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David Deutsch Retrospective Thoughts

This is part of a series of posts explaining the ongoing harassment against me from David Deutsch and his associates and fans.

David Deutsch (DD) was never as good as I thought. But he had some great ideas, particularly re physics (as far as I know) and Critical Rationalism (CR). He read Popper and understood a lot – while others fail to understand much Popper. He also understood Dawkins and connected CR with neo-Darwinism, and he understood stuff about computation and information theory. The four strands in The Fabric of Reality (FoR) are good, valuable, etc., though DD overemphasized them. They are just four strands out of over ten, not the top four. Math, logic, (classical) liberalism, (Austrian) economics, moral knowledge (including from Objectivism, Judaism and Christianity), and Theory of Constraints are examples of other major, important, deep areas of human knowledge. DD was overly narrow when I knew him, and wouldn’t reread Rand or Szasz (he knew stuff about their ideas, but also had forgotten or never known a lot of it), and would never learn Mises or Burke for the first time (he knew some Hayek, who was Mises’ student, but Mises was much better). One of the issues is that DD reads fewer books than people think he does. I had to repeatedly recommend some Feynman books to get him to read those (he’d read some long ago, but never read others), and I was unable to get him to read much else.

Aside about DD’s lack of reading: In 2012, DD blatantly contradicted Szasz. I’d read over a dozen Szasz books recently, and I’d discussed them with Szasz himself. Nevertheless, DD didn’t believe me about what Szasz’s view are, and didn’t want to reread Szasz as I urged him to. But DD was confident enough to challenge me (my italics): “If you quote a statement or short passage of mine in this thread, and a statement or short passage of Szasz's that contradicts it, I promise to re-read the whole book in which Szasz's statement or passage appears.” I provided quotes. One of the issues was that DD was unaware of Szasz’s opposition to the medicalization of everyday life, even though Szasz titled a book about this issue. DD thought it’d be “harmless” to call effective anti-Islamism arguments a “cure” or “treatment for Islamism”. After I gave quotes, DD acknowledged that he “wasn't aware that Szasz totally rejects the use of the term 'treatment' in the way I used it, i.e. to describe what psychiatrists do.”, bought the book on Kindle (so he got it immediately), and said he’d read it. But he never actually read it and followed up. This incident disturbed me because it was a clear example of DD lacking integrity. He made a “promise” then broke it.

FoR and The Beginning of Infinity (BoI) are primarily about CR. They build on CR some and connect CR to other areas. Not many people understood enough Popper to start working out implications of CR, and DD succeeded at that and also learned some other important stuff that he could connect CR to. That’s impressive and was a contribution to human knowledge.

I recently discovered that BoI has lots of misquotes. DD is a worse scholar, with less integrity, than I thought.

DD has other notable ideas outside of physics, too. Taking Children Seriously (TCS) has important insight mixed in, but is also too disorganized and has major errors. DD’s static meme idea is good (I don’t think it’s perfect or complete, but it’s a good lead/start/try). He got a lot right about politics and economics, such as advocating capitalism, but he didn’t contribute much there. DD’s idea about the jump to universality is a good start on something important, as is his criticism of weighing explanations. DD’s anti-weighing ideas are some of the inspiration for my Yes or No Philosophy.

Original thinkers take risks. They may be wrong some. DD’s attacks on age of consent laws were a mistake. His attack on monogamy had some reasonable points but overall I’d say that was a bad idea that needed to be thought through more. DD doesn’t understand or respect tradition and traditional knowledge enough, but he was willing to make bold claims, some of which were good. It’s a lot better to say something important and also three wrong ideas than to say nothing risky or important.

DD was personally irrational about tidiness, scheduling, food, children and more. And he accepted a bunch of irrationalities as unsolvable problems and didn’t try to fix them.

DD’s extremely biased about ageism. He sees some ageism that most people don’t, but he also sees ageism when it isn’t there. For example, DD once argued to me (in 2004) that a news article mentioning metaphorically taking a politician behind the woodshed shows that violence against children is part of the fabric of our culture. DD claimed people wouldn’t say such awful things in general, and are only willing to do it due to ageism. I said people still talk about hanging, which isn’t due to ageism, it’s just because society does use violent words. (There’s a children’s word game named “hangman” which is used in classrooms.) DD was so biased that he responded: “[The word] Hang doesn't have a connotation of baseness and horror.”. He denied the badness of hanging because it isn’t anti-children and he wanted to claim anti-child stuff is much worse. Hanging kills people, which makes it more base and horrific than beating someone behind a woodshed. Also hanging is public violence, while behind a woodshed means privately (second source).

DD’s arrogant and stopped learning much before I met him in 2001. He’s dishonest with others on purpose, including his friends, for a variety of reasons including conflict avoidance and social climbing. He’s really scared of the world and of conflict with people, and he tries to hide problems (contrary to his philosophical theories about problem solving).

He’s a social climber who cares deeply about his reputation. I’m not sure how much he always was. I think maybe he was less concerned about it when he started TCS, and may have been changed by the negative experience of TCS’s failure to catch on and the hateful reactions it got. He may also have gotten more scared after a negative incident with the government around 2003 (but he kept advising other people not to be scared of the government, and some of that advice was horribly unrealistic and irresponsible, and could have gotten people’s children taken away).

DD’s a two-faced person and extremely biased about Lulie Tanett (LT). He put a lot of work into telling me to be friends/colleagues with LT, and telling LT to be friends/colleagues with me, but he also went behind my back and sabotaged our interactions sometimes. He said negative stuff about me to her while hiding what he was doing from me. One time, he put a lot of work into convincing her that I was threatening her when I told her some conditions she’d have to meet to remain a member of a small, private discussion group I owned (the conditions were basically just being an active poster). DD basically told her that learning from me was her best chance fixing her problems and becoming a rational, productive intellectual, so alienating her from me like that was really bad, though he did much worse later.

