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Culture War Roundup for the week of January 15, 2024

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What is administrative burden in research for?

I think about this in a variety of domains, but it came up again when one of my tech news aggregators pointed to this paper. The idea is using LLMs to generate and evaluate protocols for biology experiments. I think the obvious key concern is related to well-known tradeoffs that people have been brought up in other contexts. Sometimes, it gets reduced to, "Well, people were concerned that with automated spell-checkers, then people will forget how to spell, but that's a silly problem, because even if they forget how to spell, their output that is augmented by the spell-checker will be plenty productive."

I wonder if there are limits to this reasoning. I'm thinking of two topics that I recall Matt Levine writing about (I can't find links at the moment; since Money Stuff always has multiple topics in each letter and he's written about similar topics that use similar words a bunch of times, I can't quickly find them).

One topic I recall is him talking about 'defensive' board meetings. The way I recall it is to suppose that a company puts in their public disclosures that they "consider cybersecurity risks". This doesn't necessarily mean that they do anything about cybersecurity risks, but they have to consider them. The way this plays out is that the board has to put an agenda item for one of their meetings to talk about cybersecurity risks. For an hour or whatever, the board has to talk about the general topic of cybersecurity. This talking can be at a high level of generality, and they don't have to really decide to do anything specific, so long as they have the official minutes that say, in writing, that they "considered" it. Without this, they might be liable for securities fraud. With it, they still might be extremely vulnerable and eventually lose a bunch of money when they're exploited (since they just talked and didn't do anything), but at least when that happens, they won't also get hit with a shareholder suit for securities fraud. (Really, Matt Levine would say, they'll absolutely get hit with a shareholder suit for securities fraud, but they'll be able to point to the minutes to defend themselves.)

The second topic I recall is him talking about where the value lies in corporate contract negotiation. He said that most times, you just start from the "typical" contract. Maybe something you've used in the past. You just pull that old contract off the shelf, change some particulars, then put it forward as a starting point. Then, the negotiations are often about just little modifications, and the phrase, "That's standard," is a pretty solid weapon against any modifications. He then talked about how a firm that does these negotiations in bulk as a service can start to sneak new provisions in around the edges in some contracts, so that they can later point to those prior contracts and say, "That's standard." Having the ability to set the "default" can have value.

So, biology. Science. Writing protocols is complicated, annoying, and time-intensive. Scott has written before about how infuriating the IRB process can be. Even with just that, there were questions about what the IRB process is for, and whether the current level of scrutiny is too lax, too strict, or about right.

Applying LLMs will potentially greatly decrease the barrier for newer researchers (say, grad students) to be able to generate piles of administrative style paperwork, saying all the proper words about what is "supposed" to be done, checking off every box that the IRB or whatever would ask for. But I do have to wonder... will it lead to short-cutting? "Sure, the LLM told us that we needed to have these thirty pages of boilerplate text, so we submitted these thirty pages of boilerplate text, but I mean, who actually does all of that stuff?!" Do they even take the time to read the entirety of the document? I can't imagine they're going to pay as close attention as they might have if they had to painstakingly go through the process of figuring out what the requirements were and why they were necessary (or coming to the personal conclusion that it was a dumb requirement that was necessary for the sake of being necessary). At least if they went through the process, they have to think about it and consider what it was that they were planning to do. This could lead to even worse situations than a board "considering" cybersecurity; they don't even need meeting notes to demonstrate that they "considered" the details of the protocol appropriately; the protocol itself is the written document that they theoretically took things into consideration in an assumed-to-be serious way.

This could also entrench silly requirements. You need to provide the subjects with pencils instead of pens? "That's standard." Who is going to be able to do the yeoman's job of subtly shifting the default to something that's, I don't know, not stupid?

I imagine all sorts of dispositions by particular researchers. There are obviously current researchers who just don't give a damn about doing things the right way, even to the point of outright fraud. There are obviously current researchers who really do care about doing things the "right way", to the point of being so frustrated with how convoluted the "right way" can be that they just give up on the whole she-bang (a la Scott). Which factors become more common? What becomes the prevalent way of doing things, and what are the likely widespread failure modes? Mostly, I worry that it could make things worse in both directions: needing large piles of paper to check off every box will lead to both short-cutting by inferior researchers, possibly producing even more shit-tier research (if that problem wasn't bad enough already; also, since they have the official documents, maybe it'll be in a form that is even harder to discover and criticize) and warding off honest, intelligent would-be researchers like Scott.

I don't know. Lowering the barrier can obviously also have positive effects of helping new researchers just 'magically' get a protocol that actually does make sense, and they can get on with producing units of science when they otherwise would have been stuck with a shit-tier protocol... but will we have enough of that to overcome these other effects?

