[Link] Nerds are nuts

Related to: Reason as memetic immune disorder, Commentary on compartmentalization

On the old old gnxp site site Razib Khan wrote an interesting piece on a failure mode of nerds. This is I think something very important to keep in mind because for better or worse LessWrong is nerdspace. It deals with how the systematizing tendencies coupled with a lack of common sense can lead to troublesome failure modes and identifies some religious fundamentalism as symptomatic of such minds. At the end of both the original article as well as in the text I quote here is a quick list summary of the contents, if you aren’t sure about the VOI consider reading that point by point summary first to help you judge it. The introduction provides interesting information very useful in context but isn’t absolutely necessary.

Link to original article.


Reading In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India, I stumbled upon this passage on page 151:

″...Whereas the Congress Party was dominated by lawyers and journalists, the RSS was dominated by people from a scientific background. Both groups were almost exclusively Brahmin in their formative years...three out of four of Hedegwar’s [the founder, who was a doctor -Razib] successors were also from scientific backgrounds: M.S. Golwalker...was a zoologist...Rajendra Singh was a physicist; and K.S. Sudarshan...is an engineer....”

Some quick “background.” The RSS is a prominent member of the Hindutva movement, roughly, Hindu nationalism. Some people have termed them “Hindu fundamentalists,” suggesting an equivalence with reactionary religious movements the world over. There is a problem with such a broad brush term: some proponents and adherents of Hindutva are not themselves particularly religious and make no effort to pretend that they are. Rather, they are individuals who are attracted to the movement for racial-nationalist reasons, they view “Hindus” as a people as much, or more than, a religion. One could make an argument that the “Christian Right” or “Islamism” are not at the root concerned or driven by religious motives, but, members of both these movements would assert at least a pretense toward religiosity almost universally.

With that preamble out of the way, I was not surprised that the RSS had a core cadre of scientifically oriented leaders. This is a common tendency amongst faux reactionary movements with a religious element. I say faux because these movements tend to be extremely innovative and progressive in the process of attempting to recreate a mythic golden past. The militancy of some of the organizations in the Hindutva movement, like the VHP and RSS, has been asserted by some Hindu intellectuals as being...un-Hindu. Some of the early intellectuals in the movement admitted that they were attempting to fight back against Islam and Christianity by co-opting some of the modalities of these two religions. The question becomes at what point does pragmatic methodology suborn the ultimate ends? I won’t offer an answer because I have little interest in that topic, at least in this post. Rather, I want to move back to the point about scientists and their involvement in “fundamentalist” religious movements. Scientifically trained individuals are over represented within Islam in the Salafist Terror Network. As a child the fundamentalist engineer was a cut-out stereotype amongst the circle of graduate students in the natural sciences from Muslim backgrounds that my parents socialized amongst. Ethnological research confirms that Islamist movements are highly concentrated within departments of engineering at universities. Engineers are also very prominent in the Creationist movement in the United States. If civilizations can be analogized to organisms, then a particular subset of technically minded folk get very strange when interfacing with the world around us...and turn into fundamentalists.

So why the tendency for technical people to be so prominent in these groups? First, let me clarify that just because technical folk are heavily over represented amongst religious radicals does not mean that religious radicals are necessarily a large demographic among technical folk. Rather, amongst the set of religious radicals the technicians seem to rise up to positions of power and provide excellent recruits.

There is I think a socioeconomic angle on this. Years back I was curious as to the class origin of different scientific professions. I didn’t find much, but the data I did gather implied that engineers are generally more likely to be from less affluent backgrounds than more abstract and less practical fields like botany or astronomy. This makes sense, engineering is one of the best tickets to a middle class livelihood, and it might necessitate fewer social graces (acquired through “breeding”) than medicine or law. As it happens, oftentimes fundamentalist movements draw much of their strength from upwardly mobile groups who are striving to ascend up from lower to lower-middle-class status. Though the Hindutva movement in India is mostly upper caste, it is not concentrated amongst the English speaking super elite who are quite Westernized, but rather its strength lay amongst the non-Western sub-elites (e.g., merchants in small to mid-sized cities) or the petite bourgeois. Islamism in much of the world can be traced to the anomie generated by the transformation of “traditional” societies through urbanization and other assorted dislocations, and as peasants enter the modern world Islamic orthodoxy is a way to moor themselves within the new urban matrix and the world of wage labor. Similarly, the rise of the Christian Right can be tied in part to the entrance of evangelicals into the broad middle class as the Old South became the New South and air conditioning led to the blossoming of the Sun Belt.

