The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or Brian Chau. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: Today’s guest is Brian Chau, one of those interesting new voices that are popping up on Substack. Regular listeners know every now and then I’ll read an article and I’ll go, “Damn, who is this character? This is interesting.” I’ll reach out to them and sometimes they’ll say yes and sometimes they’ll say no. Fortunately, Brian said yes. So what do we know about Brian? Here’s what his Substack says. Brian is a mathematician by training and is tied for the youngest Canadian to win a gold medal at the International Olympiad in Informatics. He writes software for a living while posting in his spare time.
He writes independently on American bureaucracy and political theory and has contributed to Tablet Magazine. His political philosophy can be summed up as see the world as it is not as you wish it to be. Everything else is application. Goddamn right. I like that. Looking through either rose tinted glasses or assuming everything is shit, neither of which are actually useful lenses. Now, let’s just try to see the world as it is. All right. Do you want more from Brian? He’s got a Substack at cactus.substack.com. He calls his stream of content there From the New World and he also has a podcast by that name. So welcome, Brian.
Brian: Great to be on.
Jim: Yeah, this should be fun. I really do like your voice. It’s punchy, it’s sharp. It doesn’t equivocate, just goes right after what you’re trying to say. The first work of yours I came across, I think somebody tweeted it or something. I don’t know. So much crap comes across my desktop. Never know where some of the stuff comes from. It was a quite interesting essay titled All Hail the Firehose of Bullshit. Let’s start there. What were you trying to say?
Brian: Oh yeah. So there’s a series, for now a two part series. We can talk about the reasons why I may have discontinued it or put it on pause later. But the core thesis of the firehose of bullshit is basically that people think of propaganda in this very naive way, which is that a bunch of commissars go into a smoke field room and they dream up, “What is the best propaganda we can put out?” They go and they commission that propaganda and they put it out and it just never changes, right?
This is not really how any information works in the modern day. Almost all information in the modern day is derivative. It’s people taking content and applying their various lenses, applying their changes, making memes out of it, right? You can just go on any news site, any television show, any post on Twitter, and you can see this happening. So when people are thinking about basically ways to either create or understand propaganda, and I mean propaganda in the broad sense, so including marketing and including public health guidance, basically information that is designed to make people do a certain behavior or even just information in general, right?
Just once again looking at anything on news sites or Twitter, the way that these messages are actually created and actually become most effective is a sort of incentive system that makes it so that more and more people are participating, more people are joining and more and more people are playing this game where they’re basically trying their best to make the best version of something that appeals to ultimately some end. This is all kind of vague, somewhat intentionally, because while exactly what that end is can be varied. You can do it if you’re the Russian government. You can do it if you’re the American government. You can do it if you’re a company that’s trying to sell soap, right? It can be anything.
Jim: Yeah. Of course, this is a strategy that has emerged here in our network world. One of the earlier explicit proponents of it was Steve Bannon who famously said his strategy was to flood the zone with shit. So in particular, you talk a fair bit about how the Russians have used this as a strategy.
Brian: Right. So this is at least what’s been well-documented. I don’t know if that’s because other governments are more discreet or people just don’t care as much about it. But what’s been documented is that Russians are very good provocateurs in the truest sense. Like I said, they don’t just go out and they don’t just create a kind of smoke filled room where they just put it all their propaganda. No, they go and find some sort of event, some sort of story, some sort of anecdote that can be blown up into huge proportions.
They can take advantage of existing types of political movements and basically say like, “Okay, what’s the way to create maximum chaos? We’re going to amplify these movements and draw them closer to each other to create conflict.” So a very good example of this is I think that there was this report by the Stanford Internet Observatory basically detailing how they set out to create two rivaling protests right across from each other, one from a Trump group and one from the left-wing, I think it was a Black Lives Matter group, and then basically setting them up.
So I mean, what do you think is going to happen, right? Putting a protest on one block, putting a protest that is from the completely opposite extreme on the other block, setting up these events online that’s going to create a kind of provocation and using those kind of methods, basically understanding the fact that if you put something on the internet and you make it in a way that people are going to play these sort of [inaudible 00:05:34] games on it, then you’re going to get a lot more worth for your money, let’s say.
Jim: Yeah. Of course, the other part of the idea of flooding the field with bullshit is that you just break down the ability for people to communicate with real information.
Brian: Right. Yeah, you see this a lot with the Russians as well. I mean, to call it a propaganda technique is sort to give it too much specificity at this point, because I think that this is just how every company or every organization or even every individual is operating in the social media landscape in general. You’re going for volume. You’re not making carefully cast art films and putting them on Twitter, right? What you’re doing is you’re basically creating, I mean, especially if you’re an organization, maybe not if you’re an individual, you’re creating this tribe of people that is just constantly putting out content.
