Authorvalentin

The Scientific Meridian

Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder ‘why, why, why?’
Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself he understand.
Kurt Vonnegut

I have to be honest, Rachit, I wrote the original post in April. I showed it to someone, and they said: ‘sounds like an extended Twitter rant’. So I tucked it away in the back of my mind, hoping that whatever it was that I was feeling would eventually fade as it was exposed to the light of reason and the indirect scrutiny of more nuanced takes. But the intuition didn’t fade. It only grew stronger. So, I posted my extended Twitter rant, for better or for worse.

I will attempt to answer your W’s in a second. But first, let me paint with an extremely broad brush and say the following: my intuition is that the lionization of Scientists and Science develops in the fertile ground left behind by the secularization of society. Humankind needs something to believe in, something to answer the question ‘why?’, and maybe most importantly something to paint the world into the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sides. Why? As the ‘judge’ says in Cormac McCarthy’s masterpiece Blood Meridian:

It makes no difference what men think of war… War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.

And so we fight, because it is our nature. We wage ‘battles’, we have ‘front-line heroes’, and we have the innocent casualties. And just like in wars, we look to the generals for directions. The scientific experts are, for some, the generals on the ‘good’ side. The idolatry I am pointing to is the cultural force that disproportionately heeds the advice of the generals, without due deliberation by the broader public. It is the force that makes people say things like ‘I am with science,’ ‘defend science’ or ‘listen to the experts.’ If this was a truism, then it would not be worth saying. I think it points to a much deeper feeling of unquestioned idolization of ‘science’ that is not warranted. How do I know it is unwarranted? Well I am, in theory, a ‘practicing scientist’ of sorts; I have seen how the sausage is made and I feel a duty to call these things out.

Now to your questions:

Who is idolizing the ‘experts’?
Some specific examples:

  • California Governor Gavin Newsom: “The West Coast is—and will continue to be—guided by SCIENCE.” (Of course you are, what does this even mean if not some sort of idolization or pandering?)
  • Former Vice President Joe Biden: “Follow the science, listen to the experts, do what they tell you.” (Self explanatory)
  • Neil DeGrasse Tyson on the crisis “a giant experiment in whether the world will listen to scientists, now and going forward.” (Paints the scientists as the ones with the answers)
  • Greta Thunberg: ‘We take it for granted, that we listen to the current, best available, UNITED science’ (To say science is united is to miss the point of science)

Are people who aren’t experts allowed to weigh in? You say.. ‘of course’.
According to a Pew research poll, 44% of the U.S. public disagrees with you.

A majority of U.S. adults (54%, including equal shares of Democrats and Republicans) believe the public should play an important role in guiding policy decisions on scientific issues; 44% say public opinion should not play an important role because the issues are too complex for the average person to understand.

Where has it gone wrong? What are the consequences?
The broad consequences is that democracy devolves into oligarchy — the ruling of the few over the many. The 20th century is rife with examples where the idolization of ‘science’ has gone wrong. Eugenics, atom bombs, Chernobyl. The list is long.
If unchecked, this idolization bleeds into academia itself where “recognizable scientists receive disproportionate credit, and therefore trust, in a repeating cycle” in something called the ‘Matthew Effect’. You say that peer review can help rid science. That may be true in an ideal world, but it is not true when certain facts or persons are beyond question and can cause a reviewer their career. There are large parts of science that do not follow a double-blind process and a reviewer’s identity is almost always visible to the editors.

I admit that much of my qualms may be made worse by certain types of media coverage. For example, take this article on the wildfires in California that has the headline ‘Trump Again Rejects Science’. What Trump said was that he thinks  ‘science doesn’t know’ what caused the latest fires. This is of course obviously true: there are a number of factors , including climate change. But instead of going for a nuanced rebuttal, the NYT goes for war. Trump vs. Science: round one million and two.

Finally, I raised the notion of aesthetic beauty to make a point about ‘evidence’. Science is not always about observation — there are many things in science that are chosen arbitrarily: out of fashion, politics, and aesthetics. Something that passes peer review has been reviewed by peers that may have the same fashions, the same politics, and the same sense of aesthetics.

In this lovely article called ‘Why trust science?’, Naomi Oreskes (a professor in the history of science at Harvard, but who’s checking — lets not idolize experts here) says that the fundamental reason to trust science is not the ‘scientific method’ (which is rarely how actual ‘science’ is done), but that there is a culture of sustained scrutiny in a form of ‘transformative interrogation’.

