, I still kind of suck at it.
The problem is, I don’t want experiences that are just different: I also want to find some cool stuff. I want to find some places that are nearly as spectacular as the crowded spots, but nowhere near as crowded.
I’m looking for the hidden gem, the spot that’s beautiful, pristine, and I have all to myself.
But places that are crowded tend to be crowded for a reason. The Grand Canyon is so damned crowded is because it’s one of the most awe-inspiring places on earth. So even though it’s usually super crowded, it’s still absolutely worth going there (you just have to be picky about when and how you do it).
The reason the Italian restaurant in Genoa was full of Americans is because another American college kid published a snippet about it that inspired everyone else to follow her there.
We converge on things that come highly reviewed. I get it.
The question is whether there’s a way to find the hidden gems while avoiding both places that are unpleasantly overcrowded and places that are, well, not worth visiting for a reason.
Eli Pariser coined the term “filter bubble” in 2010. According to Pariser, the filter bubble is caused by algorithms that lead us to have our own opinions and biases confirmed in our interactions with the internet. The sites we visit collect data on what we like, and then gives us back more of what we like every time we use it. The algorithms at Netflix, Amazon, Google, Facebook, Twitter, predict what we will like in the future based on what we have consumed in the past.
It’s good to get more of what we like. But getting future experiences based on our past experiences means we’re stuck in a feedback loop. According to Pariser, these algorithms “close us off to new ideas, subjects, and important information.”
If you enjoy one book that talks about split-brain patients in the context of Buddhism and spirituality, it would stand to reason that you might like another that talks about split-brain patients in the context of mixed motivations. But the same algorithm that correctly predicts that you’ll like “X” because you liked “Y” starts to feed you more and more of the same crap. And then everything starts to feel, taste, and sound the same. If you use Netflix, Amazon, Google, Facebook, or Twitter (do you know anyone who doesn’t use any of these?), then, unless you alter the default settings, your life will reflect this convergence.
Twitter doesn’t suggest that you follow someone whom only a few people think is interesting, but most people think is a weirdo. Netflix doesn’t suggest that you watch shows that a few people think are great, but most people think are bad. You’re being directed to the same media that appeals to everyone else (with your same age, gender, socio-economic status, and ideology cohorts).
I suspect another part of the explanation for this convergence is a sort of winner-take-all effect of popularity. The top .01% of 1% of influencers are all connected to each other through mutual contacts and by sheer force of mutual influence. They leverage each other’s platforms to expand their influence and promote their work. If I were influential, I’d do the same. But there is a limited circle of people with a big enough following to create this effect, and so they start to converge on each other. People who like Tim Ferriss’s podcast pick up on Jocko Willink’s podcast and Sam Harris’s podcast (and James Altucher’s and Debbie Millman’s) and then the same guests appear on each other’s podcasts and then everyone has podcasts where, after a few episodes, you can easily predict what’s going to happen next. And then those people talk about the same few books, topics, and habits, and then all of those things converge on each other. And since those people collectively influence so many people, all of those people converge on each other, too.
I think there’s something to be said for reading the blogs of weirdos and outcasts. For checking out podcasts that don’t already have millions of downloads. For going to the library and picking up a book by an author you’ve never heard of.
People who are successful are usually successful for a reason. But there are a lot more people who are talented than there are people who are famous. It’s worth spending some time on your own searching for them.
Maybe it doesn’t matter much if we’re all reading and thinking about the same things. But to me it feels off—like we’re losing forms of intellectual and cultural diversity. Count me in the group that believes that diversity is a critical precursor to growth. And so I think it’s worth the effort to take extraordinary efforts to try to do different things.
The thing about critically acclaimed, highly-reviewed hidden gems is that they don’t tend to stay hidden gems for long. Once the word gets out, you’ve probably already missed your window.
Markets in experiences, books, places, and restaurants all tend to self-correct. If everyone wants to find a delicious, cheap, not-too-crowded, authentic Italian restaurant, and publishers, writers, and food critics are highly motivated to find those restaurants and to share them, then the critically acclaimed, highly-reviewed delicious, cheap, not-too-crowded authentic Italian restaurant is going to be about as easy to find as a $20 bill on the ground. We might stumble upon $20 bills on the ground a few times in our lives, but maybe not even that often.
