...one knows a piety from a principle because even those who oppose a piety have to pretend to honour its core point.

Adam Gopnik

...one way you know that something is an institution is that you don’t have to give reasons for it. Getting a college degree, like getting married, is what people do.

John Emerson

What does everyone have to like? (Better: what does everyone say they like, in the West, if they’re respectable?) By construction, most people don’t like the things hipsters like. What do even hipsters fail to react against?

Not everything in the following list is bad, just mysteriously universal or unquestioned. I also wanted things independent of Left/Right politics, because they are both obvious and plainly not universal. So I haven’t included Gopnik’s example (gay marriage) despite it having all the hallmarks of a piety – e.g. finding support even among ancient enemies, having only confusing opponents we could report on, gawkily.

They’re also superficial in comparison to the deadly pieties, ‘things one loses one’s job for opposing’. For which ‘heresy’ might not be excessive. Though that takes our term for ‘things others will kill you for saying ’.

Update (2020)

To my surprise there has been some movement. It is now much more common to be sceptical of the media (the "MSM" boogeyman), though of course most non-mainstream sources are no better. (Alyssa Vance: "Sometimes the media is lying to you. Unfortunately, people who say 'the media is lying to you' are, on average, lying to you even more.".) Data journalism has grown and had at least a tiny effect on the great rivers of groundless nonsense.

One piety I missed, which was present in 2015 but has gotten much worse, is the entire world Obsessively Following the US National Election Cycle for one-quarter of their entire lives. Given how impotent the audience is to do literally anything about it but panic, and how low-quality almost all of the coverage is, this is self-harm on a very grand scale.

1. Following the news.

The element of truth (What good is reading the news?): It’s important to try to understand stuff. People act badly in the absence of oversight; the powerful act even worse.

The errors enforced: ‘News is a good way of understanding the world’;
‘a newspaper is representative of events’;
‘news is a guide to what’s really (causally) important in the world’;
‘newsreading is a necessary condition of showing concern or solidarity with the world’.

How widespread is it? Trying to find evidence for any of the pieties is annoying: after all, these just are things that slip past critical notice. 60% of UK adults are on the stuff daily. The last Eurobarometer found 87% of people watching TV every day, 89% of them watching the TV news, so let’s fudge this as 80%. (They may well be inflating their attentiveness, but this lip service serves my point and so is not actually statistical bias at all.)

What’s the objection? The permanent state of the media: sensationalist, rushed, oversimplified, unscientific, unaccountable. Most people know that you shouldn’t believe the likes of the National Inquirer. But one study found that 80% of ‘quality’ British journalism has been a false journalism, copied and pasted from PR sources. Even stories that aren’t compromised by their propaganda origins are subject to irrational pressures, oversimplification to false balance to statistical illiteracy. Unanalysed reporting is plausibly worse than no information. You never forget the first time you see a completely-invented quote attributed to you in an article.

Epistemics aside, I also have a much calmer inner life since I stopped reading news. The only time the omission has affected me at all, in 8 years, is the Gatwick drone cockup.

We might reserve the word ‘journalism’ for the real kind: public third-party investigation of the powerful when they stray. We need journalism in this limited sense, and we probably need a mass media to push the result - if only to scare powerful groups into behaving well.

That would make my abstention free-riding, a bad thing. But real, long-form, book-grade investigative journalism is rare, edged out by clickbait. And actually-existing journalists with their awful incentives are not up the task. Reporting is (or should be) a kind of rapid social science, much harder than other social sciences because it can so rarely wait and think.

The resistance to news

  • Nick Davies, the big whistleblower in the UK media.
  • Nassim Taleb.
  • Aaron Swartz.
  • \
  • Gwern
  • Michael Crichton.
  • Charlie Stross
  • Ozy Frantz.
  • Aaron Gertler.
  • \
  • AppliedDivinityStudies
  • Robin Hanson skewers it like always:
    ... if you care less about signaling intelligence and connectedness, and more about understanding, then consider reading textbooks, review articles, and other expert summaries instead of news.