Interrogation can be transformative, this blog being a case-in-point. But interrogation is a process that transcends and ultimately supersedes ‘science’. The  interrogation of established dogma in the protestant reformation perhaps gave rise to modern science. Thus, we should be happy to see people questioning established facts (no matter how ‘obvious’ they may seem), and refusing to take the ‘experts’ opinion as gospel.  When done in good faith, this scrutiny is not ‘anti science’, it is the very essence of science.

The Cult of Experts

Rachit,

We are all in some bubble of information these days. In my bubble, one understandable but troubling trend has manifested itself: an incessant insistence by the popular press that only ‘experts’ (i.e., academically-trained researchers) have any right to speak on issues that concern things of import (health, prosperity, etc.).

It is a truism to say that people who have dedicated significant time to studying a particular phenomena should be given ample time and influence when the public-at-large must decide how to respond to that phenomena. If I have an issue with my plumbing, I call a plumber. But this doesn’t mean that an arbitrary plumber that picks up the phone may know all that there is to know about plumbing, that a plumber is immune to other influences which may affect his or her advice, or that I should I fix my plumbing without considering other effects that the plumber may be agnostic to (e.g., should I drain my child’s education savings account to fix a plumbing issue?).

Much of the same issues that affect plumbing affect science, but sometimes more acutely. First, who decides who has the credentials to work as a scientist? Largely, other scientists. A plumber is judged by their technical prowess, by their creativity, and by the longevity of their work. The ultimate arbiter are the facts-of-the-matter: was the leak stopped? how expensive was the work? A scientist is no different except in one important aspect: the ultimate arbiters of science are, in the short term, other scientists.

To avoid becoming a self-justifying cult of truth, the modern academic system rests on the ability of ‘experts’ to avoid, as much as possible, allegiances to a particular truth. Instead, the system is built on the meta-truth of an honest pursuit of Truth. Through this ethic, science remains open to new ideas, and rids itself of theories that calcify into unquestionable gospel without an overwhelming amount of evidence. Even then, we can speak of theories that have predictive power, but little aesthetic appeal. We should be suspicious of scientists who (1) present any particular model as beyond questioning, and (2) apply science as an all-encompassing explanatory system. The question of whether or not all phenomena can be studied through scientific means is itself not scientific.

Broadly speaking, a Ph.D. means that one has demonstrated the skills to present and investigate some theory and communicate one’s conclusions in a cogent manner. However, the overwhelming majority of ‘theories’ are not made ex-nihilo, but are the product of a scientific milieu which has fashions, dogma, and political undercurrents (wherever there are gatekeepers, there is politics).

Second, science, in so far as it relies on this hypothetico-deductive model, is not designed to provide positive answers. It is designed to reject false theories. Out of the theories which are clearly not ‘false’, which one best reflects reality? That question is generally not in the purview of science. For example, there are alternative theories to general relativity that explain relativistic gravity. However, general relativity is considered to be the most appealing because it is the simplest. This appeal to Occam’s razor is an aesthetic judgement; but why should it be true? It itself cannot be rejected by science. Further still, there are almost certainly theories or parts of theories which may be true but are simply unfashionable to even reject. They are below consideration, but may not be below ‘truth’.

In light of this, it is particularly troubling to see the scientist idolized as a kind of philosopher-king. I love science, I love academia, but I do not love idolatry. To the extent possible, academics are trained to be free from political inclinations, to not be affected by trends and fashions, and to seek ‘truth’ for the benefit of all humankind. But they are trained in a very specific sense, almost always specializing in a narrow slice of ‘truth’, and with conflicting and pernicious mantra (publish or perish!).

The history of science, philosophy, and medicine is rife with examples where ‘outsiders’ and ‘non-experts’ fought, often in vain, for heterodox opinions that were rejected by the ‘scientific consensus’ at the time but which we now take for granted. Not everyone with a heterodox opinion is Copernicus, but neither must they be an ignorant crackpot who wishes to poison the populace.

The reality, for scientists and for all people, is that we are all trying our best to interpret the phenomena we see before us. Given sufficient patience and diligence, science can help us contextualize phenomena and reject theories that do not explain new evidence. But science is not, and will never be, free of politics, dogma and fashionable ways to conceive of the world. Even if this was the case, we must not fool ourselves into believing that a concrete understanding of the world will make our decisions as simple as consulting the experts on the matter.