I mean, if you just look at this empirically, you just look at what’s been successful politically, either on the left or right-wing, we can go more into that later, this has been the media strategy that is just dominant. It’s not just foreign governments that’s doing this. It’s basically everyone. It’s the Republicans, it’s the Democrats, it’s various large companies. Yeah, just creating volume, trying to make sure that your information is what is most accessible on social media algorithms, on search engines, and just basically focusing on the distribution lane instead of sheerly on the content lane. That’s basically become the meta or the mainstream now.
Jim: The other, I think, very good point that you made is that fire hoses of bullshit naturally aligned with moral panics.
Brian: Yes. So this is something that is very interesting. They’re somewhat synonyms, right? It’s very interesting if you actually look at the processes by which the fire hose of bullshit and these types of moral panics form. I think a lot of people have been getting close to this. John McWhorter is a good example. But basically, if you just look at the mechanism by which the fire hose of bullshit forms, which is that there is some kind of end goal, it can be either directed, it can be either intentional or it can be just something that people just naturally want.
You basically have a game where people are competing to become better and better at this, an algorithm that basically acts as the judge for that game. Then people are basically competing to become more extreme, and not necessarily more extreme solely in the kind of political sense, but more extreme in the aesthetics, more extreme in the visuals, so on and so forth, right? All you have to do is look at what’s happened with movies in the past few decades.
Then you look at a moral panic and you start to see something very similar. So a moral panic is essentially a process in which some kind of moral outrage or some kind of belief is taken, false or true by the way, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a true moral outrage, is taken to the extreme with people competing to become further and further and essentially punishing quite harshly most of the time the people who are trying to dissent or even trying to moderate.
A very good example that I use in the piece, usually the most common example of a moral panic is the Salem witch trials. In the Salem witch trials, what happened is that you had the slew of people calling specific others a witch. It was very funny, one of the signs of being a witch was denying that you’re a witch. A lot of the evidence that was presented for these accusations were dubious at best. I mean I think we’re quite sure that they weren’t actually witches at all. The real striker was that people who defended that person, defended the accused or who tried to ask for a higher standard of evidence, those people were considered witches as well.
So you have this process which created a natural separation and a natural type of polarization where people became more and more irrational. The standard of evidence was lowered and lowered and the amount of harm inflicted was greater and greater. If you look at this in the political sense, if you look at the more recent moral panics and you look at the way that those moral panics are organized, they’re organized on social media, the methods which they’re organized via either extremely viral, remember once again, winning the algorithm or through mainstream centers of coordination like news outlets and so on.
It’s extremely reminiscent if not exactly the same as the pattern for how these fire hoses of bullshit form. I would say that the only difference is that most moral panics tend to be in the shorter term, whereas fire hoses of bullshit tend to be a persistent stream of content. But other than that, almost completely aligned with each other.
Jim: Yeah. Think about some contemporary moral panics, two jump out and actually fit nicely with your model. One’s Qanon, right? That’s a classic moral panic. Oh, a bunch of lizard kings are abducting our children and sexually abusing them. It’s just this endless fountain of horseshit basically.
Brian: That example is quite interesting in particular because you had this kind of confluence, right? Going back to the foreign influence operations, when we started it off talking about, you have this confluence of that and basically organic, I didn’t know if concerns is the right word, but organic impulses of probably somewhat mentally predisposed or already kind of mentally ill people going and basically creating these elaborate stories. These elaborate stories, there was a type of scoring mechanism, right?
I don’t know if there was an algorithm to for 4chan or all these other message boards, but there was a kind of organic scoring system of the people showing approval, the people agreeing, building upon an idea, and it was highly derivative. It started with this guy going out, Q, right? That that’s where the QAnon comes from, this guy, this anonymous guy named Q going and posting these sort of hints, right? Those hints were supposedly something towards a grand plot that was happening in secret and people just took that and just went off and just completely ran with it, and took those quotes, took some kind of secret symbolism, drew these vast web of connections and spawned really quite an active community.
You think about that as just a game value, right? You think about that as an analog to, I don’t know, playing Dungeons & Dragons or some kind of fantasy game like that, right? That’s actually extremely impressive, the power of basically starting something and having it spiral out of control. Of course, when you take these things literally, when you take these things seriously, no one is storming a pizza shop because of their Dungeons & Dragons game. But when these things get taken seriously, then there are quite serious consequences, right? I’m referring to a guy roughly, was this before Q afterwards?
Jim: Yeah, it was Pizzagate, which I think was just prior to Q. They’re in the a linearly descendant family of craziness basically.
Brian: Yeah. So basically you have this guy try to go into a pizza shop with guns to rescue all the children that were hiding there. Of course, there are no children hiding there and the guy was arrested without actually hurting anyone, I think. I mean, it’s easy to imagine not getting worse. It’s easy to imagine basically the consequences of these very high powered tools that I think no one is, or very few people at least, very few people are taking truly seriously.
