Zvi, I really appreciate your posts on COVID.
One of the things I notice in your style is your recurrent meme of “sacrifices to the gods.” This seems like a classic example of the “dark arts.” It’s using shame and uncharitable argumentation to tear down your opponents’ argument and advance your own. It’s unusual to see in writing here.
On the other hand, when confronting Very Serious People, who aren’t interested in listening to a contrary argument that might damage their status, perhaps this is necessary. “You’re not listening to me, so I’m not going to make your (stupid) argument for you: I’m just going to call you out.” After all, I agree with you in your assessment of these arguments. They’re pretty stupid. And it’s a relief to hear them described as such.
Sometime I’d love to hear your thoughts on the tension here—if you see it as tension at all. Thanks for your continued work.
The model of “sacrifices to the gods” is a very specific gears-level model of how decisions get made. It’s a relatively straightforward application of Hanson’s theory of costly signaling, and as such has a lot of content to it that can be proven or disproven.
I think it’s really important to distinguish arguments that are tribal and act on an associative level, which I think are generally bad, from arguments that operate on a gears-level and make concrete predictions, even if those predictions are uncharitable. The first one does often seem bad and to deteriorate discussion, but the second one seems quite important and usually moves discussion forward. It seems to me that Zvi’s use of “sacrifices to the gods” falls into the second camp here.
You are right.
For others, here’s what I talked myself into while trying to argue with habryka/Zvi in writing this comment:
Sacrifices to the gods are an ineffective or harmful waste of resources. People make sacrifices because they expect that their sacrifice will earn them status points with their in-group.
Why does a sacrifice need to be portrayed as an effective action? Because that’s the whole point of the sacrifice. You have a problem. I have a solution: sacrifice. And some malarkey to explain why my sacrifice will solve the problem.
Sacrificers tend to prevent others from taking effective actions. Why can’t sacrifices to the gods and effective actions peacefully coexist? Because that would prove my malarkey was false, the sacrifices I called for were in fact harmful and unnecessary and self-serving, and I will lose tremendous status.
Why does sacrifice and malarkey so often win out, when we have such a vested interest in effective action? Because malarkey can optimize for simplicity, and give the consolation of in-group status for people willing to participate. The truth can only optimize for the truth, which may be complicated. Sometimes, the necessary work and attendant rewards only achievable by elites or an unpopular subgroup.
Why does sacrifice have to be costly? This operates under the theory that we use sacrifice as a heuristic to tell who’s doing the most to help out our side—or as a self-signaling mechanism to remind ourselves about how loyal we are to our own team.
This model predicts that in any given complex crisis, simple, stupid, symbolic sacrifices will be heavily represented in speech and action. While this is an uncharitable explanation for behavior we disagree with, it’s still kinder than the alternative (conflict theory) and more epistemically responsible than questioning our own judgment just because some alternative authority sez so. When a behavior appears to be easily explained as a stupid symbolic sacrifice, our prior in a complex novel circumstance should be that that’s exactly what it is.
Not sure how this applies to face masks—they are not literally costly, but the fact that you wear them on your face should make them a great tribal signal regardless.
What about not wearing them? It’s hazardous to your health and that of others. We can clearly see that not wearing masks at large social gatherings is functioning as a universally acknowledged tribal signal. It’s not the masks, but the lack of masks, that is a sacrifice to the gods.
Although what’s interesting is that when one side sacrifices to the gods, the other side gets a “free” signal. If one side rejects masks, the other side gets to adopt masks—which are already good for them—as a symbol of loyalty, which just makes the mask wearing even better.
Does this mean that the mask-wearing side needs to find alternative sacrifices? Perhaps by refusing to see friends even when they would be able to safely? Or does it mean they get a freebie?