As David Hume wrote, we cannot get an ought from an is. Ultimately, what society ought to do is the choice of the society itself, of which the ‘experts’ on any particular issue are but one part.

Yours in pulp,
Valentin

NFC Podcast #16 – The Corona Persona

We’re back! A special episode of NFC during the worldwide COVID-19 quarantine where we discuss the film Persona (1966) written and directed by Ingmar Bergman.

Show notes
=================

Louis CK (Starting Shows)

Norm MacDonald Jokes (Best of)

An Epidemic of False Confidence Related to COVID-19

In Praise of Phone Calls (New Yorker)

Persona (1966) – Free YouTube Edition

Heroes and Villains: The Wes Mantooth Philosophy

In the wake of an embarrassing game 3 playoff loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, Kyle Lowry was asked about what it is that makes the Cavaliers a great team. He replied, “they’ve got LeBron James and no one can close the gap on him.”

Now, LeBron is indisputably one of the greatest basketball players of all time. But Kyle is trying to beat LeBron, and many people who heard these words (including yours truly) interpreted them as a sign that Kyle, and many of the Raptors, were mentally checked out. Defeated before the series is even over. After all, if “no one can close the gap on [LeBron]”, what’s the point of even playing?

This got me thinking. What is a good way of approaching your role models, those people that you admire, the ones you dare call your ‘heroes’? How do you maintain a healthy respect for their skills, without deifying them into an unreachable realm that makes you prone to excusing your own deficiencies?

I often hear the phrase ‘never meet your heroes,’ used in common parlance. Presumably this is meant to prevent the disappointing realization that one’s heroes are just people, with real emotions, real flaws and potentially very little to say to a star-struck fan. But why is this bad? Shouldn’t this realization be a beacon of hope that we too, someday, can accomplish the same things we admire in our role models, while still grappling with our own messy humanity? Shouldn’t Kyle look at LeBron on the court and say, he’s just another guy shooting hoops, drinking water, missing free throws. He’s not a God, he’s just a genetically gifted athlete with a Versa-climber.

Maybe not. Maybe really what we’re scared of is this very realization. The fact that our heroes are not Gods, and yet they still do what they do. How can you be that athletic, at that height, for so long?

Plato’s realm of ideal forms comes to mind. There are no perfect spheres in this world, but all spheres are an imperfect realization of the ideal Sphere. Is it better to keep imagining the ideal basketball player, or meet an imperfect (but damn close) manifestation of that ideal? What motivates you to improve? Despite Plato’s ideal realm, much of Greek mythology has distinctly anthropomorphic Gods, with human flaws. Presumably, the Greeks felt this made the Gods more relatable, and made their myths more effective. Yet, many modern Gods are undoubtedly much more abstract, and unhuman. (A clear exception to this is many sects of Christianity which accept the holy trinity, a resolution that combines aspects of both the ideal, and the human aspects of God).

Setting aside heroes, what about our enemies, our ‘villains’? Should we humanize them (exposing our common humanity, and holding hands to sing Kumbaya), but keep our heroes sterile, unsullied by the humbling reality of being a real, shitting, sneezing, tax-paying human being?

I think this unification is in many ways futile. It makes it harder for us to fight for any cause and traps us in a pit of nuance and indecision. It is much easier to hate the Bogeyman than it is to fight a man on the toilet (shout out to Tyrion for still getting it done).

Perhaps a reasonable approach is a good, healthy amount of respectful hatred for both our heroes and our villains. Perhaps what I really wanted Kyle to do was quote Wes Mantooth from Anchorman: “from deep down in my stomach, with every inch of me, I pure, straight hate you. But goddammit, [LeBron] do I respect you!”

What say you, Rachit?

NFC Podcast #15 – Philanthropy, Deontology, and Effective Altruism: Mo money, mo problems?

The 15th NeverFromConcentrate podcast about philanthropy, charity and how best to express one’s ‘love for mankind’. We talk about Henry David Thoreau, Steve Jobs, and Yuval Noah Harari.

Slav, the Karma Auditor

Ok, so what exactly is ‘logical, effective, and morally responsible’? It’s nice to conclude this, but is it just highfalutin equivocation to make us feel better without actually doing much?

