Today’s post is going to be a departure from my normal fare. I was perusing an interesting Twitter thread by this guy: @G_S_Bhogal, aka Gurwinder. He published a series of “laws” that are part aphorism, part cynicism, and part Black Mirror. I wanted to share these laws and discuss a few of them in a Mormon context. Do they reveal anything specific about where the Church is: institutionally, culturally, or factions of the membership?
Abstraction: There are scales of explanation. A human can be considered a person, mammal, collection of cells, collection of stardust. Sometimes the reason people can’t see eye to eye is that they’re unwittingly considering things at different levels of abstraction.
This is something I noted in discussions with people from other faiths that I had on my mission primarily, but also in school. I’ve been thinking of God as an exalted human being for so long that it’s always surprising when I talk to someone who has always seen God as unknowable or without form or of a completely different order than human beings. It’s interesting to have these discussions, but ultimately, I still end up thinking my own assumptions are more compelling and interesting, and they think theirs are, perhaps because we’ve both spent more time thinking these thoughts.
Benford’s Law: Numbers in natural sets of data are not uniformly distributed (e.g. 30% of numbers have 1 as their first digit). Used by the IRS and other tax agencies to determine if you’ve lied about your finances.
I would leave this one to Ziff to find the Mormon thread in it. It’s interesting, but a new idea I don’t know enough about yet.
Bias Against Null Results: Studies that find something surprising are more interesting than studies that don’t, so they’re more likely to be published. This creates the impression the world is more surprising than it actually is. Also applies to news, Twitter.
Too true. Nobody’s publishing research results that aren’t going to get them fame, grant money or tenure after all.
Boltzmann Brain: Your brain is far simpler than the rest of the universe (which includes every other brain), so, rather than the universe emerging from the void, it’s more feasible that your brain emerged from the void, and everything else is just in your head.
Mind blown. Actually, though, this is something that some religious people would find objectionable, instead preferring to see the human mind as the pinnacle of achievement, grander than all else. It’s why many conservative Christians (Evangelicals for example) find evolution so unacceptable. To put humans in a context in which they aren’t necessarily the best thing there is can be faith shaking.
Brandolini’s Law (aka the BS Asymmetry Principle): It takes a lot more energy to refute BS than to produce it. Hence, the world is full of unrefuted BS.
Yes, clearly this feels like the case. We’ve seen this in politics, that exciting lies get more air time than boring truths and can completely alter the political landscape. In religion, it also feels like this is how we get creeds, cultural views incompatible with the gospel, and what we in Mormonism like to call “folklore doctrines.” Misinformation that consists of interesting ideas find an audience and it’s much harder to get rid of them than to accept them.
Bulverism: Instead of assessing what a debate opponent has said on its own merits, we assume they’re wrong and then try to retroactively justify our assumption, usually by appealing to the person’s character or motives. Explains 99% of Twitter debates.
This is definitely something that every missionary experiences. We are sent to preach, not to listen, but the most effective missionaries learn to listen first.
Chesterton’s Fence: If an old law or tradition seems so irrational that you want to scrap it, then you shouldn’t scrap it. The fact it’s survived the ages despite seeming irrational means it must have a purpose. Before acting, understand that purpose. An argument for conservatism.
There is some merit in this within a religious context. Progressives (including me) often tend to view things with a presentee lens, thinking about it without understanding its origin, more heavily weighting it in a contemporary context. Without any continuity, though, entities cease to be recognizable and shed membership, having to start over from scratch. They may lose what made them compelling.
Cumulative Culture: Humanity’s success is due not to our individual IQs but to our culture, which stockpiles our best ideas for posterity so they compound across generations. The ideas we adopt from society are often far older than us, and far wiser.
This reminded me of the scripture in Ecclesiastes that says there’s nothing new under the sun. Many of humanity’s best ideas have been around for a long time and continue to be the same.