  • Georges Perec:
    The daily papers talk of everything except the everyday. The papers annoy me, they teach me nothing. What they recount doesn’t concern me, doesn’t ask me questions and doesn’t answer the questions I ask or would like to ask."
  • Since I wrote this the online froth about the "MSM" has increased.

2. Travel

Even quite level-headed people have a hyper-inflated view of the intellectual and spiritual benefits of travelling. It is hard to find anyone any more than grumpy about a particular trip, or snobby about the way others travel. The hype of going places is not at all new. But the modern practice - mass, international, touristic - has holidays as the centre and peak of your year. It is the safest conversational topic outside of the weather.

The element of truth: There are still a lot of different ways to live, and many experiences that don’t come across in print. I suppose compulsive xenophobes are the only really principled anti-travellers.

The errors enforced: The possibility of fleeing yourself. Mere sensation as sufficient for understanding. In poverty tourism: the superior virtue of the oppressed. For the cost of three weeks in Japan you could buy the 150 best-ever books on Japan, or the best 50 books plus 10 of the best Japanese meals in your home country (etc). You would come out of this knowing different things from your alter ego, but not obviously worse things. (Then there’s the sleep cost and the illnesses.)

Claimed benefits:

  • broaden your sense of possibility,
  • jolt you out of your received notions,
  • force you to try new things,
  • force you to look at the world anew
  • serendipity, all the things that people don't write down.

Stationary travel (going to one location and really getting to know it for months) can deliver the benefits promised of normal travel, the sub-week consumption of surfaces. But all of the above can be achieved from any location, with a bit of mental footwork. My estimate is that people get about one serendipitous thing every two weeks away. (If you count getting mugged or malaria as serendipity, which I do.)

How widespread? 78% of rich-world people plan to this year (p.20 here). 91% of Britons</a> polled by Ipsos.

The resistance to travel

  • Jess Riedel: Why don't travel fans equally recommend foreign writing?
  • Brian Tomasik
  • This travel writer is annoyed at people exaggerating the significance of their own travel, which is all I suppose I am annoyed at.
  • Martha Gellhorn is a funny example, since she spent her whole life travelling. But with open eyes:
    One needs Equanil here too, not just in our white urban civilisation; tranquilisers against impatience, against the hysteria induced by heat, and the disgust at dirt...
  • Not really this.

  • Emerson:
    I have no churlish objection to the circumnavigation of the globe, for the purposes of art, of study, and benevolence... But he who travels to be amused, or to get somewhat which he does not carry, travels away from himself... He carries ruins to ruins. Travelling is a fool’s paradise. Our first journeys discover to us the indifference of places. At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from...

    Our minds travel when our bodies are forced to stay at home.
  • Dan Frank actually tries to defend travel relative to an equal spend on remote learning, which is an improvement over the usual. He makes some nice points, but the strong, open, understanding-based kind of travel he defends is still incredibly rare.

3 …while professing environmentalism

4. Nature

The cult of travel usually goes along with a slack-jawed endorsement of the natural world.

The element of truth: The mind-foiling beauty (if you’re not looking too closely at what is doing what to whom). The shocking amount of detail and seeming design. There is a level of ugliness only human structures or actions demonstrate.

The error enforced: Modernity as a bad deal. That ‘natural’ means good, when in fact a huge amount of the good things in the world are in direct opposition to natural teleoi. That GM (etc.) is essentially hazardous or wrong.

The resistance to nature

5. The internet

Because it contains a good and growing representation of the world entire, this is a hard thing to be properly against. (You might manage it by being depressed to fuck, or anti-technology in general. But that degree of Luddism probably entails being against most social progress.) So I have to rename this ‘technological utopianism’ if it is to have any real bite. (Though note this research programme.)

The element of truth: Knowledge, obvs. And the self-creation it enables is probably good for all kinds of people.

The error enforced: That the uses of abstractions on network protocols are inevitably progressive. That politics has changed fundamentally.

The resistance to web

  • The primitivists, who are usually wrong.
  • Evgeny Morozov, who is against technological hype
  • Similarly Vint Cerf.
  • Nicholas Carr, who is probably not right.

