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Dear Max, it was wonderful to meet you last week. It bears repeating that I felt as though talking for the first time to a hidden collaborator.

I think that the center of the conversation was uncorrelated thinking: something in the possession of those thinkers that do interesting things that surprise us, or that combine fields and ideas that we didn’t think possible. People and organizations like this are a rocket under society, but they are both misunderstood and rare.

As we agreed, the size of fields and the necessary groundwork in order to achieve proficiency makes it harder to hop between them: this is not to down play, meanwhile, the enmity between fields, let alone sides.

This is partly why I’m so interested in your project at Wonk Bridge: you seem to be building an organization that itself has renaissance person properties. Here are some spirits of the staircase. I hope that you perceive, as I do, the extent to which these things are threads in the same rope.

Eric Weinstein on Uncorrelated Thinkers

If you haven’t explored Eric Weinstein, I suggest you do. One of his most valuable contributions is the idea of an uncorrelated thinker. Take a given field (say linguistics) or political group (say the Right) or even society as a whole, and track its average opinion on something. The perspective of correlated thinkers either tracks neatly with opinion in their group, or is its inverse (they generate their opinion by putting a minus sign in front of what Trump says, for example).

Weinstein claims that you can probably ignore most of what people like this say, because they’re not showing much evidence of a novel thought or perspective, or of actually interrogating an issue. Obviously, the set of all uncorrelated thinkers contains quacks and loons: this is arguably a risk worth taking, given the huge innovative potential of people who do their own thinking. Meanwhile, there’s nothing stopping a genius from being a quack, take Isaac Newton.

People like this aren’t afraid to jump fields (see Benoir Mandelbrot, who discovered fractals and applied the concept to financial markets, geography, fluid dynamics, etc.) and are happy to be called rude words for decades and just do the right thing (see Linus Torvalds, creator of Linux). They are also good at crossing boundaries and crossing between fields: as their prejudices are not correlated with that of their peers, they’re better able to make these jumps.

Bret Weinstein

The younger Weinstein recently founded the Unity movement. I recommend that you read about it at length, but the short description is: 1. The main political parties have failed us, and are blocking innovative, uncorrelated people from making change for the good; 2. We, the people, ought to select candidates without the corruption associated with political machines; 3. They launched the Unity2020 presidential plan, wherein they proposed to draft one candidate from the Left and one from the Right who would, if elected, govern collaboratively.

I can attest that this conversation, uniting those on the Right and on the Left that want to foster collaborative conversation between opposite sides of the isle, is phenomenal. Here’s one of their regular “campfire” discussions if you’re interested to see it in action:

I wrote a piece backing the plan, essentially responding to the criticism that the Unity 2020 ticket couldn’t possibly win: this is an understandable response, given that a win is unlikely. The first converse is that you make the big bucks by betting on things that seem unlikely. The second is the fact that system-level change like this is improbable but inevitable​.

Game B

We spoke briefly about Daniel Schmachtenberger and Game B. The thesis of Game B, with which I think you are familiar, is that many of our current systems, institutions and norms are flawed, in terms of game theory, and incentivize bad behaviour. Schmachtenberger is working on a project, described in the video below, which aims to create a sensemaking platform: one that allows people to access information, context, analysis, to compare notes, while avoiding the extent to which regular news and social media reliably push people back into tribal and closed-minded thinking.

One of the things that is so attractive about Wonk Bridge, and how you are fostering understanding between journalists and technologists, is that this level of understanding should protect against some of the hatchet jobs and clickbait that are actually incentivized by the current operation of journalism: it’s hard for quality reporting to compete against clickbait, especially in that rational people might still check out the clickbait piece on a goof.

You can tell when incentives are misaligned, and the game theory askew, when good people apologize: the two tabloid journalists that I’ve conversed with extensively both immediately apologized for where they work, saying that it was the only real way to get a start.

The Robustness Principle

Here’s my article on Postel’s law. Where Wonk Bridge is facilitating interoperability between journalism and tech, Bret Weinstein between and Daniel Schmachtenberger between Left and Right (in different ways), Eric Weinstein between fields, Postel provides for a sort of low-level interoperability that we can apply universally. In my piece I extended his law thus:

  1. When speaking: be clear.
  2. When listening: be charitable
  3. When speaking: try not to cause offense.
  4. When listening: don’t take offense.
  5. When good-faith errors occur: be charitable.
  6. When bad-faith errors occur: treat them like good-faith errors.

The scary converse of this is that interoperability breaking, to lean on Schmachtenberger again, is very bad for the whole, but can be good for certain individuals and groups. If you give someone a mental framework that can’t engage with of other people’s, they have to keep coming back to you because they can’t get information or ideas from anyone else. The game is way out of whack, and, to build our way out of this, we must be totally dogged and even a little boring: this is a time for Linus Torvalds (open, for its own sake) and not Bill Gates (closed, for profit).

