Last time Zuuko came to visit me, he explained why he doesn’t have much to say for the blog anymore. He’s come to realize more and more that the world’s path depends on the specific actions, quirks and foibles of individuals. And what can you say about that? And what can you say about that on an anonymous WordPress blog? And what can you say that won’t get you kicked out of the corridors of power?
Whereas I think individuals, and specifically their character and their foibles don’t matter that much. Of course, a disagreement about this isn’t something new or silly. If you read Tolstoy explaining War and Peace at the end of War and Peace, you can see him struggling with this question in spite of himself. Napoleon he says disproves the Great Man idea, because despite his greatness he wasn’t able to overcome the historical tide. And yet Tsar Alexander proves it, because his temperament and cast of mind was exactly such that he was able to harness the historical tide. I am not alone in not finding this my favourite part of War and Peace. It doesn’t make much sense.
I could be a squish like I usually am on this blog, and say that both structural aspects and the behaviour of individuals is important. And this is surely true, but not very illuminating. Let’s try something else. B. told me about a Philip Tetlock book called “Superforecasting”. You can read Scott Alexander’s review here. And the main finding the book discusses seems to be that good forecasting ability beats insider information. That is, people who Tetlock identified as good forecasters did better than people who knew stuff about the people making decisions. In the end, the information you get in the corridors of power wasn’t worth much. Another thing that is indicative of structural aspects mattering more individual quirks is the work of Peter Turchin, some of which I’ve talked about before. I am really excited to get and read his and Nefedov’s book on secular cycles. I clearly haven’t read it yet, but the idea that civilizations follow specific patterns is not new, and now they are doing the work to bring in data that’s necessary to characterize these patterns. I think people can overestimate the importance of insider information because they’re excited by the fact that they’re getting it. Does it matter? Yes, it does. But it matters less, and in less predictable ways than you might think.