Empathy as a Modelling Technique


I am not a progressive, but most of my friends are progressives. That’s cool. My disagreements with progressivism are nerdy and have to do with their conception of historiography. If you consider yourself a progressive and spend your time or money to help people who are suffering that’s good. If you spend your time trying to gain more political power and expressing outrage and shaming people on the internet, well, that’s something you can do.

As with any political movement, it helps to know the ways different individuals perceive their interaction with other people and the economy. This tends to be pretty hard and requires radically debasing yourself from your own experiences. It’s like the scientific version of getting baked and staring out your window trying to look at the world in some new way you’ve never thought of before. It doesn’t even require you to change your own views of the world, although it might. If you still want to advocate for politicians or policies, understanding your opponent can only help. If your opponent mistrusts and hates you, it helps to know why.

If you want to dismiss your opponents as some combination of strictly less intelligent than you, sorely misguided, or evil, that’s also something you can do. It’s what the New York Times editorial team does. I don’t think that’s the case, so I’ll try to explain why. Part of this explanation requires taking seriously experiences or ideas that are ignored on the basis of being hateful or racist. That doesn’t mean I’m hateful or racist. Please remember that difference. On the other hand I’m not going to avoid uncomfortable arguments, and I’m not going to turn them into sanitized strawmen either (which I imagine to be a scarecrow dipped in rubbing alcohol that we set on fire).

Given the enormous complexity of the world, despite my sticking to relatively scientific arguments, for all we know they are individually robust but in totality represent a biased view of the world. That’s actually okay. My point here even as I try my best to be methodological isn’t that I’m right. It’s that a reasonable person could construct a view of the world in this way such that it has the same claim to validity as any other construction. We are getting useful observations of the world, it’s just that we have too many degrees of freedom.

Where to start? There are three books that are important to understand. Karl Popper’s The Poverty of Historicism, Butterfield’s Whig History, and Stovers essay. That’s where I should start, but I’m going to save that for the next post.

Instead let’s start with alt-right provocations. The alt-right might not be right, but they have a remarkably consistent model of the world. We’ll start with Milo Yiannapolis because he’s hilarious, but if you’re looking at him to understand why folks like Trump and Farage are gaining some power then you’re only going to become upset. Milo wants to post stupid memes to provoke you and rile up the future of the party and his career. His most intellectual post was a brief history of the alt-right, which is a fine article, but he’s no heavyweight.

Then there is Scott Alexanders anti-reactionary FAQ, which reads like a parent telling their kids “Ecstasy is really fun, but the risks don’t outweigh the rewards –which let me tell you–will blow your fucking MIND.” That was a brave post for him to write. You notice how he calls it anti-reactionary in the title? He also includes tons of trigger warnings. He’s essentially admitted himself he uses these rhetorical techniques to shield himself from accusations of racism by using tribal code-words to signal that he’s part of their group. He does this well, everything thinks Scott Alexander is on their side. Could anyone else be welcomed to a bar by both progressive intellectuals and neo-fascists? He deserves every ounce of his fame.

Could… could neo-fascists and progressives find common ground? I am certain they could if they actually tried. In the far reaches of the alt-right movement we have Taylor Swift for Fascist Europe. It’s strangely hilarious, but they are only half-joking either. It’s sardonic, it’s irreverent, it’s a ‘fuck you.’ When a cultural movement is built around criticizing and deconstructing whiteness, with modern academics writing ‘research papers’ on popstars, is it any a surprise that, as Moldbug says, “clever 19-year-olds discover that insulting it is now the funniest fucking thing in the world?”

Why is the alt-right rising? The reactosphere of neoreactionary, antisemetic, and anti-progressive internet denizens is growing quickly. Trump tapped into it, but it was growing before him in lockstep with the online social justice movement, which is fashionable. If you want to know what the fashionable position is ask yourself “If I posted this particular political meme on my facebook am I more likely to get likes? Or lose all my friends?” What’s peculiar is the alt-right has formed a one-sided alliance with the unfashionable white lower middle working class. I say one-sided because I don’t think the white lower middle class knows the alliance exists.

Why would you lose your friends though? Is it because your ideas are unfashionable? Or because they are simple and hateful, and we (rightly) don’t associate with hateful people? Let’s try an experiment. I’m going to go over an experience I’ve had, which you might find uncomfortable to read, but I’m also not going to say anything hateful. I will then explain why it does make you uncomfortable, but why it shouldn’t. A large part of our goal here is to help you understand the perceptions of people you find racist in a way that will light up the empathy neurons in your brain.