The Curse of Knowledge: The more familiar you become with an idea the worse you become at explaining it to others, because you forget what it’s like to not know it, and therefore what needs to be explained to understand it. Makes it hard to write threads like this!
Indeed. I also think it’s another reason that it’s difficult for a religious person to convert a non-religious person. There are so many underlying assumptions for both that this level of change is difficult. Where is the common ground?
Decision Fatigue: The more decisions you make in a day, the worse your decisions get, so rid your life of trivial choices. Steve Jobs, Barack Obama & Mark Zuckerberg have been known to wear only 1 or 2 outfits to work so they don’t have to choose each day.
This has been proven to be true in court cases. You don’t want to be the last case of the day. You want a judge who is fresh, who has recently eaten. What about decisions made at the end of life?
Flow States: You’re in flow when you’re so engrossed in a task that the world vanishes and the work seems to do itself. Flow is automatic, and it makes work much easier than you imagined. All you have to do is overcome the initial hurdle of beginning a task; flow does the rest.
I think we’ve all experienced this.
Futarchy: What if people voted not for political parties, but for metrics that society should seek to maximize (e.g. median household income, average life expectancy) and then betting markets determined the policy that would maximize the metric best?
I think this is a cool idea, but I imagine it would have its own host of issues. Who is crafting the programs to create these outcomes? Do we just trade out the influence of big corporations for the influence of big data?
The Great Temptation: What if we haven’t found aliens because civilizations create mesmerizing amusements (like simulations) before they learn interstellar travel? What if all advanced civilizations eventually lose themselves in virtual worlds, and we’re next?
Well, obviously this is Mark Zuckerberg’s plan.
Hedonic Treadmill: Once we’ve obtained what we desire, our happiness quickly returns to its baseline level, and we begin to desire something else. Whatever happens, good or bad, we get used to it. As such, the most fortunate of us are seldom much happier than the least.
This is totally true. The happiest people are those who feel they are slightly better than their peers around them, and once we get the thing we worked for, we set our sights on something loftier. Perhaps that’s why the “pursuit of happiness” was considered an inalienable right, but not its achievement. All humans are pursuing happiness, and like the lovers on Keats’ Grecian Urn, never achieving it.
The Hinge of History: We may be living at the most influential point in human history. The decisions we face – regarding AI, internet, climate change, gene editing, space travel – will likely affect humanity far into the future. What we do now could echo across the aeons.
While I think every generation feels that they are at the nexus of big changes, although that’s probably just me seeing the world through a presentee lens again. Innovations like the stone tools, the plough, iron, bronze, etc., all lasted multiple centuries with little change, and in my own short lifetime I grew up without a microwave oven or cell phone, and now I carry an entire computer on a tiny device everywhere I go!
Hitchens’ Razor: What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. If you make a claim, it’s up to you to prove it, not to me to disprove it.
Nobody religious is going to like this one.
Hypernovelty: Technology builds on technology, so it’s advancing at an exponential rate. Progress is accelerating. The world is now changing faster than we can adapt to it, leaving us permanently maladjusted. Life is becoming a blur.
I think this one goes with the Hinge of History. We are contemplating things that are more complex and potentially humanity-altering than anything that we have considered before, and that has perhaps always been true. The world becomes more complex. Those living during the industrial revolution thought the same. When the atom bomb was being devised, that generation also felt their world was more complex than their predecessors’, ad infinitum.
Immortality Project: Civilization is an elaborate attempt to distract ourselves from the fact that we’re all going to die. We do this by trying to become symbolic beings rather than physical ones. Hence, the endless search for meaning.
This is similar to when Marx called religion the opiate of the masses. Rather than focusing on our mortal existence, we turn our lives into symbolic roles that hide the fact that we are born alone and we die alone, and we don’t really know what happens when we do. Our lives are all about symbols: family placement and roles, our work roles,
The Law of Very Large Numbers: Given a wide enough dataset, any pattern can be observed. A million to one odds happen 8 times a day in NYC (population 8 million). The world hasn’t become crazier, we’re just seeing more of everything.