Jim: Indeed. Well, I think more people are, but people are not yet fully. In fact, none of us, even those who take it seriously aren’t yet fully aware how all this works. Because we’re in a brand new world. I mean, this is 1460, 10 years at the invention of the printing press. We haven’t yet realized it’s going to lead to Luther and the 30 years War and eventually democracy and modernism. Shit.
Brian: Yeah. I do want to raise this a bit, the point of people taking these things seriously is… I mean, we have now the effective altruism movement. We have all of this money and organization devoted into looking at basically the safety of the artificial intelligence algorithms themselves. I’m just sitting here thinking to myself, and this isn’t solely due to me, other people have raised this point, like BJ Campbell who’s been on my podcast, I think has been in yours [inaudible 00:14:19]. The supercomputer is already here and the supercomputer is this union of people through the network, right?
A very easy way to get superhuman intelligence is to take a bunch of humans and combine them in a way that actually often wises for something, right? You can either do this as the CEO of a company or you can do this as the algorithm of Twitter. I mean, you can look at QAnon and say like, “Oh, that’s not super intelligence. Those people were wrong and stupid.” But you just look at the elaborate stories that were created and stories that are obviously compelling to some type of people, right? This is a method that solves a task, some type of task, maybe a task that you don’t like, certainly a task that I don’t like, creating these basically fantasies, and does it way better than any individual human could do.
To me, that’s a form of super intelligence. What’s really under undervalued is basically having people to go and actually really seriously think of this as a sort of either organism in the way that BJ Campbell thinks of it, or as a sort of superhuman AI or a sort of machine. For kind of good reason, a lot of the people who are “concerned” about social media or social media algorithms have the wrong intentions and also just really poor thinking and solutions, but I do think there are good actors and I think we definitely need more of them.
Jim: I’m glad you pointed out BJ Campbell. Yeah, he has indeed been on our show and he’s talked much about what he calls egregores, the idea of kind of like a virtual being that’s out there that’s emergent from these network phenomenon and in some sense is taking the place of ideology. Now, we’ve been thinking about this in the Game B world for 10 years or more, and there is one difference, which is that egregores don’t have independent agency. They are purely emergent and that makes them a bit less dangerous in some ways.
They may be more effective than an ideology, but they don’t have the ability to be adaptive in the short term. They kind of adapt an amoeba swirls out and surrounds things and eats it, rather than a ferret who tracks and kills. So that’s one thing I like to make the point that these things are loosely coupled emergent and don’t have any individual agency.
Brian: Right. I would not say that having less agency means being less dangerous, but other than that, I agree with you.
Jim: That’s a fair comment, I think. Another example that fits in this category is wokery, right? At least there’s some basis there. There actually is racism. I talk about my recent podcast with Greg Thomas that yes, sure enough, there’s at least six different varieties of racism still live and well in America. So from that one basic fact, the wokies have spun up this incredible pile of horseshit and theory and have mobilized to attack people and flood the zone with bullshit essentially.
Brian: Right. We’re kind of in the twilight where the strategy still works, right? We’re in this twilight where basically you can cherry pick examples from the entirety of the country. I think I had this other article where the calculation was basically, back in the day, even if you lived in a reasonably large city, if you lived in a city with let’s say 100,000 people and you had exactly the same rates of police killings of African Americans as you do now.
You just lived like that in a medium sized city, right? Medium sized by today’s standards, probably quite large by the standards of those days, and you did not have the connected communication that we have now, being able to see videos, photos from all across the country or all across the world, then at the same rate of police killing, you would hear about one every 250 years. So when you have basically hyper connectedness, when you basically increase the sample size, then you drastically increase the sample size. You’ll drastically increase the extreme events that you see.
What you see with basically the fundamental argumentation that goes into wokeness is that you see these extreme events and people will react to these extreme events by saying, “Man, you just saw George Floyd murdered. How could you say this isn’t a widespread problem?” Right? Or even more, they’ll bring up like 10 examples, right? There are 10 examples, that’s true. But people sort of have not adapted to the scale of information that we’re seeing, their expectations.
I don’t think anyone does this explicitly, but I think there’s some kind of implicit psychological mechanism for this, the way they balance probabilities, the way they think about how relevant things are to their own lives, they still haven’t adapted to the fact that when you see something from across the country, you’re seeing it at basically a thousand or more times the frequency as you would if you were just living in pre-internet times, let alone pre-civilizational times, right?
Jim: Yeah. There’s a known set of cognitive fallacies, one of which is the availability bias, if you could recall it easily. The other one’s the salience bias, I mean, the murder George Floyd was one of the most horrific things I’ve ever seen in my life. It sort of just sears itself into your brain.