After leaving my community, he heavily pressured her to drop me entirely, and finally after around five years of pressure she dropped me. Doing that after convincing her I was crucial to her learning – and after she was very attached to me – was really horrible of him. It’s a little like a coercive parent controlling who their kid is allowed to be friends with. But it’s much worse to belatedly take away a friendship from your kid, over 10 years after it started, that you recommended and convinced them was crucial to their career.

DD really messed with LT’s head and her lack of accomplishments and inability to do productive work or learn much philosophy is significantly his fault. It’s also Sarah Fitz-Claridge’s (SFC) fault and TCS’s fault. SFC publicly posted on 2006-03-31 on TCS list that LT is her daughter, though they all seem to be trying to hide it now. Most people don’t realize that when DD promotes LT, that’s basically nepotism. DD has known LT since she was around age 2, and SFC moved her family to live near DD in Oxford when LT was around 7. DD treats LT partially like a daughter. However, he won’t take responsibility for actually trying to treat her in a TCS parenting way because that’d be too much work for him. In general, DD likes to keep things flexible and avoid having clear responsibilities, even with his closest associates. (E.g. he said that he avoids having anything scheduled at a specific time because having something coming up today or tomorrow often prevents him from working.) He mostly avoided explicit obligations with me, too, though he made exceptions like saying he’d write a forward for my book, saying he’d write a TCS book, and, as I discussed above, promising to read a Szasz book.

TCS parenting worked out badly for LT. TCS, SFC and DD did poorly in practice, but they’re dishonest with the public about TCS’s practical results.

SFC’s post saying LT is her daughter was an announcement of an official TCS event at SFC’s home in the UK. The event involved me, SFC and LT giving speeches about TCS, plus Q&A. The post also said LT “will be taking over the management of the TCS web site”, but then SFC violated TCS principles by breaking her word to her own daughter (LT wanted the TCS website, but SFC refused to hand it over while leaving it inactive – it’s been inactive for 15 years now). After the TCS event, SFC told me and LT that she despised the TCS parents who attended, had met them before, and thought they were hopeless and would never make progress on their problems. She hid her negativity while they were present. SFC also broke her word about letting LT and I have the money we charged for the event, and, after the event was over, she decided instead to simply take a share for herself without discussing the matter. She either took half or a third (I don’t remember). It wasn’t a lot of money and didn’t matter much to me, but I was disturbed that she’d break her word and take money away from her child who had very little money. And it’s ironic to screw over your child for money from a TCS seminar which talked about treating children well.

DD met another mother of young children before SFC, but stopped associating with that family because he didn’t think the mother was a good enough parent. Specifically, he found out that the mother had told the kids to be on their best behavior when visiting DD, so he ended things with them. But SFC was an awful parent and DD put up with it. I’m told she routinely closed her office door while her toddlers fought outside. I don’t know why DD got rid of the first mother but then put up with SFC’s bad parenting. (Source: I’ve been told things by people who were part of the TCS community before me and who knew SFC/LT/DD/etc in person.)

SFC also mistreated DD himself, and he put up with that too, though I observed that after he was already highly invested in TCS, SFC, LT and LT’s sibling. When I visited the UK for three weeks, DD gave me a draft chapter of BoI to read and discuss. SFC was jealous that she didn’t get one. She kept bugging him about it repeatedly and trying to pressure him into giving her one (he refused). She was a bad friend who didn’t respect his control over his writing process.

I found out a lot about DD being two-faced with me because LT told me lots of the private stuff DD said to her (without getting his permission or telling him that she shared it). I don’t think she was wrong to do that, btw. DD was like a father to her (actively involved in her life since she was a toddler) and somewhat of a father-figure to me. It’s reasonable and understandable for kids to share information and discuss strategies for dealing with the irrationalities of their parents. On the other hand, I also think LT learned to be a two-faced gossip from DD and SFC, and there’s a major problem there. She sometimes shared info about me and others with people she didn’t know well (she confessed to doing this). Similarly, DD started badmouthing public figures (particularly ones he’d personally interacted with) to me when he hadn’t known me very long yet, and he kept doing it despite me frequently just literally not responding at all to it. Imagine how much mean gossip he’d tell someone who actually encouraged it…

DD wanted a student. He liked me when he gave partial explanations that almost no one could learn from, and I figured stuff out (often more than he meant or knew). That worked well when his conclusions were correct. But I couldn’t usually come up with convincing reasons for DD’s claims when he was wrong. Over time, I learned most of the stuff he was right about and that put more emphasis on the issues where we disagreed, since there was less other stuff left for him to teach me about. DD was never rational about debate and truth-seeking. I’m not sure that he ever changed his mind about anything major due to my arguments, despite thousands of hours of discussions. I did successfully correct him on many smaller things, including in the seven years I commented on and edited drafts of BoI, but he didn’t post mortem those errors to look for larger errors that could be root causes.

Anyway, DD helped me understand a lot of his ideas. Some were great and some were errors. Overall, engaging with him and his ideas was very intellectually beneficial for me. I wouldn’t regret it just because he left me. But I really do wish he’d leave me alone now. Hating me for no clear reason, and having his fans harass me, is really nasty. I didn’t recognize how irrational and dangerous he was. I don’t know major things that I should done have differently with DD, even in hindsight, though.

Elliot Temple on July 3, 2021


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