When I went to Course 17 — political science — I was young. I was idealistic. Let’s be honest — I was naive. Course 17 beat that out of me. It was painful in the short-term, but perhaps healthful in the long-term? We’ll have to see, but I went to Course 17 to receive an education in politics, and I did, so to that extent, Course 17 delivered. Let me state right off though that I survived, but some didn’t, which I will describe. It’s a dangerous game, but it didn’t seem so at the time.
However, Course 17 is set within an engineering school — possibly the most famous engineering school in the world, so let’s not be coy, MIT — so I went thinking it was possible to blend engineering and political science. It turns out that, in my experience anyways, that is not possible. In Course 17, it was not enough to be merely correct, one needed to be politically correct. The problem is, the requirements of political correctness are not advertised. They are not made available for scrutiny because they would not pass scrutiny. Instead, those who are in the know have inculcated the rules, and the club — as I came to understand years later — is socialism.
I went to Course 17 as a kind of experiment. I didn’t want to be an “in your face” conservative, but I didn’t want to back down in the face of socialism either. I figured that sticking to engineering-based arguments in an engineering school would provide safety and prove a winning strategy. I figured the conservatives who had tried academia and failed were insufficiently brave, or committed, or smart. Perhaps I was being arrogant, but I was going to put my money where my mouth was. I was going to give it a go. Part of the experiment would be to find out if I did get into trouble, what form would it take? How would I find out? How would the threat become manifest? And to be perfectly honest, I didn’t sweat getting kicked out too much because I’m a good computer scientist, so I trusted in my ability to land on my feet because I had a backup plan.
So why am I writing this? Because I want to take you behind the doors of a socialist incubator, right here on American soil. People don’t believe socialism exists. And if they do, then they think it is slightly nutty, academic, and benign. I used to believe that too, but I don’t believe it any longer. Socialism threatens America, and an unblinking analysis of it is uncomfortable. Confronting it requires intelligence, bravery, and confrontation, which doesn’t blend naturally with most Americans’ love of leisure, wealth, and peace.
With that preamble, I came to Course 17 with an engineering background from Kansas Polytechnique, or Kansas Poly in Manhattan, KS, where I was taught by an alumnus, Professor Thayer, from real-MIT, electrical engineering / computer science (EE/CS), or Course 6. So at first I was ecstatic at the thought of going to Course 17, and initially it turned out super well. I signed up for four courses, and in three of them I earned As. The fourth one didn’t go as well, a course that went by the deceptively simple name, “Rationality,” which was taught by an academic superstar and supposedly the brightest person in the department, Professor Kilo. Coming from an engineering background, I thought it would be important to understand how Course 17 thought about cognition, and having studied artificial intelligence (AI), I thought I had the correct background. But the course was odd because it didn’t square with what I knew about the world.
Let’s me be a bit more specific here. I had been working as a computer programmer in Lawrence, KS after getting a master’s degree in computer science. My thesis was based on 10,000 lines of pretty complex code, and the way I worked with it may not be familiar to non-programmers, so let me describe that. When programs are fairly small, they are predictable. So when you change something, you pretty much know what the change will do and can predict what the results will be. At some point though, the code hit a level of complexity where I could no longer predict what was going to happen. I had ideas. I had theories, but I needed to create code just to test my code. And when I ran these tests, I needed to be prepared for the test not to work and to go back to a known configuration that I know did work. And this is with code in which I am the world’s foremost expert because it’s my code! Nothing is more painful than spending a lot of time on the code, realizing that it’s a fruitless path, and then trying to undo what you’ve been doing.
Kilo’s Rationality class had almost the exact opposite flavor. People were talking about very complex political-economic systems, and they were proposing radical changes to them confident that they would know what would happen. Note that I’m using the word “radical” fairly precisely and not pejoratively but in the sense of, “very different from the usual or traditional; favoring extreme changes in existing views, habits, conditions, or institutions,” which is what he was doing.
Now that I’m thinking about it, there was another quality to the Kilo’s class. Everything was so abstract, idealized, and simple, so then people did this really fanciful math based on these heroic assumptions that made the math easier, but to me it felt that the reality and vitality had all been squeezed out. There was no connection to the real world, and it was never discussed. I wasn’t afraid of the math, but I at least thought that it should be connect to and describe the real world. I had left AI for that reason — creating interesting programs about idealized and simple, artificial worlds, and that’s one of the reasons I came to Course 17, through a passion for applied problems.
So I’m sitting there in Rationality class, listening to Kilo, and I’m thinking, “This can’t be right. How can this guy assume he knows what will happen when making these radical changes to system more complex than my code, which I didn’t know what was going to happen to my code and it was a much simpler system and I was the world’s foremost expert.” Moreover, there’s a whole sub-field of computer science called computational theory, and the takeaway is that there are all sorts of questions that are seemingly simple but cannot be answered definitively! One of the reasons they teach that to students is to help them not waste time on unsolvable problems. .
Those who have spent serious time in academia are probably getting a queasy feeling and thinking, “You didn’t go there? You didn’t express these thoughts to Kilo did you?” If fools go where angels fear to tread, then yes, I went there. I did so with such lack of guile, and such trust that looking back, it’s kind of inconceivable. I thought Kilo had thought through these issues and that we would have a nice discussion and that I would learn something. What actually happened was different — very different.