Reverse Engineering A Belief

I was watching a documentary on the remains of the ice man from the Æneolithic period, found in the Alps 25 years ago. Ötzi is a big deal for anthropologists, historians, geneticists, biologists etc. The ability to get genetic material for analysis offers up enormous research opportunities. For hobbyists with an interest in these subjects, it is always fun to listen to experts discuss their interests in such a rare discovery.

One of the things they have been puzzling over are the weird tattoos on the man’s body. Initially, they assumed they were for decoration, but further research suggested that was unlikely. The markings were not very decorative, but they did correspond to areas that either had prior injuries or signs of disease. In other words, the tattoos were medical treatments of some sort.

This sounds rather loopy to modern people, but it is not hard to see how people could come to believe such things. Grog gets the evil spirits and is close to death. The local Shaman gives him a tattoo so he is properly marked up for the afterlife and Grog suddenly rallies and recovers from the evil spirits. Everyone assumes it was the tattoo. Before long, tattooing the sick is what everyone does.

Belief is a funny thing in that it is self-reinforcing. The people of Ötzi’s time probably understood that tattoos did not always work, but when they got a good result, they just assumed it was the tattoo. What else could it be? Not doing the tattoo treatment, quite logically, became a high risk choice.

Understanding this dynamic is useful when looking at modern times. For example, we believe smoking tobacco causes lung cancer. At some point in the future, when the alien anthropologists are digging through the remains of our age, they will puzzle over “No Smoking” signs in the same way, wondering why they never found “No Child Molesting” signs in the rubble.

The point here is that you can tease out some things about what people believe based on what they do, even in the modern age where we pretend to be irreligious logic machines. That came to mind reading this rather entertaining comment thread on a Marginal Review post. As is often the case, Steve Sailer was making heads explode by noticing things that are on the prohibited list.

The question Steve kept asking in various ways is why economists have never bothered to study, much less calculate, the value of citizenship. If a citizenship card for Somalia and one for Canada were put up for bid, which would fetch more? How much would each get at auction? Who would do the bidding?

These are very interesting and reasonable questions that should be natural areas of interest for modern economists. After all, immigration is the dominant topic of our age and economists are the shaman class, asked to weigh in on every topic. It follows that the “markets in everything” crowd would have come up with a model for the market for citizenship.

As Steve correctly observes, the better question may be why they refuse to even consider it. Read the comments in that post and you see a lot of undefined panic. They don’t know why they should not be talking about this, but they sense it is a taboo subject so they keep trying to change the subject. In a sense, Steve was asking, “why are we tattooing Grog?”

I’m not much for reductionism so I don’t think there’s a conspiracy. What I see is that these people believe all of the things people in the managerial class believe. One of those beliefs is that citizenship is an artifact of a prior age. They dream of being citizens of the world, hopping from Washington to New York to London to Davos. Being an “American” is, if anything, a little embarrassing for them.

It’s why they are puzzled by the resistance to open borders. They live in these wonderful bunkered communities that are surrounded by ethnic restaurants and shops. When they meet friends at the Ethiopian place in Fairfax to reminisce about their trip there in grad school, they wonder how anyone would not want this life. For them, open borders is the paradise of their daily life.

The answer to Steve’s query, it turns out, is a question. Why study something that has no value? From the point of view of economics, citizenship is as valuable as unicorn insurance or stock in the flying carpet company. The market for their skills is in climate magic and monetary policy so that’s why we have a million papers on those topics.

There’s another thing to tease out here, returning to the image of the Cloud People gnoshing on fit-fit at the Ethiopian place. To these people, the horny-handed sons of toil are failures. They have failed to reach the managerial class. Therefore, their habits are the habits of failure. Their shouting about patriotism, the dignity of work and joys of family are just confirmation to the Cloud People that they are the elect.

In a world where one is measured by how many of the correct boxes he ticks, there’s no value in even thinking about the wrong boxes. The neo-mandarin system of the modern managerial class rewards recitation, not inspiration. Why puzzle over the plight of the Dirt People when the people grading the exams don’t care about it? It’s simply easier to believe it does not matter than to wonder why.