When I lived in London I was in a neighborhood called Elephant and Castle. It is now home to a large Nigerian immigrant population, as well as ethnic Brits (which if you read Hume’s Volume 1 on England — which you should– means a mess of barbarian, pagan, and Roman populations — whatever). We had to be careful late at night due to muggings, which were perceived to be mostly from the poorer Nigerians. They looked scary, because we knew they drove the crime statistics. I won’t lie and say I wasn’t on edge because I’m not a liar. Every night around midnight, more so on weekends, a group of 10-30 Nigerian men and teenagers would get drunk outside my first floor dorm. They would yell and fight for hours in the street. Sometimes there would be screams from the fighting. Once they stared through my flatmates window at 2am and started yelling, until she came to my room asking to stay there because she was scared. Another time I heard someone get severely hurt, I rushed to the main entrance and told the dorm supervisor, who himself was a kindly Nigerian immigrant, that he ought to call the police. He said that wasn’t a good idea, you don’t want to get police involved around here. Just ignore it. Violence in the streets of London is the natural state of order, we would only cause more harm by interfering. I think he made the right call, but I was naive at the time.

What is interesting is this experience of mine has zero model of the world embedded. It’s a recounting of a personal experience I had, nothing more. If my blog had more than three readers there is a good chance some would feel uncomfortable. Uncomfortable might be the wrong word, but we can agree that in good cosmopolitan company this wouldn’t be an appropriate story to tell. The problem is we impose models of the world on people based on what they say. The type of person who would talk about the downsides of immigration or outcomes associated with a nationality or race is a bad type of person. Why? Because that type of person is correlated with the type of person who historically did bad things.

I call it the Hitler and Slave-owner experiment. If you walk into a bar with Hitler and a Southern Antebellum slave owner and tell your story, would they give you a nod and sip their beer? If so it’s implied your experience validates their model of the world. Is that a bad thing? Well, it’s not a good thing. But is it a bad thing? For example, we could have another model that embeds experiences that validate their model, but also include other experiences and use a function that doesn’t at all imply anything horrific.

Anyway, for those of us living in London we were thankfully at a great school. In fact, our school was founded by the great Soviet loving progressives of the time, which struck me as bitterly ironic as LSE is famous now as an investment banking school. As a result most of us made enough money to move to nicer neighborhoods after graduation, plus, it’s not as though we were raising a family in that area. For a year, unless you were like one of my friends that got mugged, we can just call it unpleasant.


The problem is some British families have lived in those neighborhoods for decades, and they remember back when the neighborhoods were safer and culturally homogenous. As far as safer goes, it’s based on the communities perception of security and safety. Should a community have a better knowledge of its safety than official statistics?

Official statistics are aggregate numbers broken down by predetermined dimensions. You have to have a hunch as to what data to track, how to track it, and how to segment it, before you actually go ahead and structure data collection.

Even then, it’s so easy to lie with statistics as to make them rarely more useful than the filtered experiences of a community. A community lacks that formality and attribution, and instead they approximate reality using a distributed process to filter out information, like around what housing developments does crime happen, what alley is most dangerous, and what do the criminals tend to look like.

The data is more granular and there are more data points, it’s less official and it’s less rigorous. A trade-off. It’s like a mix between the bias-variance tradeoff of modern day machine learning and Hayek’s point on knowledge in society. The model has lower variance because it can fit the data better at a granular level. Unfortunately, it might have more bias. But do the official statistics not have a bias? What if all groups can’t help but embed information from their model of how the world ought to be in their objectivity?

Consider the Rotherham child sexual exploitation scandal Click through them and read the names of those who committed the acts. There was initially a cover up, due to fear that reporting this information in the official records would inflame racism. Yeah, it probably would have. The common people have a more granular understanding of the data points regarding how other cultures interact among their communities. Of course, there is also a strong reason to believe we dislike someone from the outgroup attacking us far more than we care about the same attack from our own ingroup.

Let’s look at Japan for a second. There are huge protests because an American killed a Japanese women. There isn’t a great reason to believe Americans do this more than ethnic Japanese. We’re not part of their identity though, we’re an outsider. When outsiders attack your brain screams “fuck them fuck them fuck them.” It’s probably an evolutionary thing.

