Worthy Links for April 2022: Curating Your Brain
I think I’ve finally hit on a good approach to Worthy Links. I’ll always do an even number of links. Free list gets the first half, paid list gets ‘em all. This time, I went with ten, which seemed like a nice meaty round number… but I think it ended up too long.
“Too Good to Check, a Play in Three Acts,” by Scott Alexander
This story doesn’t make me feel smug and superior to everyone else. It makes me feel confused and annoyed. This is how true things usually make me feel, so I think I’ve dodged the Law of Rationalist Irony and might have some chance of being right this time.
…Both sides end up even more convinced that they are right and the other side is selectively misinterpreting the news to feed their own skewed narrative. Only you, reading this ACX article, are getting the full story and learning more about the world instead of just confirming your biases.
Did you believe that?
This was well-framed. I like to think I’m more careful than most about these stories, but he got me. Twice.
Obviously, the vast majority of us do not have time to fact-check every single outraged headline that crosses our social media feeds. This is a problem, because most are somewhat true but few are completely true (and many are completely false!). The rational response is to simply discount the stories you see on social media. I really do mean “discount,” rather than “discard.” You should, rationally, see an Outrageous Headline About Those Democrat Villains and say to yourself, “Since I don’t have time to look into this, I will treat it as having a 30% chance of being more or less true, and it will influence my future decision-making at only a 30% weight compared to other things I know more about.”
The problem is, brains don’t work like that. Only fairly insane people (and rationalists) (but I repeat myself) routinely spell out their decision-making process to themselves and assign “weights” and “discounts” to the various factors leading them to a provisional conclusion. It’s a good idea, but not practical for most of the snap judgments we need to make every day. Even devoted rationalists have a hard time fighting the brain.
When your brain processes information, it has a hard time discarding it, even when the brain is pretty sure it’s false information. If your amygdala gets pounded by the same or similar false information over and over and over again, some important part of you will end up believing that information, even if higher brain centers have rationally concluded that the information is false. If your social media feed is flooded with false information, you will eventually come to believe the fake headlines, at least at a gut level, even though you know they are fake. Once that’s happened, it’s generally just a matter of time before your higher brain functions topple as well. One good piece of evidence in favor of the false information and boom, you’re gone, because you know “in your heart” that it’s true.
Known solutions to this are not great.
One solution is to simply not use social media, or at least not social media that includes (even incidentally, as background noise) memes or videos about important issues. Instead, focus on reading neutral, high-quality news & commentary. Unfortunately, as De Civitate has discussed many times before, there aren’t really any news & commentary sources that are sufficiently pure to protect your brain from brainworms, especially not here in the era of the ideologically-captured newsroom.
There is better and worse news/commentary, and some of it is worth paying for, even though it isn’t pure. I pay for the St. Paul Pioneer Press and for the West St. Paul Reader, because, despite their biases (which can be glaring, especially at the Reader) they are the sole sources of local news. You, perhaps, pay for De Civitate, because, like all De Civ subscribers, you are very intelligent and handsome/beautiful both inside and out. Nevertheless, even news and commentary good enough to pay for is still full of cholera.
Another solution is to use a lot of social media, but balance it so that your amygdala is assaulted by false facts from the widest possible range of perspectives, in the hopes that they all cancel each other out. You’ll still catch the left wing’s cholera, but it will be eaten by the right wing’s malaria. This is also known as the “Mr. Burns Strategy” for social media.
If you follow @libsoftiktok, follow @mmfa as a balance, and vice versa (pure coincidence I just discovered: today’s @mmfa campaign is to try to get @libsoftiktok banned). If you follow @imillhiser, follow @JoshMBlackman as a balance (and vice versa). Twitter makes this difficult. Literally all of its recommendation algorithms are designed to help you find “more of the same” not “the exact opposite.” Yet it can be done.1
It’s harder on Facebook, where your content is influenced by your friends and your groups—but, by joining or following a few ideologically opposed Facebook groups, you can bring balance to your feed.
Don’t forget to follow the fringe! (And vice versa: if you already consume the fringe’s lies, add the mainstream’s lies to your diet for balance.) The fringe/mainstream division in global politics is becoming almost as important as the Left/Right division! No social media feed is complete unless it includes at least some QAnon anti-vax content and some Stalinist “the holodomor was fake news” content.
“Against Living Common Good-ism,” by Judge William H. Pryor:
I want instead to address a kind of results-oriented jurisprudence that is indistinguishable in everything but name from Justice Brennan’s living constitutionalism: Harvard Law Professor Adrian Vermeule’s so-called common-good constitutionalism—a variant of what I call living common goodism. Vermeule’s approach, in his words, “take[s] as its starting point substantive moral principles that conduce to the common good, principles that [judges] . . . should read into the majestic generalities and ambiguities of the written Constitution.” Replace “common good” with “human dignity” and Vermeule’s living common goodism sounds a lot like Brennan’s living constitutionalism. Indeed, the difference between Brennan’s living constitutionalism and Vermeule’s living common goodism consists mainly in their differing substantive moral beliefs; in practice, the methodologies are the same.
