Epistemic Minor Leagues


[I’m traveling this week - here is an older essay I never previously got around to posting]

Viral game designer Adrian Hon wrote an article about What Alternate Reality Games Can Teach Us About QAnon.

It argues that people fall for QAnon because it gives them an interesting mystery. It's a place where new discoveries are always around the corner, where a few hours of research by an amateur like you can fill in one of the missing links between Joe Biden and the Lizard Pope. The thrill of QAnon isn't just learning that all your political opponents are secretly Satanists or Illuminati or whatever. It's the feeling that you have something to contribute to the great project of figuring out the secret structure of the world, and that other people in a shared community of knowledge-seeking will appreciate you for it.

One place you could go from here is to talk about how QAnoners are the sort of people who are excluded from existing systems of knowledge production. They are never going to be Professors of Biology, and they know it. Their only hopes of being taken seriously as an Expert - a position our culture treats as the height of dignity - is to create a complete alternate system of knowledge, ungrounded in any previous system, where they can end up as an expert on the Lizard Papacy.

This is sort of true. But it needs to acknowledge that even being included in existing systems of knowledge production isn't that great. You become a Biology PhD student, you spend ten years learning about fungal ribosomes, and probably there's still some guy in China who knows more than you and beats you to the one interesting thing about fungal ribosomes left to figure out, plus nobody cares about fungal ribosomes anyway. Meanwhile, the QAnon devotee has discovered five earth-shattering facts about the Lizard Papacy in the last two hours, including previously-unrecognized links to the Kennedys, World War I, and ancient Lemuria.

I think Hon is right that this drive to discover secrets and add them to a shared community of knowledge-seekers could be a contributor to the QAnon phenomenon. Like I said, it's a good article.

But it would have been even better if he'd gone meta and noticed that he himself is being motivated by the discovery drive. He claims to have found a secret resonance - one between QAnon and alternate reality games (for best effect, imagine him having a conspiracy corkboard and pinning red string between pins marked QANON and ARGS). Then he contributes it to a shared community of knowledge-seekers. The community of people who read blog posts to try to understand QAnon is vast, and Hon's post quickly became a classic that got profiled in Wired and The New York Times, and inspired countless further works of analysis (including this one).

This isn't meant in any way as a criticism of Hon. I'm transparently doing the same thing he is here - claiming to have an interesting insight, then contributing it to a shared community of knowledge-seekers. My point isn't that Hon is similar to QAnon and therefore bad. My point is we're all engaged in this kind of desperate project of trying to feel like we're having new important insights, in a world full of people who are much smarter than we are.

Partly this is all for the greater good. If we don't know about the Lizard Papacy, we won't be able to resist them; if we don't know what secretly drives QAnon, we won't be able to fight it. But another part of it seems to be - a critic might say "intellectual masturbation" but I would argue "intellectual exercise" is a better term. Exercise is sort of about building strength and skill that you might use later, but it's also guiltlessly joyful, done for nothing's sake but its own.

Athletes understand that not everyone can be Babe Ruth. That's why you have local baseball leagues, or Little League, or the Minor Leagues, so that everybody can satisfy their sports competition drive whether they're a superstar or not. But what's the intellectual equivalent of the minor leagues? The place where, even if you're not a superstar, you can have the experience of generating new insights which get appreciated by a community of like-minded knowledge-seekers?

You can create a minor league in sports by matching the less-than-stellar players against each other. You can't do that with intellectual curiosity; there's no way to match dull people against each other to see who discovers gravity first. The closest you can come is to pull a QAnon - secede from reality, and then you'll only be competing with other secedees.

Yet somehow Hon is doing this well. He hasn't seceded from reality. And he's not (I hope it isn't insulting to say) a Babe Ruth-level intellectual superstar - the Babe Ruth equivalent would be Albert Einstein or someone. He's just a normal person satisfying his discovery drive and doing minor-league intellectual activity successfully. And maybe he's a bad example: I only know of him because he had this insight, so looking at him and saying "normal people can make discoveries too" is kind of selection-biased. But I see other random people do this all the time. People I follow on social media. Personal friends. It doesn't seem so uncommon. The hope that it's possible to add something of value to the conversation without being a domain expert and double PhD fuels this blog and its associated community. But it also fuels every other Substack, and the editorial page of major newspapers.

How is this possible? Maybe the space of knowledge is so vast and so high-dimensional that there are billions of different directions to push in - enough that everyone can explore some new frontier. Maybe it's combinatorics. Comparing and contrasting everything to everything else is a hard task, and maybe you have to be both a veteran gamer and an obsessive amateur QAnon devotee to get the particular insight Hon got, and maybe lots of people have a near-unique mix of unusual characteristics of the same level as "veteran gamer" and "obsessive amateur QAnon devotee".

Maybe the heap of already-discovered knowledge is so unwieldy that diving into it and retrieving a particular piece of already-discovered knowledge becomes its own form of discovery. I once won a research prize for a paper which was basically "HEY GUYS HAVE YOU HEARD DONALD KLEIN'S THEORY OF PANIC DISORDER?" Everyone who read my paper agreed that the theory was beautiful and important and they'd learned a lot from it, but my apparently prize-worthy contribution was just to dig it up and show how it applied to a particular patient whose condition was otherwise mysterious. Probably a lot of work linking conspiracy theories and the discovery drive has already been done somewhere; Hon either independently rederived it, or read it and realized it applied to QAnon. Either way, he got it in front of a lot of people who were happy to learn about it and it's fair to celebrate his contribution.

Or maybe there are some subtle differences between forms of knowledge that I'm eliding. I don't think there's a minor league equivalent to discovering the Theory of Relativity; if you come across something like that as a non-expert, you're probably a crank, same as the Lizard Papacy guy. But what is the non-relativity knowledge I trust Hon or myself to discover? Different "perspectives"? Putting existing knowledge into different and easier-to-understand words? "X is kind of like Y if you think about it, isn't that interesting?"

And I notice how often the intellectual minor leagues are about politics: that rare area where there are no real experts, and it's every man for himself. Read some physics, think a bit, and announce you've discovered the Theory of Everything, and people will call you a crank. Read some history, think a bit, and announce you've discovered the secrets of the Lizard Papacy, and people will call you a nut. But read some politics, think a bit, and announce you've figured out how all existing institutions are corrupt and only you know how to run them fairly - and you can end up anywhere from interesting-at-parties, to newspaper columnist, to US President.

I often find myself trying to justify my existence; how can I write about science when I'm not a professional scientist, or philosophy when I'm not a professional philosopher, or politics when I'm not a professional policy wonk? When I'm in a good mood, I like to think it's because I have something helpful to say about these topics. But when I'm in a bad mood, I think the best apology I can give for myself is that the discovery drive is part of what it is to be human, and I'm handling it more gracefully than some.