Even if we accept that we don’t need to burden ourselves with ‘empathy’, how do we know when our compassion is enough to please Dev? How exactly do we reconcile all of the different ways to account for our karma? Does Dev use GAAP or IFRS? Do we need ‘charity advisors’ that spend years analyzing different strategies towards maximizing our ROK (Return on Karma)?

Bloom’s argument seems logical – compassion is like empathy infused with the B word. We stay clear of the emotional pits of despair, while trying our best to solve the root problems that ail the people we are trying to help. Yet, of course, even the B word needs its own B word (it’s B word recursion!). Bloom himself agrees that empathy is still very useful in relationships: the trope of the man who is always trying to solve problems instead of just ‘listening’ is the first thing that I thought of when I read about his new book. Further, while empathy may not, like Bloom argues, scale well, it is nevertheless an incredible motivator. I remember more about the girl in Schindler’s List and Matt Damon in Saving Private Ryan than any of my high school lessons on WW2.

Let me put on my deontological hat. What if a world filled with compassion leads to insidious side effects that a world with empathy does not? Perhaps we are a species that needs to empathize with stories on the level of the individual to truly be motivated to help? If everyone, in an act of true compassion, simply set a single recurring payment of $4000 a year to their favourite vetted charity – would that lead to a better world? Maybe in the short term, but is this really what we imagine when we think of ‘charity’ (the love of humanity)? Is the world really just filled with a finite set of problems to be solved, which upon being solved, will lead to some sort of utopia? I say no. We will always have problems, and we need empathy to constantly motivate us to help others solve their problems. Being compassionate may make us ‘feel better’ about just the act of helping, but being empathetic makes the human condition worthwhile.

A few weeks before he died in the Alaskan wilderness, Christopher McCandless underlined a line from Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago: “an unshared happiness is not happiness.” I think the same applies to despair in the human race. We are comforted by knowing that other people understand our own condition. Take medicine: Bloom mentions that what we want from doctors is compassion, not empathy. But is it really? Or do patients ‘crave empathy’ and the compassion is actually perceived in a negative light?

Perhaps we humans need to imagine living the life of a Harambe or a Tilikum in order to actually do anything about animal captivity. Perhaps it’s exactly why there are laws against publishing images from factory farms (whereas there are no laws against publishing the statistics). The human species is built on empathy, and maybe, despite its faults, we need to work with it instead of trying to simply remove it from the equation.

So, after Dev is done with the Karma paperwork, make sure he consults Slav, the karma auditor and freelance karma collection consultant. I hear he knows exactly the right balance of compassion and empathy that gives you the best 5 year ROK.

Charity: The Slave Morality?

Here’s a thought experiment: a man is shopping on Black Friday and stumbles across an unbelievable deal on a 4K TV: $3337 off the sticker price! Unfortunately, there are only 10 units remaining, and the man sees a few people in line with more streaming in. Nearby the TV sale, the man also sees a small child playing close to a water fountain. Suddenly, the child loses balances, knocks their head on the concrete wall of the fountain, and falls into the water. No one seems to notice this fall except the man. From a moral perspective, is it ok for the man to ignore the child (knowing full well that he or she may die) in exchange for securing his spot for the TV?

It seems that for most people, in this scenario, the decision to save $3337 over the life of a human being is not a very difficult one. Of course the man should save the child.

Yet, we live in world where donating $3337 can save a life (GiveWell.org estimates that a donation of $3337.06 to the ‘Against Malaria Foundation’ will save a life in Africa.) So why don’t we feel morally obligated to donate as much as we can of our income for the benefit of other human beings?

This is the crux of the argument put forward by the effective altruism movement lead by Peter Singer, William MacAskill (both philosophy professors) and others. On Sam Harris’ podcast a few weeks ago, MacAskill talked about how he is now donating close to 40% of his income to charities and has been donating significant amounts ever since he was a PhD student (which gives me no excuse).

On the surface, I think I agree with this general movement, but have yet to put my money where my thoughts are. What’s your experience with charity, Rachit? Before you answer, let me note a few more thoughts that are applicable to charity in general (and not just effective altruism).

First, the modern concept of ‘charity’ feels bogged down by its ties to the distribution of abstract money (which then carries with it all the connotations of an Italian mob boss casually slipping an envelope into your suit pocket). The word itself seems to be originally free from such connections, originating in its modern form from the King James’ bible (as one of the Christian triplets ‘faith, hope and charity’) as the English translation of the French translation of the Latin translation of the Greek ‘agape’ (an unconditional love for others). The more high-brow term ‘philanthropy’ literally means ‘the love of humanity.’ Unfortunately it seems that we are ruled by the economic systems we create, and our language has now morphed these two words to be much more closely linked to monetary distribution, rather than their original abstract meaning. Perhaps this is why there is an increasing tendency to associate ‘philanthropic acts’ with a certain class of people, and rarely think about ways in which everyone can express their love.