Brian: Right, and negativity bias, a risk aversion. Imagine if we had a constant stream of basically the best news out of all the startups and all of the really actually successful nonprofits and all of the projects that were working, which are quite extreme, right? It’s kind of extreme that we restored internet coverage to Ukraine or Elon restored internet coverage to Ukraine through his company that launches satellites into Earth’s orbit, right? That is an extreme case. That is not just an extreme case, but it’s a positive extreme case. It’s good news and there’s lots of good news too, right? I should be clear about this, right?
When you have hyper connectivity, you have the potential, at least, to go on and just to look for good news. I have some people who I follow on Twitter who provide good news, right? It is possible to basically become extremely optimistic in the same way. But I think that’s not something that either balances out or something that is more prominent because of, like you said, these fundamental cognitive biases.
Jim: We do know that humans have about a two to one bias for negative over positive loss aversion.
Brian: That’s lower bound. I think in economics it’s two to one. There’s this interesting effect where people are more rational when they’re dealing with economic objects, when they’re dealing with trading, when they’re dealing… Not just stock trading but trading objects, right? When they’re dealing with money, of course. Whereas in other cases, I think danger is the biggest level and there are other areas. News I think is actually a very good area. It’s hard to measure this empirically, but one data point that might point to this that, I’m not sure if I included this in the piece or not, that terrorist attacks receive 40 times more coverage per death than the average cause of death and 4,000 times the coverage of heart attacks, which are much more common.
So you have this kind of amplifying effect. Going back to the fire hose of bullshit, you kind of have this amplifying effect where people are competing and people are competing over basically exactly this type of negativity bias or this type of extreme bias, availability bias. What wins there is not only a terrorist attack but an exaggeration in terms of the coverage, in terms of the style, in terms of the affect of that terrorist attack. So you’re taking something that’s rare but terrible, genuinely terrible, and then you’re applying this layer of basically hyper reality. You’re applying this layer of exaggeration to it to make it seem even worse. That’s ultimately what wins in this scenario.
Jim: Yeah, and it can have some very strong cultural effects. One of my favorites to point out and one of my most unfavorite cultural effects is the paranoia amongst parents today about safety of their children. When I grew up, I’m old, I’m going to be 70 next year, I’m an old motherfucker, our parents just turned us out in the morning, we did our thing, came home for dinner, right? We’d sneak into buildings under construction, go two miles away, ride bikes without helmets, get into rock battle, shoot each other with BB guns. Guess what? None of us died because our parents probably were a little too loose.
But compared to parents today, it’s unbelievable. One of the big fears, kids are going to be kidnapped by strangers. Well, it turns out when you look at the data, the number of children kidnapped by non-family members or non-closely aligned to a family dispute, it’s about 10 a year. It’s less likely than being killed by struck by lightning, literally. Yet, your typical millennial parents all in an uproar about their child going to be stolen by strangers. So they don’t want them out of the side the house, in fact are just as happy for them to be in the basement playing World of Warcraft than they are going out and playing like kids used to do.
I suspect that the fire hose of bullshit, the upregulation of these kinds of messages, plus the lost bias ends up with a major cultural change, which I believe is a significant part of the big up run in teen suicides, mental health problems and other related things. So it is not just in the memetic space. It has real traction in the real world.
Brian: I mean, I’m not sure if the timeline matches up there. I mean, we’re still looking at data to see how today’s parents are reacting. Of course, you have to factor the coronavirus into this. But I’m sure you’re familiar with Greg Lukianoff’s book, The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt.
Jim: In fact, I had Greg on my podcast not too long ago.
Brian: Oh, awesome. Then they charted this timeline, and the kidnapping point in particular, this was an extreme spike in I think the ’90s, right? That lines up with I think more of a cultural turn than it does sort technological turn to this extent that you can separate those out, right? What was the major technology of the ’80s, the home computer? Not even, right? So to attribute that to social media, I think, is at the least not telling the full story. It’s very interesting.
I think that there’s this effect, it’s very strange, I haven’t fully formulated this thought, but basically there’s this very weird non-linear effect about the volume of information compared to the amount of risk aversion, right? The best example of this is Patrick Ryan’s idea of blackmail inflation, which is basically that if you have basically artificial intelligence that can generate deep fakes of any event happening, then once people become accustomed to that that is, once that becomes common, then this actually reduces the problem of the salience bias, not increases it because it basically trains people not to take any tail event seriously.
Of course, that can have its additional side effects, but I think that at least in this very narrow aspect, that would be a positive, right? So you have this relationship where it’s not necessarily sheerly the quantity of information, but it’s like a drastic upsurge in the quantity and direction of the information. That would at least be my hypothesis for what’s been happening for the child kidnapping stuff and for this sort of neurotic code of safety as parenting. But I mean, my guess is not too much better than yours or better than anyone else’s. This could be a research topic for sure and something that I have not put enough time on yet.