Nerd Failure Mode

This section is the part most relevant to LessWrong:

But there are likely other factors at play which are not sociological or cultural, but individual. Fundamentalists tend to be “literalists,” and have a tendency to look at their religious texts as divine manuals which describe and prescribe every aspect of the world. In some ways this is a new tendency in our species, at least as a mass movement. One can definitely trace scriptural fundamentalism to the Protestant Reformation with the call to sola scriptura, but in the West its contemporary origin can be found in the reaction in the late 19th century and early 20th century to textual analysis of the Bible by modernists. The assault on the historicity of the Bible, combined with both mass literacy and a democratic culture in the United States, led inevitably to a crass literalism that birthed the peculiarities which we see before us in the form of Creationism and its sisters. A literal reading of the Bible leads to ludicrous conclusions, but if one perceives that the game is all or nothing, then perhaps one must assert the truth value of Genesis as if it was a scientific treatise. Religious professionals have often been skeptical of literalism because a deep knowledge of languages and the translation process highlights various ambiguities and gray shades, but for those whom the text is plain and unadorned by deeper knowledge its meaning is “clear” and must be take at its word. Scientists and engineers live in a world of axioms, laws and theories, which though rough and ready, must be taken as truths for predictions and models to be valid. You make assumptions, you construct a model, and you project a range of values bounded by errors. Once science is established you take it is as a given and don’t engage in excessive philosophical reflection. This is “normal science.” The axioms are validated by their utility in an instrumental fashion in engineering and model building. Obviously religious truths are different. Plainly, the direct material benefits of religion, magic, is easily falsifiable. The indirect benefits, the afterlife, etc., are often beyond verification. A critical examination of the Hebrew Bible shows all sorts of fallacious assumptions. For example, there is an implication that the world is flat and that the sun revolves around the earth. Though these contentions are not defensible, there are a host of other assertions which are less plainly incorrect, or at least seem to be refuted only by a more complex suite of contingent facts (e.g., the historical sciences in the form of geology and evolutionary biology falsify the creation account, but these are complex stories which require acceptance of a chain of inferences). Obviously many religious people have a deep emotional attachment to their faith. If one is told that one’s religion is based on a book, and that book plainly seems to imply ludicrous assertions, how to square this circle? Many a scientific mind simply accepts the ludicrous axioms and starts to generate inferences. Consider the Water Canopy Theory. Or, the Hindutva ideology that Aryans originated in India, spread to the rest of the world, and so brought civilization (the gift of the Indians). Or that Hindu mythology records the ancient use of nuclear weapons and spaceships. There are even books like Human Devolution: a Vedic alternative to Darwin’s theory. Strictly speaking much of this work is not irrational, insofar as it exhibits internal logical coherency. The axioms are simply ludicrous.

Which gets me back to the way scientists think: though some scientists are very philosophical, the way in which science is taught is often not particularly focused on the nature and reasoning beyond the axioms given. PV = nRT. Why? There are quick primers in regards to the root of the Ideal Gas Law, but the key is to take this law and utilize it to solve problems. But what if PV = nRT is subjective, a misinterpretation. Perhaps a cultural mix-up resulted in a transcription error which introduced the gas constant, R. This is an idiotic question to ask in science. If you’re taking a course on the kinetics of gases you don’t have long discussions lingering upon the nature of motion and gas particles, those are assumed. In contrast in softer disciplines the very concept of “motion” an “particles” are subject to critique because the objects of study are far more slippery. Is it the “Red Sea” or “Sea of Reeds”? Does the Bible refer to Mary as a virgin or an unmarried woman? Does the color coding of the Aryans and Dasas in the Vedas refer to literal differences in complexion, or are they narrative conventions? Language lacks the interpersonal precision of mathematics, and while uniformitarianism has served us admirably in the natural sciences, the dynamic nature of idiom, phrase and speech within shifting context means that teasing apart meaning from the records of the past can be a difficult feat which requires care, erudition and common sense.

