The date is November 10th, 2019. Covid has plausibly started, but I don’t know it yet. I am a huge fan of Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast, and have been conducting my own lit review on civilizational collapse. I have been eagerly anticipating Carlin’s upcoming book, The End is Always Near, for months (affiliate link). I am in a coffee shop with a friend, very excited to have a dedicated time to read and Epistemic Spot Check it. 

I do not remember what I read. I remember that I lost all interest in Carlin’s podcast afterward, and was so sure I’d remember the problem that I didn’t write it down, which led to 2 years of awkwardly saying “yeah his book was so terrible I lost interest, no don’t remember why, yes I see how that’s less useful for you.” I never checked any claims it made; I’d have records of that, which means that whatever the problem was, it wasn’t just a factual error

I sat down today to read enough of the book to remind myself of why I so vehemently disliked it, and in the course doing so discovered that I had written down the problems in Goodreads, but had forgotten that along with everything else. (I also got the date wrong: I remember starting it in January, but that doesn’t fit because I know I was reading one of its sources in December). My review, in its entirety:

I went in wanting a meaty history book with many claims I could follow up on. In the first few chapters I could only extract a few claims, always what other historians thought (but without countervailing arguments), and it never coheres into models or cruxes.

Mystery solved, I guess. It’s not actually clear to me I should have given up on the podcast based on this, since I don’t remember it having the same problem. But since I already went through all this trouble, let me read a chapter or two and see if I agree with my pre-covid assessment.

Claim: “In many earlier eras of history writing, a large part of the historian’s or author’s goal was to impart or teach some sort of moral lesson, usually by historical example.” (footnote on page 1)

Ah yes, the before times, when people manipulated nominally factual data to their own ends. So glad we grew out of that in … *checks watch* … hmmm, must be broken.

Claim: Sparta super kicked ass (page 7)

Bret Devereaux spent a long time debunking this and I spent a somewhat shorter time checking his work (it passed). Carlin also repeatedly says “Spartan” when he means “Spartan ruling class”, which is a common mistake but I think a revealing one.

Okay, I have finished chapter 1, which is seven pages long. It is titled “Do Tough Times Make for Tougher People?”, a reference to this meme:

I do not know if Carlin thinks tough times create tougher people. If you put a gun to my head I would say “Probably, except for if literally anything else is involved, perhaps?”  I do not know how he defines toughness. This is dumb. Toughness is easy to define, he shouldn’t have to spell it out, and yet I’m rereading the pages trying to figure out a coherent definition that makes sense and is meaningful all the way through. I feel fuzzy and slippery and then angry that I feel that way.

Contrast that with Devereaux’s 6 part series, The Fremen Mirage, which addresses the same question. Devereaux takes a strong stance (“no they fucking don’t”) and spends only two paragraphs before defining exactly the argument he is making. Then he spends a while complaining about people who cite “…weak men create times…” without strict definitions. 

Devereaux’s Fremen Mirage is full of claims that are both load-bearing (as in, if they were wrong, the argument would collapse) and capable of being resolved one way or the other. It’s tractable to check his work and come to a conclusion. Meanwhile, I did write down some claims from chapter one of The End… but… none of them matter? Of the things that could be called cruxes, they’re all vague and would at best take a lot of work to develop an informed opinion on. But I think that’s optimistic, and most of them are not actually provable or disprovable in a meaningful way.

So there you go. The End is Always Near was not even tractable enough to be worth checking.

Thanks to Miranda Dixon-Luinenburg, Justis Mills, and Daniel Filan for copyediting. Patreon patrons you’re off the hook for this one since it was so short.


New Comment
10 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 12:49 PM

Bret Devereaux is awesome. "Hard times make tough men"[1] was a cached thought I had even though I read The Fremen Mirage. Thanks for bringing it to my attention for elimination. I failed to generalize that far from The Fremen Mirage.

  1. This is deliberately gendered. ↩︎

I was teaching my students Huntington’s clash of civilizations last week, an essay with similar problems. I had them nail down the testable assumptions, causal arguments, and falsifiable predictions of the piece. Got them to emotive the fuzziness themselves. It was a pretty rewarding way to teach.

I'm glad I'm not the only person who thought that book was awful. But you seem to have gotten further than I did: I read the first two chapters and quit.

On the same topic, I already recommended this previously in LW but it is so good that I have to insist: this podcast in the fall of civilizations is absolutely worth checking:

Oh neat, it has options beyond Bronze Age, Roman, and Mayan. Can you share more about what you like about it?

It could perfectly be a long book, and I would certainly read it.

  • It covers not-so-well-known civilizations such as Greenland Vikings or the Khmer Empire
  • Beautifully written
  • Thoroughly researched
  • Some of the audios last several hours
  • Some texts are read by native speakers. 

The Spartans were the ruling class. The rest were Helots.

Are you thinking of Spartiate ( )? What's your word for "Spartiates and also helots and also the billion in-between states"?

Yeesh, the “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” idea has already been proven false. Research (the two links below) demonstrates that people going through hardships can develop unhealthy mental disorders like trauma, not the other way around, and it also doesn’t mean you can naturally develop an immunity towards it. The idea just borders between pseudoscientific and unrealistic.

If it worked, militaries would be using it to... Ditch boot camp and instead harden soldiers for battle by having them participate in group therapy

I think you're both too credulous of the research you linked, and extrapolating from it too confidently.

New to LessWrong?