This is the thesis statement of a tour de force of legal scholarship against the Vermeuleites, whom I have recently taken to task on merely prudential grounds. There are several passages in Pryor’s lecture I would like to quote (particularly Pryor’s discussion of Calder v. Bull), but I figured it best to give you the thesis and let you read the rest.
Vermeule wrote a reply, “Argument by Slogan.” You will notice that “Argument by Slogan” is not a worthy link. Should you choose to read it, you will also notice that “Argument by Slogan” is not a coherent reply to the arguments raised in Pryor’s article, nor a coherent defense of the claims Vermeule made earlier to which Pryor himself was responding. “Argument by Slogan” may well contain within its inky depths a colorable argument about structural weaknesses in originalism, but this is not the conversation either Pryor or Vermeule were having with one another until Vermeule’s historical arguments were laid waste. Perhaps Vermeule and his co-author thought they could simply recycle their response to Joel Alicea and failed to notice when it didn’t fit? Vermeule dismisses the historical arguments with a footnote wherein he favorably cites Calvin Terbeek’s argument that originalism is just a thin cover for racism. With tired tropes like that, it’s incredible anyone considers Vermeule right-wing!
Incidentally, if one is in the market for structural critiques of originalism, you can do much better than Vermeule. Just go straight to the (honest) living constitutionalists. Much of Vermeule’s argument here—while largely irrelevant to what Pryor was discussing—seems drawn (perhaps indirectly) from the work of Thomas Colby, in particular “The Sacrifice of the New Originalism” (2011), although “Originalism and Structural Argument” (2019) has much light to shed as well. Of course, it goes without saying that these critiques of originalism are invariably used to support constitutionalized abortion rights, including by Andrew Koppelman in “Originalism, Abortion, and the Thirteenth Amendment” and indeed Colby himself is no friend to the unborn. Vermeule, as usual, loudly insists throughout the second part of his article that he is offering an alternative to living constitutionalism, but fails to actually articulate any difference between his philosophy and living constitutionalism—at least, none that hadn’t already been exposed by Pryor’s prior critique.
It is difficult to resist the conclusion that to follow Vermeule & Co. into the shadow of living common-good-ism is to embrace the judicial methodology that produced both Dred Scott v. Sandford and Roe v. Wade. If you are at all tempted by the logic of Vermeule’s arguments, at least recognize where those conclusions lead, and exercise appropriate mental caution.
Finally, we must note that entire first paragraph of “Argument By Slogan” is pure ad hominem, which does not advance the argument of the paper one jot and does not belong in academic discourse. Its only purpose is to help people who already agree with Vermeule feel smug about how right must be. (See our first Worthy Link, above.) That contempt of Pryor as a person returns several times throughout the article, and is a far step beyond Pryor’s own contempt for Vermeule’s arguments (which Pryor calls “rubbish”).
Every writer is allowed an occasional moment of intemperance. However, this is perennial, not just for Vermeule, but for many of his followers (C.C. Pecknold, Sohrab Ahmari, Gladden Pappen, Pat Smith, and others). This is the contemptuous, dishonest tone in which they operate by default, whether on Twitter, in popular press like V’s infamous Atlantic article, and even (we see) in academic writing. This tone is cultivated by the extremely closed bubble Vermeuleites maintain on Twitter; I have literally never encountered a more aggressive user of Twitter’s “Block” function than Prof. Vermeule.2 Meanwhile, this tone induces an unearned confidence (indeed, smugness) in sympathetic readers, won not by argument but by the offices of an unkind wit. This polemical style—attractive to the kind of reader who would, centuries ago, have gotten really into Voltaire—is what seems to make Vermeuleism attractive and (potentially) powerful, much moreso than the substance of his ideas.
The ugly way these living common-goodists spread their ideas may tempt one to respond in kind, with vicious takedowns and snide subtweets. (It certainly tempts this one!) Yet the temptation must be resisted, for two reasons: first, there are genuinely good and interesting ideas in the classical legal tradition, some of which may be helpful to the originalist project. Those ideas need to be excavated and absorbed, regardless of the manners of their relators. (There are some worthwhile ideas strewn amid the straw men in, for example, Vermeule’s short article “Who Decides?”) Second, they aren’t all like this! I have detected none of this venom, in, say, Jonathan Culbreath. Hadley Arkes is consistently and uncommonly generous in precisely the way Vermeule’s gang isn’t.3 Integralists who aren’t jerks—even if they turn out to be a very rare species!—deserve sincere engagement with the substance of their ideas just as originalists deserve it (even though we have our own jerks).
This is Worthy Links, not another Vermeule essay, so it’s time to move on. Next!
Analysis of the Diocese of Marquette’s Pastoral Statement on Trans Catholics, by Daniel Quinan:
If we want to accompany trans people, we have to not only listen, not only refrain from presuming what they mean by certain words, and not only "lead" them, but ALSO allow ourselves to BE LED by them in certain respects, accompanying them as equals on a complicated journey.
The document helpfully – though it seems, almost accidentally – highlights this element when quoting Pope Francis' reference to "this 'art of accompaniment' which teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other". But practically everywhere else...
