Thiel Answers

March 28, 2023

Peter Thiel is renowned and vilified in equal parts: he’s one of the most rebellious members of the public intellectual clique, and he wears his non-conformity on his sleeve. Earlier this year he gave a fantastic speech to the Oxford Union and he starts it off by asking a rather contrarian question: what is the single antonym for diversity.

The answer is most excellent. The antonym for diversity is university.

Thiel also has a famously contrarian interview question: “Name an important truth very few people agree with you on”. I love this question. It forces you not just to think but think about what’s unique or different about what you think. And then you need to decide just how much of your differences you’re willing to share.

One of the interesting bits about the question is that it can be audience-dependent. Some ideas will be disagreeable to almost everyone, but there are other truths - and these might be harder to say - where you disagree with those closest to you. I want to know the answers all of my friends would give.

I’ve thought a lot about this question and my answers and I decided to write a bunch of them down. Chances are you won’t agree with most of them.

Truth: Fossil Fuels Are Not Only From Fossils

Explanation: Almost everyone thinks of oil, coal, natural gas, etc. as Fossil Fuels. The idea is that the hydrocarbons from dead plant and animal material has condensed and formed the substances we use today. There’s a largely disregarded theory called Abiogenic Petroleum Theory that challenges the conventional thinking. Hydrocarbons like methane are present on every large rocky body in our solar systems. Multiple experiments have been done demonstrating that fossil fuels can be produced in temperature/pressure conditions similar to the mantle. And there are more in-depth analyses that explain particulars like it’s relationship with hydrogen and it’s location in non-sedimentary rock.

There’s a ton of science behind the conventional theories of oil too, but this still points to a very important idea. Most people don’t realize that our known oil reserves have continued to increase despite our ever-increasing extraction and use of them. We have a longer timeline in front of us for fossil fuel usage than ever before and yet we still think in terms of ideas like “peak oil”. The Ghawar oil field alone is a colossus defying our expectations with reserves. It could pump 12mm barrels per day for 50 more years at least.

Tommy Gold has a fantastic book on this called The Deep Hot Biosphere. It’s a great read. I don’t think fossil fuels - the bastions of non-renewable energy - will ever run out.

Truth: Non-Zero Probability That A Warming Climate Will Be Good.

Explanation: Climate change has been presented to us as a sort of slow-motion catastrophe over the next 10 to 100 years (depending on the journalist or politician). When they get extra unctuous and need to make it more about TODAYRIGHTNOW they’ll cite increasing storm intensity or heat waves or blizzards, skipping the science-y parts where the IPCC discusses these things as either lacking evidence or “low confidence”.

I’ve written a longish essay diving into what I’ve learned about climate change and the nature of science. But I didn’t talk too much about some of the potential positives about climate change. Let’s take just a couple:

  • The world is greening significantly. CO2 is plant food - photosynthesis actually stops below about 150 ppm (which, ahhh, would be bad) - and as there has been more of it, plants have made a pretty remarkable increase
  • Climate change based on CO2 is more pronounced in colder and dryer places than in warm and wet places. So the effect is larger in winter, at night, at higher altitudes, and near the poles. There are about 10 times as many cold deaths as there are heat deaths, so the offset towards warm will actually decrease total deaths from heat and cold together.
  • Climate deaths have decreased dramatically over time. This has more to do with our adaptation than it does anything else, but I still find that too few have seen the graph:
  • Estimates suggest the potential for a dramatic increase in arable land on the timespan of decades.

A lot of you might be saying BUT SO WHAT IF WE’RE ALL UNDERWATER AHHHHHH. It’s certainly true that sea level has been remarkably consistent for a few thousand years. And it’s also true that there are some triggers that are very scary - the one I think about the most is the West Antarctic Ice Sheet - but even these would occur over decades and centuries, not weeks and years.

What a lot of the climate debate really comes down to is a philosophical difference between two camps, what Freeman Dyson calls “the naturalists” and “the humanists”. Naturalists believe that an untouched earth, free from any taint of humanity, will thrive and provide the best environment for life (this camp has varying opinions about humans). But humanists believe that humans have a key role to play in ecology and that the highest value is coexistence between nature and humans. The irony is that both groups should point to similar solutions to a better world: like very high urban density which is more efficient and more sustainable than country living.