Don’t get me wrong: I still think there are hidden gems. I just don’t think you’re likely to find out about them on Tripadvisor or on All Trails.
I think you just have to go and figure that shit out on your own.
The expression, “you have to kiss a few frogs to find your prince charming” is sexist and stupid, but I think there’s some value to thinking that way with life experiences—specifically, acknowledging that you have to have shitty experiences if you also want to have rich, novel experiences.
Without the prior filter, we’re wandering into the unknown. With the filter bubble, we’re picking a known quantity. But so is everyone else.
If you base all of your choices on other people’s previously cultivated experiences, (and on your own prior cultivated experiences), your life just won’t be that interesting. It’s just becomes a copy or a copy of a copy.
If I had wandered around Genoa back then and eaten at any restaurant that seemed popular with the locals, I’m sure my experience would have been better than the one I had. Genoa didn’t have that many tourists in 1998. So nearly anywhere I could have eaten would have been a novel experience for a 20-year-old kid. Instead I chose the safe route to eat where the most popular guide book for college kids suggested I eat. By trying to rely on someone else’s advice for what was authentic, I got the opposite.
A few years back, I met a guy on the island of Ometepe in Nicaragua, and this was how he traveled: He got off the plane, and he talked to people. And he asked them what they were doing. If what they were doing sounded like fun, he asked if he could join them. If what they were doing sounded boring, he went and talked to someone else.
My wife and I only had two days on the island of Ometepe, and so on the last day we were there, we were going to hire a taxi driver to take us around the island. He struck up a conversation with us at a crowded hostel bar, and that’s where we told him about our plan. He said that sounded like fun and asked if he could join us. We said sure.
He was a fun and interesting guy. And though he traveled less frequently and on a tighter budget than my wife and I did, it sounded like he had better stories to tell.
If you make all of your decisions the same ways everyone else does, your life will end up exactly like everyone else’s.
I’m not saying we all need be exactly like the guy I met in Ometepe, but I think most of us would benefit from more of that tendency.
With globalization and the emergence of a handful of companies (Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple, Netflix) that influence nearly all aspects of how we collect and process information, pre-filtered life is growing increasingly homogenous. That might be more true today than ever before.
Better to get offline and get analog with experiences. It’s ok to let algorithms, critical consensus, influencers, and public opinion shape your decisions some of the time, but probably best not to let them do it all of the time.
Sometimes it’s better to just wing it, even though sometimes this will suck. You might get food poisoning. You might find out too late you’ve gone camping next to a swamp with an infestation of mosquitoes. Sometimes you will meet unpleasant and uninteresting people.
I do not have it all figured out. But I’ve come to believe that even crappy experiences like that are worth something if it feels like you came up with the crap on your own.
Better to live my own life badly than spend my whole life living someone else’s seemingly well.
Two of my favorite writers are Tyler Cowen and Cal Newport.
Tyler Cowen is one of the most influential bloggers on earth. In addition to being a Harvard-educated economist, he’s created a multi-media intellectual empire for himself at George Mason University, with a podcast, blog, lecture series, online university, columns at Bloomberg, and tentacles all over print and audio media. As an example of the scope of his influence, reading Cowen’s blog is the first part of Malcolm Gladwell’s morning routine.
Cal Newport is one of the youngest tenured professors at Georgetown University, where he teaches computer science and is widely published on topics that are far beyond the scope of my intellect. But that’s not how I know about him. I know him from two of his books: So Good They Can’t Ignore You and Deep Work, both of which I consider among the most important books on how to approach work that I’ve ever read. Whenever I meet anyone who seems to be in a professional funk, if I suspect they might be open to suggestion, I do everything I can to steer them to Cal Newport’s books. Reading his first book was essential to helping me choose a path for my business, and reading the second has been equally helpful me to get it where I want it to be.
Tyler Cowen is an information omnivore (he wrote a book about just that topic, actually, called Age of the Infovore), consuming insane amounts of information from diverse print and online sources. He often cites as one of the keys to his success the fact that he is incredibly responsive to email. According to Age of the Infovore, he checks his email every five minutes. And despite having a massive online following, he answers every single email he gets.