That’s why the world was never the same again once we got 24 hour news and a much wider array of content options for television.
Luxury Beliefs: Cultural elites often adopt views that signal status for them but hurt the less fortunate. E.g. Those who claim that concern about Islamism is Islamophobic appear open-minded but in fact dismiss the (usually Muslim) victims of such extremism.
Oh, yes, this is totally a feature of all of our current politics, and also within the Church, big time. We have a very elitist structure in which your experience matters more depending on how high you are in the hierarchy. It’s why we can’t kick polygamy to the curb, just as one example. The people for whom things are working out (those who’ve climbed the ladder to power) are the ones creating the experience. Nobody gives a crap about singles, the divorced, LGBT members, and to a degree they care less about those without pioneer ancestry, BIPOC, etc. because if it’s not working for them, they are the ones who are broken, not the system. How could the system be broken when it works for those in power over the system? (A self-reinforcing system to the core).
Mediocracy: Democracy works not because it picks the best leaders, but because it picks the most average leaders. The purpose of democracy is not so much progress as preservation.
Huh, I’m not sure what to make of this one. On the one hand, yes, I think that average leaders seem to happen, but on the other hand, once a person has power they no longer believe they are average. Politically this sounds like the idea that you can only vote for someone you can imagine drinking a beer with, something that hurt Mitt Romney because robots and Mormons don’t drink beer.
Messiah Effect (Gurwinder’s term): most people don’t believe in ideals, but in people who believe in ideals. Hence why successful religions tend to have human prophets or messiahs, and why when a demagogue changes his beliefs, the beliefs of his followers often change accordingly.
Well this was certainly the case under Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, depending on how you look at it, and other leaders who were firebrands also had this kind of following (Joseph F. Smith, Bruce R. McConkie). But then, as counterevidence, when the succession crisis happened, it was by no means a foregone conclusion that Brigham Young would replace Joseph, and he only garnered 40% of the Saints as followers. People didn’t necessarily have a unilateral set of Joseph-created beliefs, partly because he had many faces, and not everyone was inaugurated into his secret polygamous teachings. Politically, though, I think this observation is somewhat true and explains demagoguery. Most human leaders are self-serving corrupt jackasses and can’t hold a candle to the persona we see in Jesus. He’s striking a balance between masculine and feminine, brash and meek, teacher and caretaker, that actual living human beings can’t really maintain.
Mimetic Desire: We learn much of our behavior by copying others. In societies, we often don’t know what to desire, so we begin to desire what others desire. This leads to simulated pursuits and simulated conflicts over simulated desiderata.
Fair point. This is akin to the idea of strange bedfellows, too. We mimic those we align with on a specific issue until our mimicry extends to more generalized copying. This is why it’s now getting harder and harder to distinguish Evangelicals and Mormons.
Network Effect: The more people using a network, the more useful it becomes. A phone gains utility as more people use phones because more people can be called with it. It’s why Twitter & Facebook are so dominant; we’re stuck on these platforms because everyone else is.
And concurrently, the platform itself may not be the best. A smaller one could have better functionality, content, and principles, yet not be as valuable simply because not enough people are there. Is the Mormon Church better than the Community of Christ? In that it’s bigger and has more resources, yes, but in many other ways, no. Being bigger with more people also probably contributes to (reduces) the potential quality of the platform in lowering the median level of user as the size increases when compared to a more curated group of people.
Network States: Due to the web, place of birth no longer determines your community. Future nations may consist not of people who were born near each other, but of online subcultures using collective bargaining to crowdsource micronations of like-minded people.