Jim: Yeah, based on the timelines, I think you’re probably right. It actually did emerge in the pre-social media, but the early internet epoch, but probably is being maintained by social media, whatever the value is has resonance. But we’re going to move on to our next topic, or we could talk about this for all afternoon. But I did do some further reading after reading your first essay, that one that caught my attention, then I came across a number of things that you’d written and podcasts you’d done with folks on the topic of populism.
Here’s a quote from one of the essays, “When I interact with populists, there’s only one red line for collaboration or even friendship. You can disagree on economics, abortion, even immigration, so long as you recognize the one commandment, the ruling class is illegitimate. This one commandment is what I typically mean by populism. It’s a strange usage since it doesn’t just mean that I’m a populist, but the vast majority of the American public are.” Let’s go from there.
Brian: Yeah. So this was kind of a provocation and it was leading up to the National Conservative Conference, which is a kind of populist conference. Really, the main point here is that I don’t know if the main political divide is this, but the main media divide is this, right? In terms of people basically interacting with each other, either on Twitter or on their podcasts or on their newsletters and so on, it’s less Jeb Bush and Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, at least in terms of who is communicating with each other, right?
It’s more like Glenn Greenwald and Ben Shapiro versus… Actually, I don’t know, Ben Shapiro is not that good of an example. He’s more a traditional right-winger. I can’t really think of someone as famous as Greenwald who is sort of a populist figure. Let me think about it for a bit. I don’t know. But basically, you have these populists or people who are distrustful of legacy institutions who are communicating with each other, who are speaking with each other, and who interact, who engage, who build ideas, right?
Maybe Saagar Enjeti is a pretty good example, right? Saagar Enjeti from Breaking Points. You have basically establishments people circling the wagons. You have David French and Jonathan Cha, much more similar to as recline, right? You have this new coming realignment of people basically based on how much they trust inherited systems, what Max Weber might call the patrimony of rules and customs and norms and authorities that were handed down from past generations.
Jim: Yeah. Of course, there’s not just these fringe characters and interesting thinkers you described as populous. There’s a fair lot to say that even in more mainstream politics, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump were tapping into serious populist energy.
Brian: Right. So yeah, I think that that’s true. I think it plays in a kind of elections environment, right? If we had rank choice voting, I think most people who would put Bernie Sanders first would put Hillary Clinton second, and most people who put Jeb Bush first would’ve still put Donald Trump’s second. I think that electoral politics always take some time to catch up. So I would be less confident, right? There are some people who are really confident in basically making these types of predictions in terms of voting record, and I would be hesitant on that.
I think most people who are Republican are going to stay Republican, even if there’s a populist Democrat. Most people who are Democrats are going to stay a Democrat, even if there’s a populist Republican, at least in the short term. In 20 years, I don’t know. However, it might matter on the margins. Where I think it is extremely salient is on the kind of media level and on the institutional level in terms of the people who are actually working in these new think tanks, new publications, new basically “elite” circles. I think that this is the kind of coming is the shift that you’re seeing.
Jim: You believe the essence of it is the perception, and there’s a lot to support this, that our institutions are bankrupt.
Brian: Yeah. So when I went to NatCon, the one line that I would use to introduce myself is that if institutions consistently fail at what you think they’re supposed to do, then the odds are they’re supposed to do something else, right? So I don’t like using the word failure. I think that most institutions are actually fairly good at something. It’s just that usually that something is something that people don’t like. But I do understand why people use the word failure and I think it’s fine.
Jim: Let’s build into that. Why don’t you dig into that distinction between they’re doing something but they’re maybe not doing what we’d want them to do? Give me a good example of that.
Brian: Right. So public health is probably the best example. Very both funny and also extremely consequential and tragic story is that in January, up until I think March or April, the CDC got together and decided to ban COVID tests. This is I think not well-known because it’s one of those stories where right-wingers don’t like talking about COVID or talking about COVID measures in general. Left-wingers don’t like admitting that the bureaucracy screwed up. But basically, this is mentioned in my article that you referenced earlier, they got together and said, “You can only use this one COVID test that is run exclusively out of this lab in Atlanta,” which by the way, is right next to the university that certifies all the people who go on to work at the CDC.
You can only have this one lab in Atlanta doing these COVID tests. By the way, as it turns out, that COVID test was wrong. That COVID test did not work. It constantly created false positives. So you’re in this environment where they basically banned all COVID tests. You can criticize this from any angle, right? You can say like, “Oh, there wasn’t enough regulatory scrutiny. You have to make sure the test works first.” You can criticize this from a libertarian angle, “Why are you banning COVID tests in the first place?” Right? I tend to agree with that one even more.
You can criticize this from a kind of “state” capacity angle, “Why are you just so absurdly incompetent?” Right? Basically, every single person from any kind of political viewpoint, you can say this was just an abject failure. So you might think, “Okay, institutions, they’re built in order to adapt. They’re built in order to incrementally approve and to react to failures. They can’t fail on the same thing for long.” Right? Then you see this repeating over and over again throughout the pandemic with all of these measures that were ill-fated, that were not properly thought out beforehand, that did not accomplish what they themselves claimed they would accomplish or said that they were trying to do.