Cal Newport’s approach is about as different from Cowen’s as you could get. He might be described as a borderline Luddite who teaches computer science. More specifically, he thinks that social media, email, and instant messaging apps are intellectual scourges to be avoided at all costs. According to Newport, to create work that has real value, you need to concentrate for long periods of time. Every time we check Facebook or email, it completely destroys our concentration, causing us to shift our focus in a way that is impossible or nearly impossible to retrieve. Newport thinks the best way to succeed is to purge our lives of the constant hum of pings, notifications, and feeds trying to steal our precious attention resources. To succeed in a modern economy where attention is a scarce resource, we must create and cultivate an environment every day where true, deep work is possible without interruption.
Both Cowen and Newport are writers and intellectuals at the absolute pinnacles of their fields. But their approaches seem diametrically opposed to each other. So who is right? Which approach is better—deep work or constant, unrelenting media consumption?
I’m reading a book right now called What Works for Whom? It’s by a couple of English academics that specialize in psychotherapy research. The book digs into which types of psychological and psychiatric interventions work for which types of psychological problems. Here’s an excerpt:
Summarizing quantitative review of outcomes for MDD [Major Depressive Disorder], it seems clear that psychological therapy has benefit over no therapy, though when active therapies are contrasted, differences between them are less clear. Although there are indications that CBT [Cognitive Behavioral Therapy] is superior to less structured forms of psychotherapeutic intervention, it is worth noting that this conclusion appears less robust when the contrast treatment is credible and theory-grounded.
The overarching lesson I’ve taken from the book is that the aggregated data show that techniques that work for one type of problem do not necessarily work for others. Not exactly a Eureka! insight, but worth noting.
CBT and inter-personal therapy work well for depression but have not shown to be effective as a treatment for substance abuse. What works for anxiety is not an effective treatment for anorexia. And so on.
Have you ever finished a book or a TED talk and thought to yourself: “This is it! This is the key to what I’ve been looking for! If I just do X or don’t do Y, all of my problems will go away!” And then after a few hours or days, the magic solution fades from memory and life goes on as normal?
There’s no shortage of people out there who are in the business of selling us on breakthroughs.
A breakthrough is an event or realization that forever changes your life. Before this moment, you were one, lesser version of yourself. And after this moment, you’re a better, improved version of yourself.
If a weekend or a conference or a person were truly capable of making you a better person, it’d be hard to quantify just how much money that would be worth. But if they were real, the sellers of breakthroughs could probably just name their price. And even if it might be real, plenty of people would be willing to take a gamble and spend a small fortune on the off chance that it might do the trick.
Last year, I found this blog on fake insights by David Chapman. It’s wonderful. For me, it was a breakthrough on why most breakthroughs aren’t really breakthroughs.
Most of the time, according to Chapman, when we are sold on the idea of having an insight it’s because we’ve been tricked into finding an easy solution to what seemed like an artificially hard problem. By solving an easy problem masquerading as a hard problem, we are tricked into believing that we have somehow achieved mastery with relatively little effort. Perhaps all it took was a slight tweak in direction or mindset.
Ultimately, most breakthroughs are an artificial sleight of hand. The ability to solve one problem doesn’t necessarily mean that you have the power to solve another, unrelated problem. There is no magic key that lets you open all doors.
I’ve spent most of my life searching for simple, overarching rules that might help me live a better life. An intellectual golden ticket, of sorts.
And the more I read, the more convinced I am that there are no one-sized-fits-all formulas for how to live your life—no perfect plans for how to shape your schedule, your work-life routine, or pretty much anything else. No life hack works for everyone equally well. For each of us to maximize our talents, we must maximize self-knowledge by paying attention to our own internal signals, while incorporating lessons from those around us to the extent they might be helpful. And even then, we still have to adapt to every new wrinkle that life throws at us. And this will never end.
If you look up directions on Google Maps, there are usually three or four different options for how to get to your destination. Google will point you to the fastest way and then give you options for alternative routes. Perhaps you want to pick a more scenic option or avoid the highway. But if you go pretty much anywhere else other than those three or four routes, you’re going to end up going the wrong way. There is more than one way to get where you want to go, but there are infinitely more routes that will take you the wrong way.
I think life is like this, except to date there is no Google Maps service that is able to provide objective directions for how to get where you’re going—and where not to go.
There are lots of books and videos and Ted talks and inspirational seminars where people sell you on the idea that they can tell you how to live your life.