6. Higher education.

The element of truth: Ideas are important. Four years of relative freedom at the beginning of adulthood is fantastic. There’s a lot more to life than economics. It will be hard to replicate the deep internationalism and the universal parental and governmental approval in alternative spaces. Research and cultural transmission are important and gain greatly from local networking.

The error enforced: That going to university has inherent value (rather than the skill, knowledge, perspective which unreliably attend students’ attendance). That this inherent value justifies giant personal debt and diversion of public spending (from, e.g. the economic emancipation of all). That it’s university that provides an intellectual or spiritual boost, rather than exposure to ideas, rigour, and peer discussion - each of which are tending towards being free, outwith the academy. That institutional learning is best learning. That you need credentials to be credible.

The driver of disastrous trends: the one by which more jobs arbitarily require more degrees; the one where a degree is a hollow class marker and networking tool rather than anything to do with (resented, quickly forgotten) knowledge or culture. These overvaluations are scuppering some people’s lives.

The resistance to school

  • Scott Alexander
  • Bryan Caplan Caplan Caplan Caplan (...)
  • Taleb again.
  • Peter Thiel.
  • Left critics are mostly only against the brute vocational and corporate side of universities - not the core piety of inherent value. An exception is the wonderful John Emerson.
  • 'The Last Psychiatrist', a lurid and brutal writer.
  • oh do go on.
  • This scene in Good Will Hunting is the only mainstream statement of the nonspecialness of university:
    Will: See, the sad thing about a guy like you is, in 50 years you're gonna start doin' some thinkin' on your own and you're going to come up with the fact that there are two certainties in life: one, don't [wield academia to humiliate people], and two, you dropped 150 grand on a fuckin' education you coulda got for a dollar-fifty in late charges at the public library!

7. Reading, the moral and spiritual necessity of.

The sharpest tooth in the bunch, for me. The news piety is a special case of this, I suppose. And half the internet one, too. How often do you feel insecure about having not read a Portentous Classic? How often do you lie about having read them?

The element of truth: Reading is incredible, a telepathic link from the best thinkers. A handful of small, as-yet-unfalsified studies find an increase in empathy from reading.

The error enforced: That reading anything will do: form over content. That it offers unique benefits, when many people just don’t need the reminder to have perspective or empathy or whatnot.

The resistance to books

Mostly only satirical attacks on reading seem to be possible:
  • Alain de Botton hopes that his children don't have to read, because reading is a "response to anxiety", and thus a bad sign.
  • Mikita Brottman likens it to masturbation and challenges the edification side, but then snaggle-pusses sideways saying that both are good 'self-explorations' anyway. (Here, here, here.)
  • Steven Johnson trying to make videogames look good.
  • Pierre Bayard's happy satire. But even his mouthpiece fails to criticise reading properly:
    The books we love offer a sketch of a whole universe that we secretly inhabit, and in which we desire the other person to assume a role.

    One of the conditions of happy romantic compatibility is, if not to have read the same books, to have read at least some books in common with the other person—which means, moreover, to have non-read the same books. From the beginning of the relationship, then, it is crucial to show that we can match the expectations of our beloved by making him or her sense the proximity of our inner libraries.
  • Karnofsky is very unsentimental about it

(I myself am pious about this, failing to really even hypothetically attack it.)

How does this happen?

Well, as I’ve conceded, each of them has some intrinsic appeal. But that aside: herding and signalling is the boring but probably most important component. Then there’s marketing, which I actually don’t see as that powerful. Preference falsification is cool but requires some great force that makes everyone lie without co-ordinating the lie.

Each of the above sustain an identity in their host. And once a practice gets into your identity, it can extract a huge amount from you, without you ever thinking to complain. It may seem far-fetched that someone could identify with their consumption of journalism, but behold the Extremely Online, the politics wonks, the amateur pundits on a million radio call-ins, all over the earth.

See also

  • Liam Bright on the link between neoliberalism (yes, really) and identitarianism.


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Tags: social-science, criticism


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