I’m definitely in the humanist camp. I think most people are wildly deluded by what a natural world actually looks like. They focus too much on charismatic megafauna and too little on understanding the natural catastrophes and changes that happened before the 19th century. I believe strongly that humans will continue to flourish in the 21st and 22nd century, that we will continue to get better at adapting to our environment, that our technology will let us get better at impacting the rest of nature less, and that a warmer world could be good for both us and nature.

Truth: Diversity Is Overrated.

Explanation: “Misunderstood” is a better word than “overrated”, but hey this is a contrarian blog post and I reserve the right to overhype my dramatic titles.

The general wisdom of the day is that “diversity is our strength”. Thiel said the antonym of diversity is university. That sounds about right.

Diversity is a strength, but people incorrectly interpret this as a sort of perfectly homogenous admixture across all of society. That’s not how people work and it’s not how they want to work.

There’s a principle called Subsidiarity which simply suggests that social and political problems are best handled at the smallest or most local level possible. It will be better if you can solve a problem in your family first, then your community, then your town before you take it up to to your state or your country.

People clump. People like to be together surrounded by those that think, believe, and yes, look like themselves. This goes for any sort of group identity. It’s true on the left and the right and on any continent or any culture. Our towns and communities and societies will function better if 1) we are willing to clump and feel the support of those that are like us and 2) when these groups interact, they do it recognizing and respecting their differences.

Ironically, a better form of diversity is thinking about groups of groups. Today’s identity politics is such a problem because media and political forces incentivize only groups at country-level scale rather than allowing and focusing on the natural clumping of humanity. And once these groups are formed, it’s too easy to see the mob on the other side as a faceless “Other” and lose respect. Most of the identity politicians want to push their viewpoint as the federally-approved and country-wide Way and force everyone to agree. Identity politics leads to the dissolution of anything but the Individual and the State. We need more institutions with smaller, local memberships and they need to exist across a wide swath of political ideology, culture, and tradition.

Truth: The Catholic Creed

Explanation: This one certainly depends on audience. I converted to Catholicism at 24. I’ve had my own doubts, problems and sallow depressions with religion, but I still believe it.

It’s important to concretely enumerate exactly what this entails. There are many cultural Catholics that hold onto family traditions without including the whole religion part. So what this actually means is that I believe:

  1. The traditional Creed that we recite weekly. The Apostle’s Creed is a remarkably succinct summary of the Soteriology of man: our fallen nature, our need for redemption, the barest highlights of the incredible story of Christ as the Son of God, and the different institutions and traditions that we need to continue.
  2. The Institution of the Church itself is, fundamentally, the direct and forward movement of the Apostolic tradition all the way back to the time of Christ. For all it’s problems, warts, and human failings (and there have been some remarkably profound problems over a tumultuous 2,000 year history), the Roman Church is still the cradle of Christian thought and teachings.
  3. The meta-idea that trying to follow (and continually failing, let it be said) these teachings brings inherent good to my life and the life of my family and my community. The overall zeitgeist of humanity seems bent on moving away from believing in the primacy of the values of the Judeo-Christian ideal, let alone some of the more poignant Catholic principles like the transcendence of the Eucharist or the power of Confession. We’re surrounded by decadence and hedonic liberation. In this world, discipline, constraint, and eternity are revolutionary.

That’s a lot to chew on and it’s very countercultural today. What I find most remarkable is that, even as I learn more about the nature of our universe - the construction of heavy elements from supernova, the fundamental nature of information and entropy as a description of creation, the nature of evolving biological systems, or the algorithms that we’re learning to describe to build “intelligences” far beyond our own - I don’t find any of this incompatible. The more ancient and moral critiques of Christianity (e.g. the nature of evil) still carry more weight. I’m reminded of GK Chesterton’s quip:

“The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”

Truth: Healthcare Should Be MORE Capitalist

Explanation: I remember first listening to this episode of Econtalk with Keith Smith. Keith talks about his experience opening the Surgery Center of Oklahoma and trying to provide upfront pricing on procedures. He basically had to guess on all material costs because there nobody actually knew prices on anything right down to gloves and sutures. He also talks about what gives hospitals tax-exempt status as nonprofits and what incentive structures this produces. The main idea here is that any hospital that accepts Medicare (most of them) must provide emergency and medical care regardless of the patient’s ability to pay. This is a great thing and it was defined under EMTALA. But it also helped create incentives for insurance companies and hospitals to maximize the “community benefit” they are providing. This is why you get $100,000 bills that get reduced down to $10,000 and $50 deductibles through insurance magic.