But as is obvious when you read books like What Works for Whom? neurodiversity is a real thing. There are plenty of 500-page academic treatises that will send your mind spinning with details of how effective strategies in one arena will be totally unsuccessful in another. Effective strategies for beating markets won’t help you in your family life. Warren Buffet’s wife left him to be with her tennis coach.
So it goes.
A few years ago I ran a couple of 100-mile races. I’ve heard some other people who have run 100-mile races say that after they have run a 100-mile race, it makes everything else they do in life much easier. As in, after running 100 miles, they know they can accomplish anything.
I’m skeptical of this. After I ran 100 miles, I just knew that I could run 100 miles. I didn’t find it easier to find meaning and purpose in my work. I didn’t find that my relationship struggles had changed. The problems I had in life before I had run 100 miles were more or less the same problems I had after I had run 100 miles.
A while back I wrote this piece called “Metarules for Games,” wherein I tried to come up with a set of overarching practices for how to approach new games. I re-read it recently, and I think it’s interesting and useful for people who like to play games, at least up to a point. It’s an exercise in how to think about games generally, but if you read it, at best, it might only provide a marginal advantage in games over someone who had not read it.
Reading “Metarules for Games,” won’t make you a chess master. To do that, you would need a base level of intelligence, plus many thousands of hours of practice and intense study. Being a chess master isn’t about breakthroughs. It’s about developing skills over years of work and then making successful adaptations during individual games. In the same vein, reading “Metarules for runners” won’t make you a 4-minute miler. Reading “Metarules for investors” won’t make you a billionaire (or a millionaire or even a thousand-aire). That’s just not how it works.
There are popular writers—Tim Ferriss in particular comes to mind—who specialize in studying and decoding habits of success. The idea is that if we learn certain overarching rules, certain patterns for how to organize our lives, that we might find a shortcut in a path to success and high status.
This sounds to me like the business of selling breakthroughs.
This type of study breaks down when we look at people like Tyler Cowen and Cal Newport, whom I mentioned at the beginning of the post. The habits that caused Cowen’s success are the habits Newport looks to avoid. If the one habit—the practice of constantly checking email, and its opposite pair, the practice of consciously avoiding email because it is a distraction from deep, focused work—both can serve as a path to success, then perhaps we can deduce that there’s no magic breakthrough to be made just by picking one habit or its opposite. Perhaps there is relatively little utility in obsessing over the anecdotal meta-habits of intellectual titans.
Tyler Cowen is highly skilled at processing massive amounts of information. Cal Newport is highly skilled at focusing on complicated tasks that most people—even very intelligent people—could not. Both have adapted to modern circumstances to find success. Cowen has succeeded by navigating the waters of information overflow better than anyone else, and Newport by avoiding the currents and staying on shore. But, despite opposite approaches, both have found a way to make it work.
I think, in retrospect, I’ve spent far too much of my life searching for breakthroughs. It’s tempting to look for one pattern or a set of patterns that will light the way for all times and places. But that’s probably not a thing. As I hit the juicy part of middle age, I think when it comes to breakthroughs, they are more about flash than true light.
What is far more useful is the simple cultivation of skills. Work skills, physical skills, interpersonal skills, relationship skills—super-nichey skills in your chosen field that most people can’t even pronounce but you know better than anyone else on earth. The more skills you have, the more you can help people get things done. In short, if you want to be valued, be good at a lot of things that people find valuable.
Then, it’s about adapting those skills to different environments. The world today is not the same as it was five years ago and will not be the same as it will be in five years. You might be in a wheelchair or get cancer or win the lottery, or most likely, none of the above. So each of us must constantly adapt whatever skills we possess to new environments.
Learn and cultivate skills. Adapt them to whatever new environment you might find yourself in.
Rinse, repeat. How’s that for a breakthrough?
 Tim Ferriss’s book is called, “Tools of Titans,” which is a way better name than “Metarules for Success.” That’s why he’s Tim Ferriss.
Justin Timberlake and the Decline of American Football
Nearly six years ago, Kevin Grier and Tyler Cowen wrote a piece on the now-defunct Grantland called, “what would the end of football look like?” It seemed far-fetched at the time. But it predicted a world where upper-class Americans would no longer cultivate a love of the sport, because of the increasing data about brain damage caused by football. Upwardly mobile middle-class Americans would emulate the upper class, leaving only the poorer regions of the country to care about football (Texas, Oklahoma, the SEC).
