On the State of the Art with Laibach; Political Academia with Steve Hsu
Two new interviews on the occupation of Europe, the frontiers of science, and uncertainty
This week saw preeminent voices from the world of art and the world of science sit down with Palladium to tell us about their philosophies of truth, science, and authority.
Samo Burja, founder of Bismarck Analysis and a Palladium correspondent, spoke with the Slovenian industrial music group Laibach. Beginning in 1980 when the country was still a part of Yugoslavia, the group was suppressed for its spoofing of totalitarian aesthetics. While this brought them ire at home, it won them high praise abroad, and after the collapse of the regime they would find themselves entertained by others—Laibach is one of the few Western music groups to have performed in North Korea.
Even though Laibach’s members wield the symbology of power and totalitarianism, it’s mainly a way of critiquing its corrosive effects on individuated thought. In the words of the collective, “Any mass ritual that creates only thoughtless comfort and pleasure is, in reality, a perverted weapon of oppression.”
Even though explicit totalitarian regimes have disappeared from Europe, that does not mean it is no longer occupied. However, just as the Yugoslavian regime strangely catalyzed their artistic production, the conflict and strife that comes from Europe’s occupation provides a dialectic of constant progress:
If we ignore its deafness, Europe is actually quite accommodating and prone to listening to the U.S. Europe is, in effect, still paying the price for its liberation in the Second World War, as well as the price for the collapse of its colonial empires. Europe has become entangled in a dependency from which there is no quick or painless exit. NATO is a tangible American occupational force in Europe and, in a sense, a self-destructive, quasi-self-defense system that really threatens the establishment and homogeneity of a strong Europe—of a Europe that could rival the US and China if it invited Russia in as well. But because of American geostrategic interests, Europe is pushing Russia out of the continent and cutting it off from its body.
The song “Eurovision” is thus a metaphorical vision of a disintegrating Europe. But from a historical perspective, this is nothing new or alarming. It would actually be undialectical if Europe didn’t disintegrate—and probably alarming. From a historical perspective, Europe is constantly disintegrating, but it seems that through this, it manages to establish itself as a community. Each time it tries to rebuild itself, it fails. But it also fails better each time. Brexit and the war in Ukraine are both extreme paradoxes of this process. Europe without Great Britain is not what it could be, but it is more European. Great Britain never really wanted to be part of Europe, so Europe is now more homogenous.
The war in Ukraine, as well as Russian blackmail over oil and natural gas, have at least partly brought out a new solidarity in Europe. They have also sped up the process of energy streamlining, which will have a positive impact on ecological balance in the long run.
And as for how the music collective sees their own role:
If, or when, our music is propaganda, it is first and foremost intended for the masses. Its intellectual level must therefore be tailored to even the least intelligent among them. But it is especially meant for those who are most convinced that they act according to their own free will.
But as our next, latest interview will suggest, the way our own free will and rationality perceive the objective world is also colored by our preferences. Check out more of the interview here.
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Political Academia With Steve Hsu
While the mechanics of power are visibly at work in contested geopolitical spaces like Europe, they also play out in more subtle, bureaucratic ways in the field our society vests with epistemic authority.
Science, the process for how we empirically establishm facts, is the primary vehicle for how truth is determined—our leaders like to portray themselves as technocrats, that is, as decision makers who are informed by expertise. Experts always claim a scientific basis to their work, even if that just means dressing their publications with scientific accoutrements.
Stephen Hsu is an accomplished physicist, geneticist, and entrepreneur, and has thought deeply on the role that science and certainty play in how we inform ourselves. In his interview with yours truly for Palladium we discussed how what gets considered “good science” is oftentimes a question of whether its results agree with our preexisting beliefs:
As far as how science relates to the outside world, here’s the problem: for some people, when science agrees with their cherished political belief, they say “Hey, you know what? This is the Vulcan Science Academy, man. These guys know what they’re doing. They debated it, they looked at all the evidence, that’s a peer-reviewed paper, my friend—it was reviewed by peers. They’re real scientists.” When they like the results, they’re going to say that.