A hospital administrator replied to this explanation and said that Smith is on point but that his secret is that:

He doesn’t have any ‘losing’ service lines that must be subsidized with his surgery program. As one example, half of the babies delivered in my hospital each year are paid for by Medicaid, which doesn’t cover our full costs. Same with mental health/ substance abuse services. At the same time , we’re supporting school nurse programs and opioid interdiction efforts. Every hospital in the US uses the proceeds from their surgery program to subsidize a wide range of services that the community needs. Smith doesn’t have any of those issues, and so can price surgeries at a reasonable margin over costs. Could I run my hospital like Dr. Smith does? Sure, if 70% of my services weren’t rendered to Medicare or Medicaid patients; but that’s not the environment in which I operate.

Our healthcare system is in this weird middle ground of subsidy that makes it appear capitalist if you squint one way but socialist if you peek at it another. The insane fake prices that circulate ($100k for a hip replacement?) are what make people think it needs to be turned into a single-payer system. But single-payer would be awful: the government does very little efficiently and medicine would be no different. People like to praise the Canadian system or the British NHS until they learn about some of the crazy wait times for routine surgeries. News flash: rich people in England have supplemental insurance and pay for access.

On the other hand, look at some of the healthcare procedures that are outside the American subsidized system, like LASIK surgery. It’s not covered and it has a capitalist incentive to drop cost significantly while increasing probability of outcome. Vein treatments, IVF, and even some cosmetic surgery have followed a similar trend.

We need EMTALA and we need a wide medical and social safety net for anyone without insurance. But we’d have a better system if we separated those costs from the rest of the system and learned what the heck most medical care actually costs. Because nobody really knows today.

Truth: Activism is Not a Force For Good, It’s a Force For Accumulating Power

Explanation: My favorite person in the whole world is Greta Thunberg. Do you believe me??

Let’s talk about what activism is. It’s promoting change in society and it usually happens when there’s a need for collective action that requires a mass of humanity behind it. It has had some fantastic success examples like Women’s Suffrage and the Civil Rights Movement.

It doesn’t work today the same way it used to. Information and attention flows far more quickly now and society has somehow grafted on a belief that young people, through the power of sheer emotion alone, can use activism to drive change. If you’re looking for a good cringe example, the hubris of this group of children in Diane Feinstein’s office is a good one.

I don’t like Greta, and I don’t like activism today either. I’d much rather young people follow the model of Boyan Slat who saw an environmental problem, came up with a novel solution, started The Ocean Cleanup, and is working hard to remove plastic from the water. That seems far better than the theatre of posing with police as a photo-op.

It’s hard to underestimate the amount of change that information speed has caused in this ecosystem. Audience capture is a real thing and it backs anyone with some celebrity into a corner. They can’t change from the message their audience wants. All they can do is double down.

I wrote awhile back about using Cincinnatus as a model of behavior for changing the world: clear objectives and the ability to declare success instead of moving the goalposts.

Activism today exploits emotion. It declares moral superiority to the loudest, reinforces the idea of an elite class, and promotes a lack of self-determination except for shouting. It has become a force for accumulating power while feeling justified.

Truth: Falsifiability

Explanation:. Everyone looooooooves science. But not many people really know what science is.

To some extent, that’s fair. Science is a loose term: a method, a body of knowledge, and - if you’re into the zeitgeist of today - a consensus that we should “follow”. You know, follow the science!

In my mind, falsifiability is the foundational idea around “science”. If something is falsifiable, we can apply the scientific method and evaluate the results. Counterfactuals usually aren’t falsifiable. Consensus isn’t falsifiable. Prediction can be falsifiable by experiment or time, but we need to understand the results or timeframes. For example, some of the hypothesis that climate models output are falsifiable, but we won’t know accuracy for decades. Alex Epstein has written eloquently on the accuracy of some of the cllimate models thus far (backed up with analysis here from Bryan Caplan).