After years of examining Ötzi, researchers have determined that he did not freeze to death in the snow. That was the working assumption for years. Everyone assumed he got trapped in bad weather on a hunt or a trip. It turns out that he died from an arrow wound. Ötzi was murdered. While those tattoos may have worked against evil spirits, they were not much use against an arrow in the back.

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UKer
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UKer

In Roman times, being a citizen of the Roman Empire was a guarantee against being assaulted within the boundaries Rome set, though probably not so much north of Hadrian’s Wall or over the border in Germany. I always feel that while the British Empire tried something of the sort, the American ‘elite’ mind thinks being born in the States guarantees safe passage across the world, especially if you support progressive policies, routinely say nice things about ethnic folks and admire their quaint customs, and even better if you have sampled their delicious, slightly westernised food in expensive restaurants. It can… Read more »

etcetera
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etcetera

I appreciate Steve Sailer still being willing to slog it out on Marginal Revolution. I had to give up the site once it became a victim of its own success. I just didn’t have the time to wade through the gazillion comments there, most of them from a few usual suspects, repeating the same things. But I did enjoy the argument by another commentator on that thread that if we instituted open borders, we wouldn’t need public housing anymore. But the argument here misses the mark just as little. I think the devotion of western elites to importing more and… Read more »

Terry Baker
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Thank you, “Z-man”, another excellent post. (I put quotes on the name because there is something silly about it, like a nick-name we used to come up with when we were hippies.) I’ve been following your blog for some time now. I haven’t read a bad one yet. It has raised some questions for me, though. They are these… 1 – How old are you? Such sagacity doesn’t come from young people. 2 – What is your background? The posts suggest much life experience. 3 – How in the world do you write 2 posts a day, sometimes three? I’m… Read more »

Member

100 years ago, doctors and lawyers — today’s cloud people — lived in small towns and provided leadership for what we used to call the less fortunate. It was a hell of a lot more meritocratic than tribal or feudal life and it seemed to have made for a pretty good way of life. My great grandfather and his dad on the gringo side of the family were from that class. The Brits had something similar in their landed gentry. Opportunity brought them to the big cities. After the urban strife of the 60’s they moved to suburbs first, then… Read more »

Doug
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Doug

Thinking there is a monetary value on American citizenship is to ignore the fundamental values of being an American in the first place.

Doug
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Doug

A lot of “science research” today looks pretty greasy to me. Looks like an answer trying to find justification for justifying obtaining money to justifying answers to scientific questions.

CaptDMO
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CaptDMO

The Gods Must Be Crazy!

Lulu
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Lulu

I enjoy your writing for so many reasons. I suppose one is that it flows from a fascinating mind, and is clearly not wordsmithed to smithereens. (I always smile when some nanny or other corrects your spelling or grammar. Then I want to punch them.)

We’d love to know more about you. But you’re great just the way you are.

Member

Peggy Noonan is stealing your schtick over at the WSJ today.

Doug
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Doug

All the difference in the world between a plagiarist who has her finger in the wind and an honest guy like ZMan who uses reason and heart felt logic. I have my doubts that woman has ever published an original idea in her high society gossip column that passes for political sophistication in her entire career. She makes a suitable chattering class foil to the traditional right, a fair weather RINO mouthpiece who waters down the reactionary rejection to the corporate slave class of the dirt people. Like she is the cloud people of the right’s token dirt people spokesman.… Read more »

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[…] It’s why they are puzzled by the resistance to open borders. They live in these wonderful bunkered communities that are surrounded by ethnic restaurants and shops. When they meet friends at the Ethiopian place in Fairfax to reminisce about their trip there in grad school, they wonder how anyone would not want this life. For them, open borders is the paradise of their daily life. Keep Reading….. […]

Member

“..but it is not hard to see how people could come to believe such things. Grog gets the evil spirits and is close to death. The local Shaman gives him a tattoo so he is properly marked up for the afterlife and Grog suddenly rallies and recovers from the evil spirits. Everyone assumes it was the tattoo. Before long, tattooing the sick is what everyone does.” We have a our modern version of this. For example, consider that about 20 years ago the temperature had increased from when millions of Europeans died of crop failures due to killing frosts in… Read more »