Annotating Greg Cochran’s interview with James Miller

In case you don’t have two and a half hours to listen to this fantastic interview with West Hunter’s Greg Cochran, I took some notes. I might have made some errors summarizing the arguments, so please let me know if you found a mistake. By no means is this meant to be complete and you should listen to the whole thing if you have time!

(9:00) Examples of people doing stupid things that defy rational analysis: the Japanese attacking Pearl Harbor, and an African tribe that killed hundreds of thousands of cattle based on a prophecy.

(14:00) Theory: ecological collapse shortly after every time an intelligent race evolved, but we haven’t found their beer cans or lost cities so probably not

(20:40) An example of a religious group with mostly secret doctrine are the Alawites (Assad’s sect), whose practitioners don’t know much about their own religion. Alawite women are very liberated but maybe only because their religious text says women have no souls. Rebels often say “Christians to Beirut, Alawites to the grave”, which is why there likely won’t be a peaceful settlement.

(~26:00) Former Students for a Democratic Society members tried to infiltrate GM and radicalize their workers. It mostly failed, some of them enjoyed the work enough that they just stayed there.

(~35:00) In general, we have an underinvestment in maintaining good older inventions and infrastructure. Cochran proposes that funding research for new lines of antibiotics would be a good public investment.

(~43:00) CRISPR bio-terrorists unlikely because most terrorists are unskilled and dumb, but maybe just one would be enough to cause a lot of damage.

(51:00) Can’t have a Stalin in Monaco because the camps would be too pleasant.

(54:30) The John Stuart Mill argument about free speech (who are you to say who’s correct?) is wrong: debating idiots is tiring, that position is nihilistic, and the utility is low — plus we pick and choose the right ideas all the time in other contexts. Greg will decide what’s sensible, and we should hire him to walk around with a stick and hit people who are wrong. But typically the people who want to suppress speech are anxious about the truth.

(~59:00) Freud developed his theory based on EIGHT cases.

(~1:07:00) Militant Islam looks good in comparison to communism, if only because they’re incompetent. Their propensity towards violence isn’t unique, and the threat only exists if we lay down and take it.

(1:11:00) The Judiciary is out of control and especially shameless, and if they keep going too far their power might get taken away. Another example of how JS Mill got it wrong about the right idea always winning when there’s free, rational discourse.

(1:15:00) Having the papers report on the Spanish flu (named so because it’s the only country to report freely on it) wouldn’t have helped stop the spread of the virus because they didn’t even understand it, and it got all over the world. Polynesians especially susceptible to flu epidemics, so American Samoa just blockaded all ships — no cases; Western Samoa didn’t and lost one 25% of their population. Not authoritarianism, just sensible.

(1:22:00) The Icelandic Republic was one of the most libertarian governments ever; legislature met once a year and had almost no state. But Norway came to dominate them, and they didn’t even protect them from Algerian raiders. Libertarianism is appealing because it’s easier to remember a few rules than a ton of complicated heuristics.

(1:26:00) “If we allow X, we have to allow Y” where Y is obviously stupid — WHY? You don’t have to have axioms.

(1:30:00) Does Greg like any public intellectuals? Warren Brookes had some good ideas. He eventually died because he was a Christian Scientist and didn’t take antibiotics. But most are despicable. Scott Alexander is readable but nuts — not in a bad way! Everyone involved in LessWrong is crazy (e.g. polyamory), probably for genetic reasons.

(1:38:00) Maybe the answer to AI threat is to ban it. Threaten people with heavy sanctions if they pursue it. We already suppress all kinds of knowledge — do you know how to build a hydrogen bomb?

(1:42:00) His favorite example of academic brevity is Frank Nelson Cole who disproved the Mersenne conjecture by silently writing a counter example on a blackboard at an academic conference:

2⁶⁷-1 = 193,707,721 × 761,838,257,287

(1:45:00) History is a field in major decline, filled with ignorance. Example: Arming America won the prestigious Bancroft prize but was filled with fraud.

(1:51:00) Greg noticed the real estate bubble before the financial crash, and James says that many economists also noticed it but there wasn’t much they could do about it. Greg mentions Alan Greenspan signed a crazy letter excommunicating Nathaniel Branden, who angered Ayn Rand, and wonders if his insanity bled over to his analysis of the housing bubble.

(2:00:00) People in the military should have known Iraq didn’t have a real WMD program but didn’t. Arguably people in the Department of Energy had the technical expertise to do an analysis — but people probably didn’t want to know. If they had read a popular book on Middle East history they’d probably have a better grasp of Iraq than most of the architects of the war.

(2:07:00) A few people bet on Trump winning after Greg wrote predicting the “shy Trump voter” would put him over the top despite the polls, and then tipped him for it.

(2:12:00) Greg mentions Pseudoerasmus, an excellent anonymous economic history blogger who actual academics cite. He liked his post on how selective breeding of cotton was more important than torturing slaves to work harder. Good example of how emotion overwhelms the boring explanation.

(2:16:00) The glib counterargument about the pay gap — efficient companies would just hire more women as an arbitrage opportunity — just can’t account for the fact that social patterns and institutions take a while to change, and that pay differentials were much higher in the past (not completely explained by skills gaps).

(2:19:00) How about setting up a 1970 style university without all the administrators and charging less? Rising costs are multifaceted so people don’t understand. James argues that the growing number of administrators is a result of new regulations and law. Look to Canada and other countries who manage to keep costs down and educate their students

(2:25:00) Most of the value of education is signaling. James feels comfortable admitting this since it won’t have any effect. A nice piece of evidence is that British university grads seem perfectly smart despite going to university for 3 years instead of 4. Not much evidence that we “teach people how to think” — maybe more evidence that we teach them NOT to think. James mentions that a few years after economics majors graduate, they score poorly on a basic exam. As a private investment it’s worthwhile for most college graduates, even though it’s a wasteful inefficient system.