Up until this point I have focused on the way scientists work, and the necessity of background assumptions, and the relative short shrift they often give to the “meta” analysis of background concepts. Though I don’t want to push this line of thought too far, I will offer the following illustrations of behaviors which I think are not totally unlike the manner in which some fundamentalists behave. Someone tells a child to “pull the door behind” them. He proceeds to unscrew the hinges and drag the front door across to the street to his house. Siblings are told that there is life after death by their parent. They proceed to plan the death of one so that some confirmation of this possibility can be ascertained. These two instances are real examples of individuals who exhibit Autism/​Asperger’s Syndrome. Anyone who would behave in this way lacks common social sense. I believe that a disproportionate number of those who are attracted to fundamentalism tend to lack the same perspective and contextualizing capacity in regards to their religious beliefs. If they can do some matrix algebra too, they’re nerds. On a mass scale, consider that both Salafis among Muslims and Puritans among Calvinists debated whether all that was not mentioned within their Holy Texts as permissible were therefore impermissible. I suspect that for most people common sense might persuade one to the conclusion that these sort of debates imply a lack of a sense of proportion, frankly, of normalcy.

In sum:

  • Hard core religious fundamentalists are somewhat atypical psychologically

  • Scientists and engineers are also atypical psychologically

  • Some of the traits modal within these two sets intersect

  • Resulting in a disproportionate number of scientists amongst fundamentalists

  • Science converges upon rock solid truths, which become the axioms for the next set of projections and investigations. Fundamentalism presents itself as axioms and clear and distinct inferences from those axioms. Both are fundamentally elegant and simple cognitive processes, but, the content is so radically different that the outcomes in regards to truth value are very different

  • Mass literacy and mass society, as well as the decentralization of authority and power, likely made fundamentalism inevitable as the basal level of individuals with susceptible psychological profiles could now have direct access to the axioms in question (texts)

  • Just as some scientists tend to take ideas to their “logical extremes” (e.g., the “paradoxes” of physics) no matter the dictates of common sense, so some fundamentalists take the logical conclusion of their religious texts to extremes

  • No matter the religion it seems that modernity will produce faux reactionary fundamentalism because of the nature of normal human variation combined with universal inputs (e.g., the rise of normative consumerism, urbanization, etc.).

I bolded the note on mass literacy and participation because of the interesting historical conclusion that in the United Stated mass participation in democracy inevitably made the influence of religion on policy greater. It goes against a deep assumption shared by most educated people that “democratic elections” necessarily produce “liberal” or “secular” results. It was particularly evident among pundits and particularly easy to see as foolish with the recent upheavals in the Middle East.

Note: Much of what I said above applies to non-religious domains. After all, many scientists were once Communists and Nazis.

This last rather minor seeming note is perhaps the most relevant part of the article for aspiring rationalist. Not only is it particularly salient for those us inclined to questioning the usefulness of the category “religion” in certain context, but because nearly all of us are not religious. Our bad axioms seem unlikely to originate directly from something like a religious texts, though obviously it is plausible many of our axioms ultimately originate from such sources.Not many of us are Communists either, but we are attracted to highly consistent ideologies. We seem likely to be particularly vulnerable to bad axioms in a way most minds aren’t.

So if after some thought and examination you notice that a widely respected and universally endorsed axiom in your society has clear and hard to deny implications that are in practice ignored or even denounced by most people, you should be more willing to dump such axioms than is comfortable.