This has become a serious problem for the Church, and was probably inevitable when the internet became a thing. The Church is built, probably wisely, on a geographical model. It takes an act of Congress (or open rebellion) to get your records moved to an area that you aren’t assigned to based on your residential address, but those boundaries are meaningless when it comes to online spaces. Like-minded members can connect in broader geographical areas, as wide as the internet, and this will only exacerbate dissatisfaction with one’s geographical assignment. A common refrain in online spaces where Church members gather is that Church would be great if my ward were like this (self-selected, like-minded) online group, but it’s nothing like that in reality.
Operation Mindfork**: A conspiracy theory that can protect you from conspiracy theories. The Operation is being conducted by persons unknown, and is a plot to make you believe lies. Whenever you receive information, ask yourself, is this part of Operation Mindfork?
I mean, sure. Be skeptical of every conspiracy theory, including this one. Doubt your doubts. No wait, DON’T doubt your doubts. Exactly.
Paradox of Abundance: Easy availability of food led to obesity for the masses but good health for the few who used the increased choice to avoid the mass-produced junk. Equally, you can avoid intellectual diabetes by ignoring junk info like gossip & clickbait.
It says something about our information rich society that the Kardashians are a thing, but I was also amazed at how quickly I could find semi-obscure scholarship about the queer themes in Hamlet or what year toothpaste was invented. Our lives are only richer if we choose to enrich ourselves.
Parkinson’s Law: Work expands to fill the time allotted for it. No matter the size of the task, it will often take precisely the amount of time you set aside to do it, because more time means more deliberation & procrastination.
Ahem, Church meetings.
p-hacking: “If you torture the data for long enough, it’ll confess to anything.” Academics get around the Bias Against Null Results by performing many statistical tests on data until a significant result is found then recording only this. p-hacking is largely why we have a Replication Crisis (see below).
LOL, and so true. We can make a study say what we want it to say if we are sufficiently committed to getting the outcome we want. It’s one reason we change which statistics we look at to see if the Church is successful and growing.
Planck’s Principle: “Science progresses one funeral at a time.” Scientists, being human, don’t easily change their views, so science advances not when scientists win or lose arguments, but when they die so that younger scientists with more refined views can take their place.
This is partly the upside of our gerontocracy, that we’re always just a short time frame away from a leader change in the biggest of the big red chairs. The downside is that given the average age, we are still usually 50 years or more behind contemporary understanding of issues. We live in the past. The past is our inescapable baseline.
Purposeful Stupidity: Common argument against regulation. In 1944, the OSS (now known as the CIA) published a field manual laying out strategies to subtly sabotage a society (company or industry) from within, by destroying its productivity. The tactics described are eerily similar to what passes for normality today.
Insist on doing everything through “channels.” Never permit shortcuts to be taken in order to expedite decisions. Sounds like how we get feedback to the top, or rather how the top blocks it.
Make “speeches.” Talk as frequently as possible and at great length. Illustrate your “points” by long anecdotes and accounts of personal experiences. Hello, General Conference.
When possible, refer all matters to committees, for “further study and consideration.” Attempt to make the committee as large as possible–never less than five. This is full on our approach, big committees for everything, and then add one woman so we can pretend we value the input of women, so long as they don’t talk too much.
Bring up irrelevant issues as frequently as possible. It feels to me that the insertion of culture wars stuff into our Church rhetoric is an example of this. Jesus wasn’t a Republican (or a Democrat).
Haggle over precise wordings of communications, minutes, resolutions. And yet, for all the haggling, there sure are a lot of gaffes. Many Church communications feel like tortured committee drafts designed to please no one.
Refer back to matters decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to re-open the question of the advisability of that decision. I have no Church-related insight into this one, but it reminds me of Collin Robinson from What We Do in the Shadows on Hulu (he plays an “energy vampire” who sucks the energy out of people, so of course, he works in a cubicle).
Advocate “caution.” Be “reasonable” and urge your fellow-conferees to be “reasonable” and avoid haste which might result in embarrassments or difficulties later on. This seems a real feature of a conservative organization like today’s church.
Replication Crisis: A large proportion of scientific findings have been found to be impossible to replicate, with successive tests often yielding wildly different results. Too many studies are bunk to take any of them at face value.