Karl Popper introduced the concept of falsifiability and it should be better understood by more people as the single most key idea of science. A close runner-up are the Four Mertonian Norms

Truth: Policy Prescriptions Should Be Defined by False Negatives and False Positives.

Explanation: One of the most powerful models I’ve come to rely on is the idea of false negatives and false negatives. It’s a great model for thinking about outcomes, probabilities and expectations. I’ve started to apply it much more to policy positions. Because here’s the thing: nobody actually wants poverty, or homelessness, or bad schools, or any number of other things. Both sides like to portray the other guys as evil but that’s just not how human nature works. What is true is that we tend to focus on different outliers.

Some examples:

  • Would you rather reduce inequality by bringing the floor of income up and reduce poverty but allow a bunch of outlier billionaires? Or is it better to reduce inequality by driving the superwealthy down towards the average.
  • Do you focus educational efforts on bringing the bottom students up towards the average and letting the smartest be bored? Or do you let the very top students run loose and drive forward as fast as possible at the cost of leaving some behind?
  • Is science about tiny iterative papers on small details (and don’t need replication) or is it about the occasional breakthrough masterpiece that blows our current paradigm away?

Policy decisions are often about which outliers we focus on. This makes it easy to be critical of the other side. It’s kind of amazing how broad this lens can be. This is the tension between capitalism and socialism. The difference between baseball and golf. The reason why some people love or hate Elon.

Truth: The Most Important Trait For Success Is Not Caring What Other People Think.

Explanation: I realized this while writing and thinking about Mimetic Theory. Once you see mimesis it’s everywhere and can’t be unseen. The thing about mimesis is that we’re all susceptible. We want to want what others want. We model our desire.

So what do we want to want?

God, that’s a hard question to answer. It takes a lifetime. Getting the opportunity to find the answer means working hard to stop caring about the influence we get from everyone else. And we care so much.

Successful people have found ways to turn this off. They blaze trails without worrying about who is watching or what judgement they’re passing. They care very little what other people are doing and pass very little judgement on others. They’re too focused on their own action.

If you want to be successful - in anything - just stop caring what other people think and do your thing.

Truth: Dashing Optimism!

Explanation: The world is awesome. Amazing. Incredible. And it’s getting better.

I don’t think I can be more optimistic than that. The problem is that so many people today are depressed and pessimistic to an almost psychotic level. We live in the best world for humans in all history BY FAR and yet we’re all sad.

A lot of this has to do with what information we’re being fed through our dumb devices. Jonathan Haidt has been documenting the effects exhaustively. We’re doing it to ourselves. It’s not that things are objectively worse today than they were, it’s that we have access to so much more data than before. Today there are less catastrophes, less murders, less everything-bad than ever before. But we have statistics now on all of them, and video on lots of them, and we disseminate and feast on this negativity. And then we emote.

I ran across this description from Matt Ridley on how much better today’s world is compared to just a couple hundred years ago:

This should not need saying, but it does. There are people today who think life was better in the past. They argue that there was not only a simplicity, tranquility, sociability and spirituality about life in the distant past that has been lost, but a virtue too. This rose-tinted nostalgia, please note, is generally confined to the wealthy. It is easier to wax elegiac for the life of a peasant when you do not have to use a long-drop toilet. Imagine that it is 1800, somewhere in Western Europe or eastern North America. The family is gathering around the hearth in the simple timber-framed house. Father reads aloud from the Bible while mother prepares to dish out a stew of beef and onions. The baby boy is being comforted by one of his sisters and the eldest lad is pouring water from a pitcher into the earthenware mugs on the table. His elder sister is feeding the horse in the stable. Outside there is no noise of traffic, there are no drug dealers and neither dioxins nor radioactive fall-out have been found in the cow’s milk. All is tranquil; a bird sings outside the window.