Lockdowns are an excellent example of this. The initial kind of discouraging of buying cloth masks and then the flip flop and then the flip flop again into, okay, actually you need N95s, even though you don’t change the guidance or the mandates to require N95s, right? You have this scenario where basically there was a consistent line of failure after failure, and then to put a cap on it, this is something I talked about with Izvy Moshowitz on my podcast, we have the resurgence of polio in New York. You have monkeypox. You have these kind of new, much easier to deal with pandemics. Well, I didn’t know about polio, thankfully most people are already vaccinated for that.
But when it came to testing again, there’s continual banning of testing, right? This is just a pattern that happens over and over again. So the golden rule of institutions, these institutions are at least good at holding onto power. They obviously are still put in charge of dealing with these problems. So they’re at the very least good at that, right? So they’re good at something, even if they suck at what they actually “are supposed to do”. So you ask yourself why is that, right?
So if you go one layer deeper than the question is what are these institutions actually downstream of? What are they held accountable to? Well, you can look at it empirically, right? Who is fired for banning COVID tests? Who is fired for needlessly delaying the vaccine? Who is fired for banning polio testing, right? I mean, hopefully someone will be fired from that, but I’m not crossing my fingers. This was rather recent. You see this pattern where the thing that people are held accountable for are not failure, but instead lack of conformity.
So people who questioned the lab leak hypothesis or rather brought it up, questioned the natural origins hypothesis, those people were shunned, those people don’t get their publications through. People who questioned some of the measures that were put in, right? So you have the scenario where there’s actually a very clear incentive structure, and that incentive structure is essentially a political patronage system, which anyone from a kind of third world or developing country will be very, very familiar with.
Jim: There’s a lot of that going on. Another example you gave, and actually maybe it’s more even say more systemic and more critical, is what is affectionately called the mainstream media.
Brian: Yes. So I think Curtis Yarvin came on my podcast and he had this wonderful line, which was their job is not to speak truth to power, but to speak power to truth, right? So you have a lot of true facts just in the world, right? So when you decide to comment on a true fact, it better be important. You shouldn’t be reporting on just a random development in some random counties like farm system, right? Or some random small business owner who has a promotion going on, right? These things, maybe if you’re lo a local newspaper, that’s something that would be fine in a local newspaper.
But you’re the national news. You have so many things to choose from. You have so many possible truths in the world, and you’re going to have some way of deciding which one of those truths to cover and whether you’re going to tell the truth at all. If you look at the incentives of what is promoted, and it’s very important not to just reduce this to social media or reduce this to clicks or reduce this to attention because that’s sort of also what you think they’re “supposed to do”. To a large extent, they don’t fully align with that.
So I’m sure there are people who try to optimize clicks, right? I certainly know such people. But if you just look empirically, many of these programs, they continue to sustain themselves despite taking clear measures that are not just the best strategies of getting clicks, but are probably actively harmful for getting clicks, like firing very popular writers or contributors and so on for not conforming with an ideological narrative. That’s bad for clicks. In fact, having those people, having Bari Weiss as a New York Times is actually good for clicks, right? It’s not bad for clicks.
So when you’re dealing with these types of environments, you have to ask yourself, ultimately, what is this downstream of? The media is a much more complex case than I think public health. But essentially, what it’s downstream of is this very vague idea of status. I don’t like most of the time when people talk about status because they don’t give very clear definitions of status. So I’m going to give a very clear definition of status, which is basically being able to efficiently align yourselves with wielders of power. So status is not just power, it’s not just conformity, but it’s the ability to quickly conform with power.
When you’re in these situations, when you’re in the newsroom, this is basically the primary thing that is promoted. How is it promoted? It’s promoted in one way through basically “cancel culture”, through going after people like Bari. I mean, this is at this point very common. It’s very important to notice that not all narratives are policed, right? If you disagree with left-wingers on healthcare, that is not something that gets policed, right? Because that is not something that is associated with status, right?
So you have in my specific term, in my specific usage of it. So when you’re in this scenario, there are basically very specific ideas that are downstream of very specific bureaucracies that ultimately drive how people are fired, how people are promoted, how people gain position in legacy outlets in the first place, and ultimately, what those legacy outlets are able to influence. I’m sorry if that was a bit more complicated than the original article, but I am doing a lot of thinking on this in the works.
Jim: Well, that’s great. Yeah, think out loud here. We want real thinking. What do you think about how such effects influence let’s say the mainstream media’s coverage of Ukraine?