The only example of this that I can think of that is Church-related is the skepticism about psychology, some of which is possibly warranted, but as previously pointed out that studies are twisted to prove what the researcher wants to prove, making them impossible to replicate, we’ve historically relied on very dubious claims about being able to change sexuality and junk science showing that viewing porn leads to addiction. We tend to be gullible when studies make the points we hope they will make.
Scope Neglect: We evolved for the small scale of tribal life, so we can’t comprehend the big numbers that recently entered human life. We can appreciate the difference between 50 and 100, but not a million and a billion. It’s why we often treat geopolitics like family politics.
And perhaps why, despite David O. McKay’s vision for a truly global Church we still don’t seem to be much closer to a real global perspective today than we were then.
Scout Mindset: We tend to approach discourse with a “soldier mindset”; an intention to defend our own beliefs and defeat opponents’. A more useful approach is to adopt a “scout mindset”; an intention to explore and gather information.
The Church seems to want soldiers with muskets, not innovative scouts, but since we overweight leaders’ views, that’s not a surprise.
Semmelweis Reflex: People tend to reject evidence that doesn’t fit the established worldview. Named for Ignaz Semmelweis, a surgeon who, before the discovery of germs, claimed washing hands could help prevent patient infections. He was ridiculed and locked away in a mental asylum.
Again, this relates to the idea that questioning our assumptions is fundamental to improving our understanding. Currently this seems to be the opposite of our focus (which is claiming that we don’t change).
Simulation Hypothesis: Assuming computing power reaches the point that consciousness can be simulated en masse, the scenarios in which you are such a simulation vastly outnumber the scenarios in which you are real. Ergo, you are likely a simulation.
Hey man, I’m just trying to figure out the articles on AI. Give me a minute to catch up.
Status Quo Bias: Those who were unfazed by Covid because it had a ~1% fatality rate were suddenly concerned about vaccines when they yielded a 1 in a ~million fatality rate. People see the risks of doing something but not the risks of doing nothing.
Excellent example, and one with many examples in the Church. It’s always easier to delay change than to do something new that might backfire, but I’m sure it feels like an even greater risk to the elderly.
The Toxoplasma of Rage: The ideas that spread most are not those everyone agrees with, but those that divide people most, because people see them as causes to attack or defend in order to signal their commitment to a tribe.
A thousand times yes. It’s one reason more people voted in 2020 than ever before: because Trump was such a polarizing candidate, either adored or reviled. Both the haters and the worshippers came out in full force to fight or support him. However, when we as a Church focus on divisive ideas within the Church such as anti-LGBT policies, we end up driving people out and entrenching bigots in the pews. That’s a super bad strategy if we want to provide a spiritual community and ultimately salvation to as many people as possible.
Tragedy of the Commons: The Rapa Nui people of Easter Island felled trees for wood until there were not enough trees to provide food, causing mass starvation. Everyone acting in their own interests can create outcomes against everyone’s interests. Common argument for regulation.
Welcome to the US of A, where individual freedoms always outweigh the public good.
The Veil of Ignorance: Create a constitution for a country as though you could wake up tomorrow in the body of any citizen, of any race, religion, or gender, and be forced to live as them in the society you’ve created. A central idea behind liberalism.
I don’t think I could do this, and I also don’t think I could design what a good church would be like. It’s easier to tinker within the confines of an existing structure than to start from scratch. That’s probably why I never got very far in the games Civilizations and Sim City. You’re always going to forget something super important like plumbing or education.
- Are there any of these that you find particularly intriguing?
- Which of these immediately strike you as relevant to modern-day Mormonism?
- Are there some of these you disagree with?
 I have already blogged about this concept at Wheat & Tares: https://wheatandtares.org/2018/01/31/are-you-a-soldier-or-a-scout/.
**h/t The Good Place. Why can’t I say fork? Fork! What the fork’s going on?