Mihir Desai on the trouble with optionality. The basic thesis is that when we defer making choices in the guise of giving ourselves choices, we end up accidentally making non-ideal choices. This resonated with me, in that I also went to law school partially because I was attracted by the idea that it gave me “options.” But it turns out after going to law school I ended up a lawyer, just like almost all of my peers. Not that I don’t enjoy what I do (I do now, but I didn’t always); it’s just that the optionality aspect of going to law school was a farce.
Nature article on how ecology and evolution interact on observable time scales.
But as a lawyer, I’ve been privy to jury trials. They’re long and tedious. Things that you think should minutes take hours. And things that you’d think would take an hour can take days.
Our legal system–flawed though it may be–is usually very careful and deliberate. The course of people’s lives hinge on what we do there, and so lawyers and judges scrutinize the process very carefully.
In an actual trial, people are accused of specific crimes. Typically, there are sub-elements of each crime: an action that includes a few different steps and usually a component of intent.
If someone is accused of killing someone, they can be specifically accused of manslaughter or murder. The latter requires that the killer acted with “malice aforethought.” If the prosecutor wants to convict a person of murder, they must submit evidence that convinces the jury not only that the person did the killing, but that they did so with the requisite intent. Some states have different gradations of first-degree and second-degree murder, or felony murder, each with different specific sub-elements.
The accused might introduce evidence of a reasonable defense. Perhaps the killing was in self-defense, or the accused was coerced.
Accusing someone of a crime is easy. Convicting a person of a crime requires precise argumentation.
In criminal justice, there is proportionality to the punishment depending on the severity of a crime. A person convicted of negligent homicide will spend less time in jail than the person convicted of manslaughter and less still than a person convicted of first-degree murder.
In trials, the jury hears long arguments from both sides about their version of the events. Each side is entitled by law to have a certified professional, bound by ethical and professional duties of competence and zealous advocacy, tell their story.
In trials, lawyers vet the jury to exclude those who have pre-existing biases and prejudices that would make it difficult for them to consider either side’s arguments with fairness.
Lawyers argue about what evidence should be considered in reaching a verdict, and judges make decisions about what is appropriate for juries to hear. The subject of what constitutes proper evidence is one of the most nuanced and complex areas of the law. Information that is unduly prejudicial or might inflame a jury is kept from them to avoid biasing their decisions. Most often, prior bad acts are inadmissible to prove a subsequent crime, unless the prior acts show a pattern of conduct.
For alleged crimes where the allegation is not the perpetration of a crime, but rather complicit behavior in someone else’s perpetration of a crime, the standard for criminal prosecution is much higher. A criminal conviction usually requires not just awareness of someone’s else’s crime or a mistake in preventing the crime, but an affirmative act to aid and abet the commission of the crime.
As passive readers of news and media, we rarely have the information we need to make an informed judgment of another human being.
The accused in the news is rarely accused of a specific crime (at least by the news media itself), and so we can almost never determine whether or not the elements of the crime have been satisfied; we don’t know the facts from the perspective of the victim and the accused; we only have access to biasing and prejudicial news reports; most frequently, the people making the most noises about the allegations are people with pre-exiting biases and prejudices that make them the least reliable sources of information.
When it comes time to pass judgment, we have no ability to mete out justice with proportionality. When it comes to internet justice, there are really on two settings; shame and ostracism or not guilty. And the latter verdict is in short supply.
In sum, judging someone based on headlines violates all the principles our society has established for due process under the law. It’s the quintessence of prejudice.
I was in my last year of law school at Duke when the Duke lacrosse scandal blew up. A couple of times, I had television reporters interrupt my daily runs to try to get me to talk on camera about what had happened.
Both times my response (to the reporters, not on camera) was the same.
“I have no idea. I wasn’t there, and I don’t know anybody who was.”
The problem with trying to make an informed judgment of another human being is that to do it right requires a lot of work. You can’t read just one article. To have any hope of completeness, you’d need to read multiple sources from multiple perspectives. You have to carefully consider their potential biases.
Which leaves you with two bad options: spend tons of time online researching the potential impropriety of someone’s actions you probably don’t know and will likely never meet, or make an uninformed judgment based on incomplete information. The former is almost certainly a waste of time and energy and the latter is horribly unfair.