Why is the scientific world always conspiring to turn into Warhammer 40k's Mechanicus? Keepers of all powerful artefacts that nobody has any idea how to fix anymore because everyone was too busy working the bleeding edge of minutia to write most of the basic stuff down.

I need to flesh this out at some point but it's bothered me for a while that so much of the ressources of science are seemingly only dedicated to new and revolutionary insight and barely anything at all is spent on making sure what we're discovering fits all together in a way that's humanely comprehensible or even has any degree of truth that can be verified.

But yeah let's just start forgetting how to even discover stuff and outsource that to machines, what could possibly go wrong.

We're living in a meme and it's not even a good one.

Why is the scientific world always conspiring to turn into Warhammer 40k's Mechanicus? Keepers of all powerful artefacts that nobody has any idea how to fix anymore because everyone was too busy working the bleeding edge of minutia to write most of the basic stuff down.

Because 40K was originally written as satire and in order to fulfill their roll well a satirists must have a far deeper and more complete understanding of humanity than any "social scientist".

A core conceit of the liberal academic mindset is that basic competence doesn't matter. That it's somehow beneath them. And I think that's gonna bite them in the ass and I think the satirists at GW either noticed the same trends or could extrapolate from the exaggerated stereotype/strawman

and I think the satirists at GW either noticed the same trends or could extrapolate from the exaggerated stereotype/strawman

Well whether it was satire originally is up for debate actually! It was medieval society in space. In other words the Adeptus Mechanicus is what you get if Catholic monks takes over future science. They are very competent at getting things to work, but they make everything into doctrine, have heretics and schisms (but see Flanderization below).

Rick Priestley was a Classics and Ancient History graduate and states that 40K is what happens if a medieval society was a spacefaring one.

"Possibly the biggest influence is history rather than fiction though - actual religious practices and beliefs. I downplayed that aspect of it all when I was at GW, because you wouldn't want to be seen to make-light of people religious belief"

"But I have in the past pointed out the parallels between Christian mythology and the 40K background - with The Emperor as the 'sacrifical god' whose suffering redeems mankind (some other religions have this idea of the 'sacrificial god or king' - there is a lot of this in Frazer's Golden Bough, of course, and also in The White Goddess by Robert Graves should you be interested in such things). The concept of sacrifice within religion is very common - and it has a lot of resonance within Christianity - and the Emperor in 40K has taken on the Christ-like role - with the dual identity as 'dead' and 'eternal god' (though impossible to know that of course - but people have faith and faith alone is enough to sustain the universe) and with Horus cast into the roll of Satan. The original description of the Horus Heresy (Chapter Approved I think) is actually a fairly obvious rewrite of the war in heaven and casting out of the fallen angels - with Space Marines as 'angels' a theme which persists even to this day, I believe."

"that the mystical, pseudo-religious stuff just overwhelmed what science I actualy put into the original game."

" I don't think it was anything specific. It goes back to stuff like Edgar Rice Burroughs (Barsoom) and was a common theme on TV with things like the first Star Trek and Dr Who - where you had a kind of technician/wizard ruling class - Eloi and Morlocks even with HG Wells - so I think treating technical or scientific knowledge in that revered, practically religious, way wasn't such a leap really."

"Well - I coined the phrase in - I think - the Book of the Astronomican in terms of The Horus Heresy - although it's possible we'd described things as heretical before that. It's just part of the pseudo-religious nature of the background - I don't think the word has a different meaning in 40K than the real world - it just suggests sectarian disputation and the sort of controversies that created the Great Schism, the Albigensian Heresy, and endless similar nonsense in the real world. I don't think that contemporaries of the 'Horus Heresy' would have called it that - it's a retrospective name - but of course GW couldn't cope with that kind of concept - they portray a consistent mind-set across ten thousand years of history... which of course is another nonsense 🙂"

"BIFFORD: Is the Imperium of Man supposed to be an indictment of religion?

PRIESTLEY: That wasn't the intent! It's a dystopian future in which people believe crazy stuff because not to do so would would bring society (and humanity) tumbling abut its ears - so the various institutions of the Imperium are massively invested in things that may or may not be true... I just gave those things a pseudo-religious context because it's an obvious parallel with religious schisms during the European Reformation."

BIFFORD: Oh? What "crazy beliefs" are you referring to exactly? And how are they essentially to society's survival?