Brian: That’s quite a difficult one. I’ve had a few people on my podcast who think about it in quite detail. I’m kind of skeptical of my own background knowledge. This is always what I try to do. I just try to observe what is actually happening, and then base my analysis of the coverage off of that. I think for many years we won’t have the full story of Ukraine. That isn’t to say the work of people like Richard Hanania or Josh Rogin, and I give these examples specifically because they’re on opposite sides of the argument, but specifically because they’re like, for people who don’t know, Hanania is a very dovish commenter on war, Rogan is very hawkish.
But I think that the stuff that they do in terms of interpreting stuff in real time is very good and very valuable and quite well put together. I think that the error bars on question questions like this are very big. Basically, when you’re looking at such a finely grained analysis as at least I want to do in terms of thinking about how the media, and specifically on the causation level of how the media actually adapts and changes and creates these narratives, I’m much more skeptical that we can figure out…
I don’t know. Even just is the strength of Ukrainian military overrated or underrated? Are they going to take various battles? The prediction markets on this are quite interesting. Hanania is running, in conjunction with UT Austin I think, is running some prediction markets on this and that’s kind of interesting. But basically, I’m pretty skeptical of whether we can predict these things or whether we can tell these things until really it’s all been played out. That being said, my kind of overall impression, because I think it’s kind of useful to have these, my kind of overall impression roughly is that the Ukrainian military is underestimated still.
I mean, it’s so hard to do this because I’m not that confident in my own predictions. I don’t think that they will succeed in taking back all of the land, even post-Crimea, but I think that they will take back substantial portions of what was lost. I know this is sort of vague, but also I’m not confident in my answer either way. I do think they’re still underrated. But yeah, I’m just not completely sure on this at all.
So if you look at Russian propaganda, at least in the recent few decades, it’s not been particularly good at fermenting like a pro-Russian sentiment when they’re like provocating Trump or provocating, Black Lives Matter, right? When they’re basically poking the bear or poking the flame in these more kind of chaotic movements, they’re not actually doing a very good job of making those people like Russia. They more do pretty good job of just causing general chaos, right?
Ukraine is a sympathetic character, right? It’s sympathetic to just normal conservatives, maybe not the kind of “elite” or the conservative media, but it’s very sympathetic if you’re just someone who lived through the Cold War. If you’ve sort of seen this pattern, you don’t like American enemies, right? This is history that’s not that cold to the touch and just the history and the geography and Ukraine as a country, I think that’s quite sympathetic. So I’m not really surprised at this.
I think that a lot of people overthink it. I mean, we can talk about why media promote it and why they’re kind of overbearing on certain claims, on certain narratives and shouldn’t be falling for, especially some of the earlier stuff that was pretty clearly dubious at best, if not obviously false. But I think people kind of overthink why the Ukraine war is so popular. You just need to talk to some boomer conservatives. It’s not that surprising to me.
Jim: Yeah, goddamn fighting Russkies or bad guys, right?
Brian: Yeah. You can say this is wrong or this is overreactive, but it’s not this kind of novel thing, right? There’s always been this sort of sentiment.
Jim: All right. Let’s turn back towards populism a little bit. What do you think’s going on? Why is there so much populism and it seems to be growing, and not just in the U.S. but around the world, and where might that lead?
Brian: Right. So one of the figures that I attached in the populism article is the Edelman Trust Barometer. This is one of the outliers, but I don’t think it’s an outlier by that much, maybe 10%. But well, as you’ll see in the statistics, the statistic is that 67% of people believe that journalists are intentionally trying to mislead people, and 66 believe the same for government officials. This is an outlier, but like I said, if you have a 10% difference, that’s like 56% of people, 57% of people, still a majority and still an extremely big deal, right?
So you have this natural trend towards distrust, which occurs for multiple reasons. One is the sort of general negativity bias and availability bias that we already talked about. But another is that some institutions are also genuinely not trustworthy, right? Going back to public health, if you just take them on their word of what they are supposed to do, they have not been good at doing what the objectives they set for themselves are. If you can’t say that’s not trustworthy, then I don’t think you really can say that anything’s not trustworthy at all, right?
So you’re in these scenarios where two things are happening. One is that people focus more on the negative, and some institutions genuinely have many more negatives than positives to focus on. So you have these broader trends that are due to either the institutions, due to the political ideologies or due to the political basically organizations and structures and bureaucracies that we inherited from past generations and are in decline. You have another component of that due to basically more widespread connectivity and more widespread information.
You combine those two things together, it’s like it’s just so difficult to maintain trust in “the system” just as a generalized object. You might not like that and I don’t like that as kind of an object of analysis. I’m never going to say like, “I know how the entire system works.” I’m never going to say that. I like looking in cases in specific much more. But in terms of how public sentiment exists, right? Public sentiment, there’s this idea of the system, right? There’s this idea of Washington, or even Washington combined with big business, combined with mainstream media and so on and so forth, people have a sense of that and I think that’s what this poll is measuring.