Second: motivations. Does it matter whether you are driven to donate money out of a selfish need to parade your virtuosity to others or out of a genuine concern for the well-being of others? A consequentialist would probably say no. A deontologist would probably say yes, definitely. I would probably say, ‘it depends on the type of philanthropy.’ Does a child in Burkina Faso care whether their anti-malaria bed net was paid for by someone who then immediately shared their donation on Facebook? I don’t think so. But perhaps the motivations of a volunteer at a soup kitchen or an employee of a non-profit do matter.

Finally, charity as meaning. Christian theology has charity as one of its core tenets (as evidenced by the very etymology of the word). This may sound obvious from our current Western ideology, but is it? Although I haven’t read much of his work, Nietzsche called this approach a fundamentally weak ‘slave morality.’ By-and-large, nature does not have charity. Nature favours the most fit to survive, and uses instances of animals as mere cogs in the grand goal of creating a stronger species. Perhaps we are still struggling to reconcile older Christian theology, with many of the Nietzsche-an components of the 21st century world. It’s up to us to define what it means to be ‘charitable’, and whether we should all strive to be philanthropists.

NFC Podcast #14 – Politics, Writing and Trump

The 14th NeverFromConcentrate podcast with our guest, Hershal. We talk about politics, fame, and narcissism (and of course, digress into the subject of Donald Trump, and the role of the internet on our current ideology).

The Red-Delicious Truth

Here we go. I’m about to get the perfect, baseball-like rock, and throw my best Aroldis-Chapman-like 2-seam fastball right into the nearest glass wall. You ready?

Like a waxy red-delicious apple that falls on the supermarket floor, your ego, Hershal, may not appear bruised, but what does it really matter? It’s dead and flavourless inside – the sad result of the modern myopic pursuit of profit at the expense of true character and virtue.

Boom! Your ego, and my wall, shattered all at once. But now my wall is broken, and I feel cold and sad. Words hurt like 2-seam fastballs.

Let me rephrase my fire. One man’s trite musings are another man’s insight porn. And we, here at NFC, strive to be the very best pornographers we can be. Your first post, Hershal, was way too safe-for-work for my tastes. Of course, a true appreciation of the subtleties of fame requires a Steinbeck-esque tragedy epic set during the depression in the hills of Northern California. But (to continue this metaphor), we can still derive Cliffnote-climaxes from our 500 word posts, without having to set forth on a lifetime of love and true physical intimacy (in the hills of Northern California). What I’m trying to say, Hershal, is that your first post just didn’t ‘do it for me’.

Now on to your second, and definitely much more ‘NSFW’, post. Both of the categories you described: celebrity as ‘pathology’ and celebrity as ‘commodity’, teeter on the edge of tautology and science. I found the NPI questionnaire and completed it with a score of 13/40. I failed! US Celebrities scored a mean of 17.8 according to one study. The mean scores of American undergraduates seems to increase over time (from the 1980s to the mid 2000s), perhaps pointing to the rise of self-promotion on the internet, reality TV shows, and helicopter-parents that treat them as deities. Or does it? Like you alluded to, Academic publications have many flaws, and this particular ‘Inventory’ questionnaire is perhaps a first attempt at measuring ‘Narcissism’ that really just ends up begging-the-question (at least with the relation between narcissism and celebrity). For example, take the following statement pair (you are supposed to choose which of the two you identify with most):

1. I have a natural talent for influencing people.
2. I am not good at influencing people.

If you are a famous artist, you are, by definition, good at influencing people. You have succeeded at influencing some amount of people to watch your show, to listen to you music, or to purchase your merchandise. The same can be said (on a smaller scale) of local ‘celebrities’ who observe 200 likes on their Insta photo, and conclude the same thing. The ‘celebrity as commodity’ category you described is based on this fundamental property. So as a celebrity you either have to delude yourself into believing you’re nothing special, or you’re labeled a narcissist for correctly identifying what other people have already proven (i.e. you are good at influencing people, you like to be the centre of attention, etc.).

