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Eric Weinstein's Error

5 min

Eric Weinstein has released his highly self-aggrandized anticipated research paper on geometric unity.

I read the paper. I gave it a solid hour or two. I did read the whole thing.

The paper is not really a research paper, it's a collection of briefly formalized mathematical intuitions combined with some comments about how these intuitions could possibly be turned into a significant finding, plus a number of paranoid intuitions about why and how this significant finding is thwarted by various political forces.

I'm not sure we've seen this kind of megalomania since Nietzsche. To be clear, I would say that's a compliment, given that Nietzsche was the absolute chad of late-19th century Europe. What happens to this kind of intellectual temperament in the 21st century is, of course, a different question.

I was mostly interested in this paper as an example of what a sophisticated outsider intellectual could do, after having gained a large social-media audience. For a couple years now, I've been listening to Eric's story about his suppressed theory, which, he has claimed, overturns all of modern economic theory, transcends Satoshi Nakamoto's conception of the blockchain, and more.

If I have any horse in this race, my bias is in favor of Eric dropping a world-historical research paper and totally dunking on the institutions from his outsider social-media perch. If anyone is capable of doing it, at this very moment, it would be him—and it would vindicate and flatter a lot of my recent theorizing. I would love to see it.

This paper and its whole self-flattering build up, unfortunately, reveal the author to be tremendously out of touch with both institutional legitimacy dynamics and indie legitimacy dynamics.

The paper certainly demonstrates that Eric knows advanced math, and has some creative ideas. But this simple fact is already priced into his stock as a public intellectual, and it means virtually nothing inside of institutions... given the basic nature of institutions.

What you have to understand about mathematics and mathematical physics is that lots of people in these fields can generate highly impressive numerical edifices making all kinds of claims about possible applications to other fields. Search around and you can find a ton of physics-based theories of the economy, most of which do not win Nobel prizes and do not overthrow the economics profession. But those authors don't feel like persecuted victims, perhaps because they are not megalomaniacs or perhaps because they lack large internet audiences. They understand that, ultimately, super-advanced math is a language game (not unlike woke theory, actually, except that woke theory is the econo-physics of verbal-IQ elites).

Advanced mathematics can occasionally find vindication by experiment, or inspire creative application in the world, or gain some public awareness for highly stochastic reasons, but to imagine that advanced mathematical sophistication combined with some creativity entitles one to any amount of institutional recognition is to woefully misunderstand the epistemology of scientific method (rooted in experiment), the nature of institutions, and the sociology of intellectual history. What gets power and credit in academic philosophy, for instance, is largely a function of who your teacher was (see Randall Collins' The Sociology of Philosophies). Most super-mathy academics understand that, while worth doing in the pursuit of truth, especially if it can get you an academic job, super-advanced math is very often strictly useless. Most artists will agree about their own work, find it worthwhile anyway, and never complain. Eric seems genuinely not to understand this.

Science is deeply rooted in experiment, whether one likes it or not. In the paper, Eric mentions that not all mathematics need be demonstrated by experiment. That is correct, but note that the academic variants of woke theory also make the same point in favor of themselves. The problem is that, as a matter of historical reality, scientific method is the one and only high-status validation and legitimation method recognized in modern culture. You can cite any number of theorists who have shown or theorized something like this—from Weber, to Heidegger, Adorno, Foucault, many others, most of the twentieth-century continental tradition revolves around this massive fact.

Scientific experiment is the only way an intellectual can claim to be more correct than others, in the public sphere, with inter-subjectively recognizable criteria to calibrate judgment. If your field doesn't lend itself to experiment, that's fine, some work can be described as better or worse than other work, but you can never claim some objective or inter-subjective superiority that would ever avail itself of universal recognition—in the way that you can with experimentally validated and engineering-generative insights.

The supreme irony here is that what's called postmodernism is the academic field where this basic problem has been most fully specified and ethically questioned. They are the ones who have been saying for years that modern culture over-weights that which can be validated by experiment, denying legitimacy to important truths that happen to not lend themselves to that particular mode of veridiction. This critique of science indeed plays some role in the unleashing of increasingly unhinged woke epistemology, but apparently it also unleashes the paranoid victim complexes of extremely intelligent rationalists as well. Rather than claiming to be persecuted by the economics profession, Eric should read post-structuralism and understand that his unique ideas are de-legitimated in the same way all "non-scientific" ideas are de-legitimated, but that, in this elision, he may also find unique forms of power and freedom. Even more ironically, Eric can thank the Deleuzian nature of the internet for already granting him historically novel and extraordinary sources of power and freedom. But it seems that Eric does not recognize these powers for what they are, or he doesn't understand how they work, which explains why he tried to publish a research paper in the way that he did.

The paper is almost explicitly pseudo-scientific in that he self-consciously typesets the paper using LaTeX (the cool kid's writing application in STEM research disciplines) and it contains advanced math, but it does not deliver the basic promise of a scientific research article, namely a competent review of up-to-date research followed by a specific, novel insight which is then integrated back into the literature. He punts on those basic requirements of a scientific research paper, bizarrely mentioning in the opening footnote that he is merely an Entertainer. And yet as an entertainer he is constantly claiming he has a revolutionary theory that has been suppressed by academia.

Basically he does not have the grand, unifying, discipline-shattering research paper or discovery that I honestly hoped he did.

So the overall effect of this paper is quite a let down. There are only a few thousand people who will be capable of judging the formal math in the paper, but even if they are correct and interesting—which I'm happy to grant!—his naivety on the sociology of science and the sociology of the internet significantly deflates my estimation of Eric as social thinker.

I think Eric is a genius and a courageous, fascinating, impressive individual who could have extraordinary impact in the long-run of intellectual history. But sadly, he is becoming a genuine crank, insofar as the distinction between an independent intellectual and a crank is that the independent intellectual supersedes institutions and gains long-term influence, whereas the crank becomes possessed by resentment toward institutions and fails to gain long-term influence.

He makes good points about the selection effects of institutional science. It is true certain findings are likely to be rejected, even if true. But this is a reason for doing extra-institutional science. The error Weinstein insists on making is trying to force extra-institutional knowledge into institutional acceptance. The result can be nothing other than failure, crankhood, and the paranoid bitterness which, frankly, Weinstein exudes in his recent appearances. Fortunately he has plenty of time to change course. I hope that he does, and I wish him nothing but success.


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