I think that’s what many other polls of a similar style are measuring. So you have this general trend in distrust. Populism is basically looking at that general trend in distrust and saying, “Okay, we actually need to put together some people to go to these institutions and get them to at the very least reevaluate their humility and hopefully to fundamentally change them so, first of all, number one, they’re functioning, they’re actually functioning and living up to their own promises. Number two, they regain the trust of the public.”
Jim: That could happen. I’m not sure I’d bet on it happening because an awful lot of the populace on both the left and the right are what I’d say more revolutionary. They’re of the view that the institutions are broken beyond repair and it’s time for some new ones.
Brian: Right. That is one way of doing that, right? In fact, in terms of public opinion especially, and in many cases in terms of the institutions themselves, I think it is the preferable one. So for example, the CDC, I think that it should just be stripped of the authority to ban COVID tests or to ban testing in general. You should not be able to ban testing. This is just an absurd premise and it’s been used extremely unsuccessfully. It’s caused needless death and needless spread in multiple viruses now, right This is just absurd. It as a power should just be destroyed completely, okay?
Then you have some more nuanced cases. You can’t necessarily just destroy the media. First of all, you constitutionally can’t, and second of all, even if you could, the drawbacks would be so much greater than the benefits, right? So you have these variety of situations. Once again, I think there’s a lot of value in looking at specifics here, but yeah, there are people who definitely want and, in many cases, warrant destroying institutions and replacing them wholesale.
That is also going to be the part of the process in which we… I mean, especially if you’re just looking at the CDC or if you’re looking at the FDA, right? When you zoom down to the level of one case, the worst offenders, you can definitely see just a straightforward rational case of destroying them and remaking them wholesale.
Jim: Yeah. I mean, again, people talk about the universities. Maybe they need to be leveled and rebuilt. The mainstream media or the media in general, maybe there’s a whole new approach necessary. Then of course, on the left, there are definitely people seriously talking about ending capitalism or replacing it with something else. I mean, these are pretty powerful movements coming out of populism that you can only call revolutionary.
Brian: Yeah. I don’t know. So a very good example of this is Trump, right? You can question how much of this sort of revolutionary persona was created by Trump himself. He did come up with lines like drain the swamp, lock her up, and of course he did not do those things. If anything, he made the swamp worse. So he had that as part of his, at least his persona and his rhetoric. Then there was this character of Trump that was constructed by the media that was also this sort of even further hyper reality version of his revolutionariness rate.
Of course, whether it was Trump breaking his own promises or those never being his promises in the first place, Trump was not a very revolutionary president. He came in. He enacted standard Republican tax cuts, right? He was more hawkish towards China. I’ll give him that. But that wasn’t anything outside of the kind of Republican hawk Overton window or even the mainstream Overton window, right? There were already many factions that were already saying that’s what we want to do.
So you have this scenario where the expectations and the reality are drastically misaligned. I think that whenever the expectations are sort of revolution, this will always be the case, right? Even FDR, right? If you read the histories of FDR, he was kind of looked at as quite underwhelming at the time, especially by the extreme factions. You look at the legacy of FDR today, almost no one would say that he’s underwhelming, right? He is literally the calling card for Biden trying to say he’s promising more, right? He is literally the metaphor for promising more or delivering more, right?
FDR did deliver more, even if he wasn’t necessarily the kind of full communist revolution that maybe people were looking for, maybe some extreme factions were looking for. I mean, especially with the end to capitalism stuff, it’s hard to read that as anything more than a LARP nowadays, as anything more than a live action role-play. It’s hard to read. The right-wing equivalent of this is kind of secession or civil war. It’s kind of hard to read that as anything other than a LARP today. There’s no mechanism of action. There’s no plan. There’s nothing coherent here to actually convert into reality.
This is also something that’s not very well understood, right? Public sentiment is nothing without a plan. If there’s no mechanism of action for converting public sentiment into actual policy, then it’s just not going to happen, right? So I don’t know. I wasn’t really really clear on what the question was, but I think definitely revolutionary politics is overrated and plans are underrated. I’m going to say that.
Jim: All right. Well, I think we’ve actually run over our time here a little bit. I want to thank Brian Chau, an interesting new voice, who you can find at Substack at cactus.substack.com, or search From the New World for his podcast. It was great having you on. What a bunch of interesting conversations. We didn’t even get to one that I found while we were talking was I see you wrote a review of Sadly, Porn. Well see, one other good review of that has made me wonder, Is that worth reading? Give me a quick yes or no. Is it worth reading a thousand pages?
Brian: I think it’s worth reading my review. I think the book itself, if you can read it, yes. But that’s a big if. That’s a big if. You’ll see. The style is intentionally suffocating.
Jim: All right. I’ll leave it at that. We’ll post a link to your review on the episode page at jimruttshow.com so you can read what Brian Chau had to say.