So here is the question you have to answer, why is this outgroup bias considered wrong? Let’s take the null hypothesis to be that child sexual exploitation is not correlated with ethnicity or immigrant status. We don’t know if it is or isn’t, it’s not as though the British aristocracy has a stellar record of not raping kids. If they don’t know that they are wrong, should they? Who is keeping track of this stuff in a way that’s sufficiently rigorous to be free from ingroup and statistical bias? And if it can be proven that per capita pedophelia is the same, can we impose that they are being irrational? Or is it legitimate to be angrier if someone from outside your identity commits a crime to someone within your identity? That’s the history of human conflict, isn’t it?

The point of this post, this blog, and really my entire point on the philosophy of science, is that our methods of filtering out signals from reality are broken and weird. It doesn’t take a sophisticated philosophy of science though to ask for the counterfactual. After all, if per capita pedophelia sex gangs are equally distributed across immigrants and non-immigrants then do we have a problem? Well obviously we have a problem, but you know what I mean.


The populist xenophobes of our Western world miss the dignity of work and the safety of cultural homogeneity. The problem is when you explain these people’s beliefs and actions due to racism and xenophobia, what you’re really saying is “fuck you.” You’re attributing their behavior due to some degenerate moral condition or uneducation. If only they were as smart and educated as us they would appreciate their more violent neighborhoods and overcrowded hospitals.

Not to mention their desire to prefer living among their own traditional culture is viewed as a deeply racist preferences not worthy of our respect. My background is culturally and ethnically diverse, but when you ask me to tell you–to prove to you–why it is so deeply and obviously wrong for towns and cultures to prefer homogeneity I can’t come up with an answer. Who am I to tell them what they are right or wrong to want? Maybe if I had religious beliefs it would be obvious, but I have none.

If I started to build and speculate on an optimal societal structure, and I really shouldn’t, but if I did I might think it’s okay to prefer homogenous cultures, religions and values. So long as they welcome any person who is able to seamlessly integrate as well as contribute economically to this state of the world. If outsiders come in and do not assimilate to your values, often holding values that run counter to yours, and also damaged your economic standing, is it not natural to build resentment?

I’m generally of the belief that individuals in aggregate are better at understanding their circumstances than academics. Let’s see if I can cherry-pick any financial reports or research that back up this claim:

The costs associated with unauthorized immigrants immigrants are mainly concentrated in three areas: K-12 education, emergency medical care and incarceration, estimated by the researchers’ at approximately $116.6 million per year.

Fairley, Elena and Rich Jones. Colorado’s Undocumented Immigrants: What they pay, what they cost in taxes, The Bell Policy Center, April, 2011.

The overall taxes unauthorized immigrants pay into the system is greater than the amount of benefits they receive. However, many states and local public entities experience a net deficit because the costs of certain public services (education, health care, law enforcement, etc.) exceed the tax revenues they collect from unauthorized immigrant workers.

Coffey, Sarah Beth. Undocumented Immigrants in Georgia: Tax Contribution and Fiscal Concerns. The Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. January 2006.

It is estimated that the total revenue contribution, including state revenues and school property tax, from unauthorized immigrants was $1.58 billion. The total estimated cost of unauthorized immigrants, including education, health care, and incarceration, was $1.16 billion leaving the net benefit to the state at $424 million in fiscal year 2005.

Combs, Susan. Undocumented Immigrants in Texas: A Financial Analysis of the Impact to the State Budget and Economy. Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts. December 2006.

I might be a little elitist, because the Texas Comptroller doesn’t strike me as a credible source, and I don’t know anything about the Georgia policy institute. They might not be as smart as real academics, on the other hand they might be less concerned about being fashionable and more interested in just putting out a good report. Conjecture on my end, I have no idea honestly.

We also have David Autor who brings us more credibility on econtalk. He writes about how the benefits of trade with China might have been overstated in so far as they benefit our entire country. It seems rather that some of our country keeps losing jobs with no replacement. Huh.

Our point here is to show that it’s entirely feasible for communities to suffer due to immigration on purely economic terms. You notice in many of these scenarios they pay in more than they take, but not in such a way that compensates the direct public services they use? Their taxes go to the general economy, and the work they do provides value to the aggregate consumer surplus and shareholders of a firm.

The school the townies take their kids to, and the emergency rooms they rely on, are overcrowded and overused. Their wages are depressed, which we usually measure as a positive thing for the economy in aggregate, but obviously sucks for them. Increased drug and gang violence seeps in, which is largely due to failed drug war policies from the federal government. But manifests itself as drug addicted communities and crowded jails.