Oh Please! Though this is one of the better-off families in the village, father’s Scripture reading is interrupted by a bronchitic cough that presages the pneumonia that will kill him at 53 – not helped by the wood smoke of the fire. (He is lucky: life expectancy even in England was less than 40 in 1800.) The baby will die of smallpox that is now causing him to cry; his sister will soon be chattel of a drunken husband. The water the son is pouring tastes of the cows that drink from the brook. Toothache tortures the mother. The neighbour’s lodger is getting the other girl pregnant in the hayshed even now and her child will be sent to an orphanage. The stew is grey and gristly yet the meat is a rare change from gruel; there is no fruit or salad at this season. It is eaten with a wooden spoon from a wooden bowl. Candles cost too much, so firelight is all there is to see by. Nobody in the family has ever seen a play, painted a picture or heard a piano. School is a few years of dull Latin taught by a bigoted martinet at the vicarage. Father visited the city once, but travel cost him a week’s wages and the others have never travelled more than fifteen miles from home. Each daughter owns two wool dresses, two linen shirts and one pair of shoes. Fathers’ jacket cost him a month’s wages but it is now infested with lice. The children sleep two to a bed on straw mattresses on the floor. As for the bird outside the window, tomorrow it will be trapped and eaten by the boy.

If my fictional family is not to your taste, perhaps you prefer statistics. Since 1800, the population of the world has multiplied six times, yet average life expectancy has more than doubled and real income has risen more than nine times. Taking a shorter perspective, in 2005, compared with 1955, the average human being on Planet Earth earned nearly three times as much money (corrected for inflation), ate one-third more calories of food, buried one-third as many of her children and could expect to live one-third longer. She was less likely to die as a result of war, murder, childbirth, accidents, tornadoes, flooding, famine, whooping cough, tuberculosis, malaria, diphtheria, typhus, typhoid, measles, smallpox, scurvy or polio. She was less likely, at any given age, to get cancer, heart disease or stroke. She was more likely to be literate and to have finished school. She was more likely to own a telephone, a flush toilet, a refrigerator and a bicycle. All this during a half-century when the world population has more than doubled, so that far from being rationed by population pressure, the goods and services available to the people of the world have expanded. It is, by any standard, an astonishing human achievement.

Averages conceal a lot. But even if you break down the world into bits, it is hard to find any region that was worse off in 2005 than it was in 1955.

We still have lots of problems. We need to do better for ourselves and the world we live in. But on the whole, we should be wildly optimistic about where we are and where we’re going. If that’s not how you feel: get off your phone.

“This is my long-run forecast in brief: The material conditions of life will continue to get better for most people, in most countries, most of the time, indefinitely. Within a century or two, all nations and most of humanity will be at or above today’s Western living standards. I also speculate, however, that many people will continue to think and say that the conditions of life are getting worse.” -Julian Simon

Truth: High Screen Usage Will Be A Sign of Low Class In The Future.

Explanation: This is really a prediction but I do think we’re going to see a big change over the next few decades. We’ve reached market saturation for smartphones: everyone from 8-80 that wants one, has one. And teenagers still think it’s cool. But class signals are starting to slowly change. Someone pointed out that the best way to tell if you’re wealthy today is whether you have a phone case. Only wealthy people don’t use one.

The same is true for phones and screens in general. All of these tools are still really cool now but once people realize that market saturation is complete the gloss will wear off. All of our kids want to be content creators. The height of cool is already to produce, not to consume.

That trend will continue. Twenty years from now, the ultra wealthy will live in the real world, drive “classic” analog cars from the 1990s, write in their paper notebooks, and ask their assistants (whether AI or human) to manage their email and online presence. We’re seeing some of this already.

Last Truth: Contrarianism Is Important In Theory But Not In Practice.

Explanation: I enjoy practicing contrarianism. It’s a way to force yourself to think independently.

But being a contrarian in practice is often dumb. As much as I rage against the idea of science being practiced by consensus, it’s also true that the obvious or majority answer is usually the right one. Occam’s Razor is right. Most edgy theories are false.

The ability to hold an idea in your head that’s different - one that the mob rejects - is critical to individualism and democracy. It’s one of the levers that prevents the Overton windows from shrinking into monocausal, evidence-less groupthink. In our mimetic and content-driven world, independent thought is a competitive advantage and a lodestar.

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