Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

TiB 118: How to predict the apocalypse; finding Hong Kong a new home; competition in science; and more...

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Can Hong Kong be re-founded half a world away?

China’s passage of a national security law that would restrict freedoms in Hong Kong is another example of its increasing willingness to project its power and values in the face of international opposition. Some Hong Kongers are pessimistic enough about the city’s future that they’re considering radical ideas to preserve its freedoms - including creating a “new” Hong Kong charter city elsewhere in the world, as this excellent interview with Mark Lutter describes.

We’ve discussed charter cities before (e.g. here and here). The premise is that it might be possible to create new and successful polities, often within less developed places, by importing institutions and governance that have been effective elsewhere. The idea has attracted prominent supporters, including Nobel laureate Paul Romer (and, sort of, Silicon Valley figures), but charter cities have proven hard to get off the ground because of domestic and international opposition. 

Hong Kong’s plight could present an opening. Sam Bowman recently argued that the UK should provide territory for a new Hong Kong, and talks are underway with other countries, including Ireland. It’s a fascinating instance of the clash, discussed before, between the physically rooted and the globally mobile. I’ve talked about this as a century of secessions - and assumed this would relate to a people’s wish to change its governance institutions in order to maintain its sense of place. But sometimes, perhaps, changing place to maintain a set of institutions will be as urgent and compelling a call. 

How competition creates bad behaviour in science

We talked about Packy McCormick’s essay on “scenius” (or communal genius) a couple of weeks ago, in which he notes the importance of competition within a scene for stimulating productivity. It’s worth asking whether this might be a useful lever for increasing the rate of scientific discovery, a favourite TiB topic. This paper, which I stumbled upon via José last week, suggests the answer is no.

The paper explores the impact of competition in science and concludes that it creates the incentive for strategic behaviour - or “gaming” - rather than for actual discovery. Consequences include reduced willingness to share data and methods; p-hacking; and even abuse of the peer review process. It probably also, as we’ve discussed previously, reinforces the incentive to work on incremental rather than fundamental problems.

That said, it’s exciting how much work is being done on improving the structures and the institutions of science. I enjoyed this thread on how best to spend $100 billion to achieve this goal, as well as Alex Danco’s piece on getting rid of peer review. It’s also fascinating to see the impact that pre-print platforms like arXiv are having on the pace of knowledge diffusion - so much so that the average time from publication to research appearing on Wikipedia has now gone negative! Lots of problems remain - and there’ll be hiccups along the way - but I’m optimistic about the direction of travel. 

Apocalypse now?

It's often a mark of seriousness, even during extraordinary events, to opine that people are overreacting and nothing much will change. Our complacency is unsurprising. Most Western elites have spent their careers in an era - and from a privileged demographic and geographic starting point - where nothing really did go that wrong. But this is ahistorical: as John Gray points out in this excellent essay on what he calls “apocalypse”, whole ways of life do vanish - sometimes violently and quite suddenly. 

Hysteria is seldom helpful. Godwin’s Law has become legendary because wild analogies are tempting, but harmful. I believe Trump is a terrible president, but I still periodically reread Scott Alexander’s unpopular but wise 2016 essay You Are Still Crying Wolf for a sense of perspective. And yet. Sometimes, as Gray shows, the apocalypse does arrive - and the fashionable thing remains to downplay it. There are always comforting arguments for accommodating it or denying its character, as Anne Applebaum’s long and brilliant new essay argues.

So how does apocalyptic change happen? Adam Elkus posted a superb piece this week, in which he argues that the apocalyptic becomes possible when people gradually come to believe that the old rules no longer apply - or, in his words, when there’s "sustained breaking of expectations and disruption of the ability to simulate the future”. We’re living through perhaps the most sustained - and universal - breaking of expectations for generations. As Elkus concedes, the base case is that nothing cataclysmic will occur. But history is a terrifying catalogue of the exceptions. 

Quick links

  1. Lady Gaga, feat. Chaucer. Pop songs brilliantly re-recorded in medieval style.
  2. One doesn't simply end lockdown. Striking chart on spending patterns in US states that have and haven't lifted lockdown.
  3. "The Beethoven of ice cream". Ben of Ben & Jerry's has no sense of smell(!)
  4. Make social policy, not war. Interesting Chinese public opinion data on policy preferences.
  5. Racism as public health hazard. A quantification of the net public health impact of Black Lives Matter protests. And another.

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Until next week,

Matt Clifford