With that said, I look forward to our next conversation, and I know for sure that it will be soon!

1 thought on “To Max, Re Uncorrelated Thinking”

  1. Joel Pearce says:

    “1. The main political parties have failed us, and are blocking innovative, uncorrelated people from making change for the good; 2. We, the people, ought to select candidates without the corruption associated with political machines; 3. They launched the Unity2020 presidential plan, wherein they proposed to draft one candidate from the Left and one from the Right who would, if elected, govern collaboratively.”

    There’s a couple of things to pick apart here.

    Firstly, the issue partisanship is wildly overhyped. It’s true that some challengers to the neo-liberal orthodoxy have emerged from both the left and right over the past decade – although, as was the case with Trump, we find that in office the rhetoric mutates into another iteration of the Reagan-Thatcher policy platform of tax cuts, de-regulation, and interventionist military conflicts – but the fundamental fact remains that every single US president (barring Trump) and UK prime minster (no exceptions aside) has espoused some variant of “centrism” since 1980 and 1979, respectively.

    Thatcher and Reagan (well, their financial backers, neo-lib think tanks, and a whole glut of self-interested actors) dealt a decisive blow the post-war consensuses of both the UK and the US. On the right traditional conservativism was replaced by free-market liberalism. On the left something even more gruesome happened – the unions that sustained genuinely working-class politics were gutted and (when they resisted) crushed, Labour and the Democrats careened rightwards, and a new socially & economically liberal wet centre-left “third way” became the default opposition.

    Even Thatcher was deemed too radical for her views on Europe and was summarily deposed by her party in favour of the eminently wet and centrist John Major. In 1997, he was replaced by Daddy Centrism himself, Tony Blair, who campaigned on a “left-wing” platform of…not raising income tax and cutting welfare (one of New Labour’s first acts in office was cutting child benefit for single mothers). Blair was replaced by his stunt double, Brown, who was then replaced by the liberal conservative centrist David Cameron. He was replaced by his ideological acolyte, May, who was then replaced by…the liberal conservative “Al” Johnson. The US follows a similar trajectory with the exception of Trump who, rhetoric aside, governed as a fairly standard centre-right Republican.

    In others words, we’ve spent our entire lives under the aegis of centrist governments. We have never experienced a legitimately socially conservative or socially democratic (let alone socialist) administration in our lifetimes. And yet, by your own admission, the “main political parties have failed us”. Yep. Neo-liberalism – the best descriptor of the new political consensus – was failed.

    Is the answer to this…a different, kinder type of centrism? Because that’s what Unity seems to be offering me. What does this new centrism have to say about the housing crisis, climate change, social care, or the gut-churning demographic changes that will see the US and the UK turned into glorified retirement homes in the next 10 to 20 years? I just don’t think more centrism – after 30 years of utterly uninspiring and failed variants of it – is the answer.

    The irony of your whole post is the claim that “we…ought to select candidates without the corruption associated with political machines”. You might recall that an unknown backbencher – utterly loathed by party HQ and all of the organisation’s financial backers – ran a grassroots campaign for the Labour leadership in 2015 and won. Him and his team had a lot of innovative ideas (look up the 2017 manifesto, which is brimming with energy and idealism). And more importantly – Labour under his aegis was almost entirely self-funded. There are around 150 billionaires in the UK, and 50 of them make private donations to the Conservative Party. Russian and Chinese oligarchs have been photographed at private dinners with Theresa May and Boris Johnson, and the latter reportedly sells an hour in his company with £60,000 a pop (an offer often taken up by said oligarchs). In 2019 the average donation to the Conservative Party was about £1,000,000. The average to Labour £5. We had the perfect opportunity to change the way politics was conducted in this country – to throw out all the dirty money and inject some actual ideas into governmental circulation – but people like you, the Weinsteins, and every other centrist out there parroted nonsense about “muh IRA” and companied that a policy platform mild by the standards of the post-war consensus was intolerably left-wing.

    Well, now we’ve got “Al” Johnson and the Conservatives asset-stripping the state with dodgy contracts to shell companies operated by personal friends of the prime minster and his senior advisers. So, yeh, all this talk about “unity” and “centrism” just doesn’t sit very well with someone who was part of a movement that tried to push the needle a inch towards something resembling a meaningful political discourse only to be blown out by endless coverage of Jeremy Corbyn not wearing a proper suit and a totally made-up scandal about “muh anti-semitism”.

    For what it’s worth I understand the Bernie Sanders’ campaign was a parallel case (i.e. all about getting the dirty money out of politics). Well, now we’ve got Joe Biden, Keir Starmer, and another decade(?) of vacillating corporate centrism. Yay.

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