The weird thing to me is the instinct I feel I have to opine on every matter of public discourse—and think that I’m providing a social good by doing so. As if I’m helping society by spreading misinformation. And I think many people, like me, feel a little guilty when we don’t do this. As if we’re not pulling our weight.
Perhaps an evolutionary explanation for the instinct to judge always and everywhere is our ancient history in much smaller bands. It’s well documented that until about 10,000 years ago, which is to say through most of human history, people lived in small bands of about 150 or less. In communities that small, you’d definitely want to seek out and eliminate all suspect behavior, because it could impact your survival and the survival of your family if you didn’t.
But in online communities of millions and billions, where, because of the law of large numbers, lots of people are always going to be doing bad things, obsessing over everyone else’s perceived misconduct is almost never a good use of time. You could easily spend your whole life studying the details of violent crimes and never scratch the surface of all that’s out there, with little or no benefit to you or your community.
The instinct that was critical in bands of 150 is wasteful and unhealthy in the online communities we have today.
If I am ever on a jury, I plan to take that responsibility seriously. But until such time as I am summoned and bound by law to participate in the formal judgment of another human being, I will do my best to recognize that I almost never have enough information to judge another person, and that I’m better off refraining from expressing an opinion as to their guilt or innocence.
It’s important to notice that we have this instinct to constantly judge, but that it’s probably not in our best interests if we do.
 Here, I think it’s important to distinguish “judging” in the sense that a certain person should be shamed, banished from public discourse, or lose his or her employment from instances where we make snap judgments like, “do I want to spend time with this person?” or “that guy seems like a jerk.” The latter is inevitable and necessary to function. The former is not, unless you’re formally charged with that responsibility.
What the C4 Rice Consortium is trying to do with rice bears the same resemblance to typical genetically modified crops as a Boeing 787 does to a paper airplane. Rather than tinker with individual genes in order to monetize seeds, the scientists are trying to refashion photosynthesis, on the most fundamental processes of life.
But as our history has shown, any protection—a decision that may not easily be reversible—calls for epistemic humility and cautious incrementalism. Adhering to narrow strict scrutiny analysis as an intermediate step to more far-reaching doctrinal revision helps to ensure that any such broad revision is the product of substantial deliberation and made at a sober distance, rather than a knee-jerk response driven by the often distorted perceptions of the present moment.
But as the decades wore on and there were no nukes, we have become more complacent in our belief that because this hasn’t happened yet, it won’t happen. I would take the other side of that bet, if there were anyone on the other side left to collect on it.
I’ve been reading The Logic of Political Survival by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, and I think it’s the best book on political theory I’ve ever read. Here are a few topics explored in the book:
Why two democracies almost never go to war with each other
Why democracies almost always win their wars over dictatorships
Why dictators tend to have longer terms in office than leaders of democratic countries
Why countries with small ruling coalitions tend to be more corrupt
Why even the most popular and successful leaders in democratic countries tend to be elected out of office after a relatively short time
It’s very rare for me when almost everything I read in a book is new information. But that has been my experience with The Logic of Political Survival. It’s dense, empirically driven, and historically informative. Highly recommended.
New paper on Anarchy, Blockchain, and Utopia. How blockchain technology might “make it more feasible for individuals to exit political-socioeconomic systems at the level of the system itself and elect to accede freely to institutional systems which formulate, promulgate, keep and verify institutions and public records without a centralised authority.”
Color me very skeptical.
My old law professor at Duke, Neil Siegel, just published a paper about something I’ve been thinking ever since Donald Trump’s presidential campaign took off. The real problem with Donald Trump isn’t so much that he’s committed any grave constitutional violations or that his policies are so very bad. While he may be criticized on both of those fronts, the real problem with his presidency is his blatant disregard for established political presidential norms. By failing to respect the rule of law as a political norm, he has helped to foster what may be an irrevocable distrust in the country’s political institutions. The jury is still out on how this will impact the country long term, but I am nervous that it might not be possible to ever put that genie back in the bottle.
An old post by Cal Newport about how social media companies can only succeed if use of their products is compulsive and unhealthy.
I’m not a huge fan of silent movies, but Buster Keaton is something else.