Celebrity as way to spur capitalism, while true, definitely also seems to be a part of the definition of being a celebrity. I like Bon Iver’s music. I buy Bon Iver’s merchandise. Justin Vernon does a commercial for, I don’t know, Snickers. I think, hey, Justin Vernon eats Snickers. Then I’m at the Gas station and have a sweet tooth and buy a Snickers because it makes me think of a cabin in Wisconsin.

But why should I care that Justin Vernon likes Snickers? Well, maybe I don’t care that Vernon or any other celebrity likes Snickers any more than you or Rachit like Snickers. But it makes sense for Mars to ask Vernon to endorse Snickers because a lot more people are familiar with him than you or Rachit. Again, not Rocket Science, simply a byproduct of being known by many people.

Perhaps we’re looking for some deeper reason to choose one action over another, and in Nietzsche’s Godless world, we deify celebrities like we used to deify monarchs. Or maybe that’s just a pornographic simplification that hides the banal, trite reality. Celebrities are people who are known by many people, and it is easier than ever to be known by many people and benefit from (or suffer due to) all of the associated side-effects.

The Parasocial Parasites

Welcome back, Hershal. First thing’s first, the word ‘abscond’. I have to be honest, I couldn’t understand what you meant by ‘absconding meaningful conclusions,’ so I had to look it up. This is what Mr. Webster tells me (the definition I assume is the most pertinent):

Abscond
\ab-ˈskänd, əb-\
to go away and take something that does not belong to you

Hm, well then. Are you implying you are an essayist hustler, stealing meaningful conclusions from us sucker NFC homies? Are you holding your verbal ‘gat’ to our metaphorical temple, yelling ‘you see this insightful shit? that’s mine, motherfuckers!’? Watch yourself- I’m about to spit fire onto your trite musings.

You’re right to be conflicted about fame. I think our society is conflicted about fame. The famous-yet-talentless artist is so much of cliche nowadays that I sometimes find myself surprised that anybody I have heard of has any real talent at all. It’s all autotune, TMZ, and good looks, right? Try this: go to an indie concert, or to some dive bar in the middle of yet-to-be-gentrified side street, or watch a youtube video of a cover artist with less than 1000 views. If the music sounds good, what does everyone say? ‘Wow, I can’t believe they’re not famous?!’

So which is it? Are famous people talentless-egomaniacs, or do we live in a meritocracy that promotes the talented to the top? My b-word-senses are tingling. Obviously fame comes from some concoction of luck, talent and determination. It seems, though, that when people get famous, they stay famous. And that I think is an idea worth talking about. Why do we care about some one-hit-wonder artist from the 90s?

That is where the science of social anthropology is relevant. There are several theories about the evolution of language in humans, and many of them revolve around gossip. Our closest relatives, the chimpanzees, do not use verbal cues to build one-on-one relationships, but instead engage in ‘social grooming’ where they sit together and literally scratch each other’s back. The language evolution theory hypothesizes that humans developed language by substituting this type of back scratching with verbally communicated gossip about other members of the tribe. The very structure of a sentence nicely follows from a single piece of gossip (the subject, Becky, the adjective clause, with long hair, the verb, stole, the object, my man). Juicy gossip would act as social capital, and those who were in-the-know were powerful members of the group.

A recent study showed that negative gossip about somebody can change the way your brain reacts to seeing their face (surprise, surprise). The reasoning is simple: we evolved to use gossip as a way to tell friend from foe. Information gleaned from gossip is therefore deeply ingrained into the linguistic and visual parts of the brain. We treat gossip about other people as “important,” no matter who they are. It’s just that it’s easier than ever now to communicate gossip across oceans, across racial and ethnic boundaries.

Did you know that the white wedding dress only caught on in the mid 19th century after Queen Victoria wore one? You think the Kardashian’s are good at being famous? Please. The royal family has been trend-setting for millenia.

Even hunter-gatherer societies have celebrities and status hierarchies. We have evolved to continuously obsess over the ‘top’, gossip about them to build relationships, and dream about making it big.

Perhaps the explosion of celebrity-worship in the last 50 years is different. It is easier than ever to substitute in person relationships with just constant second hand information about people you’ve never met. Fans develop ‘parasocial’ relationships with the famous, devouring the minutiae of their life like Remora fish (‘suckerfish’) devour the feces of their host-shark.

It’s gross. But it’s totally natural.