When they don’t like it, they say, “Oh, come on, those guys know they have to come to that conclusion or they’re going to lose their NIH grant. These scientists are paid a lot of money now and they’re just feathering their own nests, man. They don’t care about the truth. And by the way, papers in this field don’t replicate. Apparently, if you do a study where you look back at the most prominent papers over the last 10 years, and you check to see whether subsequent papers which were better powered, had better technology, and more sample size actually replicated, the replication rate was like 50 percent. So, you can throw half the papers that are published in top journals in the trash.”
We can have a very polarized discussion about what is the real role of science in informing day-to-day political debate.
Moving past the all-or-nothing epistemic authority of our cherished institutions means moving into a cognitive framework we embrace uncertainty:
One of the things that I teach in the tech startups that I’m involved in is that you never want the point answer without being given an uncertainty range. For example, if I ask about how many units we are going to sell next quarter, and the guy says, “My model says five million,” an additional estimate of uncertainty, together with the central point estimate, has enormous value. It’s a 2x if he says, “Well, it could be five million, but 95 percent confidence is anywhere between one and nine million.”
Then you realize—okay, so I’m not going to build that strongly into my model. I’m not going to tell our board members tomorrow that we’re definitely going to sell five million units. So that extra second thing, this point estimate and the uncertainty, is already a huge innovation over the way people normally communicate.
Even if you can communicate effectively, sometimes the incentive structure you’re surrounded by can get in the way of undertaking meaningful action. In addition to his accomplished scientific and business career, Hsu worked as a vice president at a university for eight years, where he oversaw promotions and research.
You can imagine what it is that makes someone who’s already a tenured professor in biochemistry decide they want to take on this huge amount of responsibility and maybe even shut down their own research program. They are very, very careerist people. And that is a huge problem, because incentives are heavily misaligned.
The incentive for me as a senior administrator is not to make waves and keep everything kind of calm. Calm down the crazy professor who’s doing stuff, assuage the students that are protesting, make the donors happy, make the board of trustees happy. I found that the people who were in the role so they could advance their career, versus those trying to advance the interests of the institution, were very different. There were times when I felt like I had to do something very dangerous for me career-wise, but it was absolutely essential for the mission of the university. I had to do that repeatedly.
And I told the president who hired me, “I don’t know how long I’m going to last in this job, because I’m going to do the right thing. If I do the right thing and I’m bounced out, that’s fine. I don’t care.” But most people are not like that.
In economics, there’s something called the principal-agent problem. Let’s say you hire a CEO to manage your company. Unless his compensation is completely determined by some long-dated stock options or something, his interests are not aligned with the long-term growth for your company. He can have a great quarter by shipping all your manufacturing off to China, have a great few quarters, and get a huge bonus. Even if, on a long timescale, it’s really bad for your bottom line.
So there’s a principal-agent problem here. Anytime you give centralized power to somebody, you have to be sure that their incentives—or their personal integrity—are aligned with what you want them to promote at the institution. And generally, it’s not well done in the universities right now.
Science can provide us information, but the way it’s conducted, communicated, and taught is fraught with political considerations and dangers. Read more on our site.
Here’s what’s been on the front page lately:
Political Academia With Stephen Hsu. Researching the frontiers of genomics, modeling uncertainty, and managing a university have taught Professor Steve Hsu that scientific questions aren't the only kind that scientists have to answer.
On the State of the Art With Laibach. The enigmatic Slovenian music group speaks with Samo Burja about the Apocalypse, artificial intelligence, and why Europe is still under occupation.
Palladium Podcast 83: Tea Törmänen and Marco Visscher on Ecomodernism. Tea Törmänen and Marco Visscher join Ash Milton to discuss their recent article and the difference between degrowth and ecomodernism.
Why We Need the Center for Strategic Translation by Tanner Greer. The American Governance Foundation is launching a new institution to help American decision makers understand China.
What Everyone Got Wrong on the Brazilian Elections by Avetis Muradyan. Brazil’s 2022 election pitted the pro-Lula Northeast against the Bolsonarist South. The conflict between regions goes back centuries. Brazil’s political future depends on resolving it.
That’s all for now.