...it carries this implicit lens of accompaniment merely as "shepherding" others: as if we are coming down to them from a place/posture of superiority.
And it's complicated, because in SOME sense that does have to be true; but it downplays the humble *mutuality* of this posture.
In December, the Diocese of Marquette, Michigan became the latest of several Michigan dioceses to post official diocesan policies about gay people, trans people, (particularly Catholics) and what their relationship is to the local Catholic Church. Daniel Quinan, a canonist, analyzed it on Twitter. I found the analysis helpful.
He praises when he sees praise fit and criticizes when he sees criticism fit. I agree with most of his choices. What you end up with is an interesting dialectic between the document and Quinan about how to apply the Church’s teachings on sex and gender (which are controversial in themselves) to just a few real-world situations. In my big post on gender identity, I suggested that applying general principles to particular cases would be hellaciously complicated, requiring extremely careful thought. Look! I was right!
I do want to speak up in qualified defense of Christopher West, who takes some sideswipes here. Chris West is now reviled almost equally by both the orthodox Catholic “right” (trads!) and the orthodox Catholic “left” (Side B!). This is not without cause. West made important errors, presented those errors as Catholic doctrine (perhaps without intending to do so), and left a trail of real harm in his wake, which seems to have particularly affected gay and lesbian Catholics growing up when West was at his peak. Meanwhile, trads are mad at West because he doesn’t oppose anal sex strongly enough for their tastes (which they present as doctrine—incorrectly, as the reliable Janet Smith explained at the time). Despite his imperfections, at a time when I urgently needed to be able to talk about Catholic teaching on sex and the natural law to my then-girlfriend (now-wife), West helped me find that vocabulary. This was at an age when my parents’ disquisitions on the natural law were still too abstract… to say nothing of the man himself, St. John Paul II, whose ideas were brilliant but whose prose is impenetrable. (It’s not just because JP2 was dealing with big ideas. He was also a bad writer.) The vocabulary I received from West was imperfect, incomplete, and even, in certain respects, misleading, but I do not think my brain at the time was capable of taking on anything better.
Yet this dilation on West risks missing the forest for the trees in Quinan’s analysis of the Marquette document. It’s good, go read it.
Disclosure: Mere days ago, Daniel Quinan posted a comment on my recent article about gender identity (his first comment on this Substack), so including him here may look like pandering to the readers! I swear, though, I logged this thread into my Worthy Links file way back when it came out.
In the meantime, Gambaryan continued to investigate the Welcome to Video site itself. After registering an account on the site, he thought to try a certain basic check of its security—a long shot, he figured, but it wouldn’t cost anything. He right-clicked on the page and chose “View page source” from the resulting menu. This would give him a look at the site’s raw HTML before it was rendered by the Tor Browser into a graphical web page. Looking at a massive block of code, anyway, certainly beat staring at an infinite scroll of abject human depravity.
He spotted what he was looking for almost instantly: an IP address. In fact, to Gambaryan’s surprise, every thumbnail image on the site seemed to display, within the site’s HTML, the IP address of the server where it was physically hosted: 184.108.40.206. He copied those 11 digits into his computer’s command line and ran a basic traceroute function, following its path across the internet back to the location of that server.
Incredibly, the results showed that this computer wasn’t obscured by Tor’s anonymizing network at all; Gambaryan was looking at the actual, unprotected address of a Welcome to Video server. Confirming Levin’s initial hunch, the site was hosted on a residential connection of an internet service provider in South Korea, outside of Seoul.
Welcome to Video’s administrator seemed to have made a rookie mistake. The site itself was hosted on Tor, but the thumbnail images it assembled on its home-page appeared to be pulled from the same computer without routing the connection through Tor, perhaps in a misguided attempt to make the page load faster.
Gambaryan couldn’t help it: Sitting in front of his computer screen in his DC cubicle, staring at the revealed location of a website administrator whose arrest he could feel drawing closer, the agent started to laugh.
Look, sometimes I just share one because it’s an amazing story, and the takedown of darknet child porn hub Welcome to Video via blockchain analysis is a great one, painted in clear, crisp moral blacks and whites.
Also: good to notice that blockchain can never deliver on its lofty promises of secrecy or freedom.
“‘People, ideas, machines’ II: catastrophic thinking on nuclear weapons,” by Dominic Cummings:
For many years I’ve said that a Golden Rule of politics is that, given our leaders don’t take nuclear weapons seriously never assume they’re taking X seriously and there is a team deployed on X with the incentives and skills to succeed.
People think this is an overstated metaphor but I always meant it literally.
Having explored the nuclear enterprise with deep state officials 2019-20, I can only stress just how extremely literally I mean this Golden Rule.
Dominic Cummings, data genius, architect of Brexit, portrayed rather wonderfully by Benedict Cumberbatch in The Uncivil War, cast down from Downing Street because he was just as frictional in power as out of it, has a substack. In this edition, he argues that we aren’t worrying about nuclear policy enough.
If polls are to believed, you probably aren’t!
I can’t even read the back half of this, because it’s paywalled and I’m not a subscriber, but what I read was good enough to make the list.
Oh, speaking of paywalls, we seem to have arrived at ours.
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