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.
2 thoughts on “Review: The End Is Always Near”
Here is something I am very interested in your answer to. In your personal opinion. Is there any type of nonfiction that you can obtain some information from with minimal/no epistemic spot checks? Like, you talk about reading nonfiction for recreation, but by your own admission doing proper epistemic spot checks takes several or even dozens of times longer than actually consuming the original nonfiction. Personally, that doesn’t feel like recreation any more, that just feels like work. That leaves me wondering what I should even be doing. Do you think I should just avoid nonfiction entirely when I’m not in the mood to spend a significant span of time studying it?
Yeah, I think typical recreational reading of nonfiction is irresponsible and have mostly stopped doing it. Even sticking to sources you trust or are trusted by sources you trust is imperfect, because no one person can cover everything so your frame will be distorted even if they are perfect. This position is indeed incredibly inconvenient.
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