And while we are lucky that our Christian culture has heavy overlap with Mexicans, it doesn’t with Muslim immigrants. The Banlieues in Paris is a Muslim ghetto, “The kids in the banlieues live in this perpetual present of weed, girls, gangsters, Islam.” Maybe things would be different in the U.S. with massive immigration. Maybe they wouldn’t. What are the benefits for the lower middle class culturally homogenous Christian communities that are already suffering for meaningful jobs and enjoy their townie values?

I’m trying to help you see the world from their eyes. If you view them as the uneducated proles or unwashed masses you’re not seeing it from their perspective. And if you aren’t willing to empathize with them then you aren’t willing to understand them. You’re giving them the middle finger. Empathizing and understanding the world from the perspective of people you disagree with is incredibly challenging.

Keynes did a pretty good job. Still, it took decades before it became common knowledge that the post-WWI punishments might have created the nazis. I’m sure a few smart guys spotted it in that time, but were probably afraid to say it.

After all, if Trump supporters and Brexit voters are simply evil and uneducated, then it’s hopeless. Because you’re not evil, and you are educated. So when you try to imagine it you just imagine “What if I had an irrational hatred of non-whites” than you think “thank God I don’t, could one imagine being so base?”

The problem is what if it is explained by factors you don’t appreciate? If an old British lady in Elephant and Castle said “I miss the days before these Nigerian immigrants” and you launch into a 5 minute speech on her misunderstanding of the world, I think you’re the one who doesn’t get it, because it’s really simple. In the past she wasn’t scared when everyone shared her culture and were part of her in-group. Now she is scared and hears people who are foreign to her fighting and getting drunk outside her home. This may or may not be true, but it’s how she perceives the world. And when she explains to you her perceptions, you call her a xenophobe.


Imagine the US shares a 4-dimensional hyperplane with intelliglandia. We just discovered this border last year, and it’s a country where the average person has an IQ 3 standard deviations above our own. At first they just visit us for tourism, but over time some of their less educated realize they can live relatively incredible lives in our country. At first they start coming to our best schools, soon our top 30 schools are 70% intellipeople. They then start getting jobs in high-finance and tech.

They then explain, look, there is this thing called the lump-labor fallacy, and we are providing incredible new value to your economy. I understand your generation was aspiring to breaking research, working at top tech firms, and working at hedge funds, but maybe it’s time to reskill and realize these aren’t the best jobs for you. I know your father, and his father before you, worked on computer science research and wrote code for the most elite firms, but there is a great accounts payable job at the QFC headquarters that you’re more suited for. I know it’s going to seem like you’re making 60% less money than your parents. But because society as a whole is so much richer due to the incredible value we add to society you’re actually going to enjoy a better quality of life. You’re welcome.

Most of my friends would be upset. Because for most of us it’s not the money or the cause-to-do-good that drives us. It’s the social praise. It’s being respected and appreciated by our family, our peers, and most of all strangers. The feeling of knowing others admire and respect you for your hard work and intellect is one of the strongest drivers. If you gut that, you gut the person’s drive for accomplishment.

If you want to understand the other side of America, or the UK, the Trump supporters or townies, you need to understand their feelings of social loss. They feel that they have lose not only their respectable work, but their desire for social accomplishment. The reason is complex, with some parts being hard to attribute.

The creative destruction of industry is nearly impossible to predict. Even if this could be delayed by 5 or 10 years, it seems inevitable. Still, it’s a smoking gun of why jobs are lost and not replaced. The next reason is immigration. When immigrants come in and push your wages down, that really sucks. Imagine you are doing research at your university, or coding for Microsoft, or doing analytics for a hedge fund, and a team of intellipeople come in and start doing the same job equal or better. Your boss goes “Look, you do great work here, but we’re going to pay you $70k a year now, down from your $150k, because you’re no longer as valuable.” Or the ambitious paper you submitted to a top journal was rejected because an intellipreson did the same thing but spotted a few biases you missed. Aren’t you happy? This is creative destruction, the economy is growing due to more value being added,

Nothing I wrote proves anything, it scratches the surface. You can believe it’s all false, or at least core parts of it are false, but you should at least understand this is the perception of those who voted leave, or vote for Trump. This is how they see the world. As far as I’m concerned it’s a reasonable way to see it from their perspective, and they deserve to be taken seriously. When you dismiss them as being uneducated, or call them bigots, you’re saying “fuck you.” Why be surprised when they give you the finger back? If you truly are the morally just one, then it might be that these other people do feel the same hot-blooded righteousness and outrage that you feel, it’s just that they are actually the wrong ones. That’s a position you can take if you want.


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