PRIESTLEY: That the Emperor is a 'god' that he is capable of expressing his will in some material fashion - that the institutions of the Imperium are divinely directed - that they are working to the same end - and (this has tended to vanish over the years) that ancient technologies are activated or controlled by magic or inhabited by spirits, that ritual tasks have magical power... for example... I once wrote a piece that we didn't use in which a subterranean worker in the Emperor's palace had the job of replacing all the light bulbs as they stopped working - but over the years the supply of light bulbs ran out - but the job still existed and was inherited generation to generation - but it had evolved into painting all the dud bulbs white so they looked like they might work - it had become a ritual, extending over centuries, that had accumulated shamanic significance within the underworld of the palace - but was ultimately... nonsense! Within that society our bulb painter has a role and respect, and the society has cohesion - albeit a bit crazy."

"At a time when most people didn’t go to college we were all graduates – Phil Gallagher studied Russian at Cambridge – and both me and Graeme (and Nigel Stillman for that matter) had studied archaeology so we brought a lot of broad cultural and historical references into our worlds."

Rick Priestley reworked Rogue Trader which was an idea he had before because it was part of the deal for him working on other things. Neither he nor Brian Ansell were aiming for a satire at that point. He specifically points out he wasn't trying to make light of people's beliefs.

The reason it has become a satire is because it was then developed by people later who would only see such a "backwards" future as anything else but a satire of religious zealots and fascism. But Priestley did not envisage it as such. And indeed he can't bring himself to play or interact with 40K nowadays because it has drifted so far from his original vision. In his version, aliens worked alongside mankind and it was much less xenophobic and much less grim dark. Indeed the original creators were almost all parts of the liberal academia you talk about, and were proud of it. A lot of the satire there is was inherited due to the fact the Priestly was told he had to put in rules so that 2000AD, Rogue Trooper and Nemesis the Warlock minis/ideas (GW properties at the time) could be used. The Adeptus Mechanicus was very competent in its initial state, it has been (as the whole setting has been) Flanderized over the years.

I think it is pretty clear though from its history, the one thing it is not is a satire of academia. It was reworked to be a satire of religion and fascism. Though how satirical is is has waxed and waned over the decades. Priestley's initial intention was basically just what if you put Medieval Europe into space. How would that look? What if Benedictine monks were the scientists? What if knightly orders were angelic super-soldiers. What if God was rebelled against by his creations in such a place? What if there were also Space elves and dwarves and orks? And also Judge Dredd? and the Inquisition? What if I took almost every Christian medieval trope and just "bunged it in" (his own words). Look at his words above, and his other interviews.

Priestley et al were historical academic wargaming nerds and probably did not write 40K as a satire as such, but it inherited some satire from 2000AD and was then interpreted as such entirely by following writers as GW became a big business. Priestley's initial conception of the Imperium is much closer to a homage than a satire. And Ansell's initial conception of the Chaos Gods was much more nuanced than them being evil. It was quite possible to a good heroic Chaos worshipper, with all of them representing both the negative and positive emotions within humanities collective unconscious.

The original 40K - Rogue Trader universe was not much of a satire at all, it was Priestley (primarily) homaging his passionate interests (history, wargaming/war, roleplaying, science fiction etc.) into one big dystopian, but nuanced world. Now of course I am not sure 40K even understands the word nuance. But there we go.

Birmingham is known as the Black Planet because it receives almost no visible light from its system's sun. As a result, the world receives few visitors from the wider Imperium, and its inhabitants have become linguistically and culturally isolated. Its technology is primitive and pre-industrial compared to the rest of the Imperium. For instance, the favoured weapon among the natives is still the black powder musket.

You know what, I agree that 40k isn't satire, just history with the serial numbers filed off.

Ahh now Birmingham isn't that bad. Stoke-on-Trent on the other hand..

It doesn't even merit a wiki entry in 40k, so I can only imagine the abyssal horrors that dwell there.

Well the joke is, when they filmed a zombie apocalypse movie in Stoke-on-Trent, they didn't need to make any changes to either the area or the citizens.

But honestly it's not that bad. Pretty similar to most kind of hollowed out ex- manufacturing towns. But with oatcakes and people calling you "duck".

I was not aware of any of this having only gotten into Warhammer in the early-mid 2000s. TIL

Then you are one of todays (or yesterdays) 10,000! To be fair, GW changed pretty quickly in 90 or 91, with much of the original personnel being sidelined or leaving entirely. And they definitely do now officially themselves say the Imperium is to be seen satirically.

Brian Ansell

Apparently he just died December 30th.

I saw! I met him a time or two back in the day (Priestley more so). The nerdy wargaming scene in the Midlands back in the 80's was...pretty small. I recall he was a nice guy, though very intense.