Schrödinger’s Staredown

Friends, the gyre has widened. Again.

In September, Ben wrote a Brief called Schrödinger’s Senate Hearing. It explored the effect of the widening gyre on our conscious intellectual processes – on our capacity to effectively reason. Presenting the Kavanaugh confirmation in terms of Schrödinger’s Cat, Ben showed how political polarization makes it nearly impossible for us to entertain, much less maintain, a probabilistic framework for understanding the world. The widening gyre is an environment in which we must adopt a deterministic framework, in which we must auto-tune our views to one of several discrete possible values.

Just over a month later, in November, I wrote a Brief called Hey, Maybe It’s the Needle. It was an exploration of the Jim Acosta microphone affair – remember that? – and what it could teach us about the influence of the widening gyre on something as fundamental as our senses. As absurd as it still sounds, it demonstrated that two perfectly reasonable, perfectly intelligent, perfectly decent people could watch the same video and come away with entirely different conclusions about what took place.

During that time – and much further back – we’ve written ad nauseam about the acts of political missionaries (President Trump chief among them) and the media missionaries who seek to tell us how to think about events and issues. To our peril, those missionary statements are so often clothed in the finery of facts and information, but with an implicit or explicit underlying aim to conflate those facts and information with subjective ideas through the use of powerful symbols and memes.

If it hasn’t happened already, in the next day or so you will probably be forced to open Schrödinger’s Box once again. Instead of Brett Kavanaugh or Jim Acosta, however, this time the box will contain at once the many possible explanations for the confrontation that took place in front of the Lincoln Memorial this weekend. But as with the prior such events, missionaries of each side have crafted narratives that make it nearly impossible to think clearly and independently about what took place. The result is that two otherwise perfectly reasonable, perfectly intelligent, perfectly decent people will watch the same videos and come away with one of these two interpretations of the events in it:

Choice A: A group of smirking teens in MAGA hats harassed, mocked and were disrespectful in multiple ways to a veteran and native American elder. This is really yet another story about what Trump’s cozy attitude toward white nationalism and open racism is doing to America, and about the millions of Americans who will stand by in silence when vulnerable populations are assaulted.

Choice B: A group of Black Hebrew Israelites shouted homophobic and racist taunts at a group of Catholic kids waiting on their parents. A drummer from an indigenous people’s group came between them and started banging a drum in the face of one of the kids. The kid didn’t know what to do and stood still. This is really just another story about the media crafting a narrative, calling it fact, and inciting doxxing and violence from the ‘tolerant left.’

It’s a brutal pair of choices, but those dueling narratives become clear in NLP analysis. Here are the stories from Saturday, January 19th. They are completely one-dimensional, and offer one explanation. On this day, 74% of the articles discussing the event expressed enough confidence in the facts of the events to use the fairly loaded words “mock” or “taunt.” Around 57% thought it important to reference “MAGA hats.” Just over 41% used the word “hate.” None of us is invulnerable to this type of single-narrative missionary activity. I know that I wasn’t.

Source: Epsilon Theory, Quid

By late Saturday into Sunday morning, longer videos of the entire event emerged. At that point, the narrative didn’t change. It split. There was now a coherent narrative of highly similar language and imagery describing the event as MAGA Hat Harassment, and a completely separate counter-narrative based on the interpretation of the more complete video and additional eyewitness accounts. In the narrative map of news articles from January 20th below, you can see the former on the left, and the latter on the bottom right.

Source: Epsilon Theory, Quid

When you closely examine the terms and phrases used in each of these two dominant narratives, you notice something else: In less than one day, the authors within each cluster are hard at work to find connections to other issues of broader significance. For people slotted by the widening gyre into Choice A, this was no longer a single ugly event. It was another seminal moment in the history of privilege and hate. It was another 1960 Woolworth’s Lunch Counter, another Little Rock Nine. It revealed the real hearts of those behind pro-life march and religious schools. It was a symbol of how Trump and his supporters have tacitly enabled hatred of all kinds. It was a symbol of all those smirking children of privilege.

For those forced into Choice B, the event wasn’t about the kids or the elder at all. It was now a symbol of the unchecked bias of media elites. It was a symbol of Trump Derangement Syndrome. It was a symbol of how the political left ignores homophobia and hate if it serves their political purposes. It was a symbol of how far people would go to thwart Trump and conservatives, like celebrities, politicians and members of the media openly campaigning to ruin the lives of teenagers before all the facts were available, and then refusing to walk back their words when they were.

The Competition Game is our Zeitgeist.

In a Competition Game, the gyre continues to widen because both the cause and effect of each widening event – its abstraction into existential memetic symbols – are the same. A chain of linked engagements. This is another skirmish on the battlefield that has defined every event that has shaped this widening gyre. On the one hand are those whose Greater Truth is the existential importance of protecting historically marginalized people from institutionalized sources of power. On the other hand are those whose Greater Truth is the existential threat of a left-wing monoculture in media, entertainment and academic institutions that control all of our cultural narratives. You don’t have to think that these things are equivalent in importance (I don’t) to believe that they represent good-faith fears and honest desires (I do). But like all existential fears, when the Zeitgeist becomes a Competition Game, they come to define our divisions. This wasn’t the first such skirmish. It won’t be the last. Each will leave us more divided.

But there’s something in this event in particular that worries me: Our machinery for translating any kind of event into an existential crisis that requires us to abandon a humble, probabilistic view of the world has evolved into something truly exquisite. It now takes that machinery less than a single day to extrapolate the meaning of an event into Common Knowledge – something that everybody knows that everybody knows. It takes only hours to marshal us all into defense of issues of existential importance to our Greater Truth.

Under these circumstances, it’s hard to have clear eyes about any of our priors or how those priors are influencing our interpretation of reality. It’s a rotten state of affairs for our civil society, but it’s a really rotten state of affairs for any fact-based process or profession.

So what do we do, that is, if we’re not willing to settle for rank nihilism? Now more than ever, I think we’ve got to look for people of varying philosophical views and circumstances with whom we can come to a mutual agreement: to hold one another accountable and to trust one another’s expressed motives. People who will wait and think with us, who will understand that our hesitance to jump into the fray isn’t evidence of a lack of principle or conviction, but respect for the empirical observation that our judgment will inevitably be clouded by the Zeitgeist.

Around here we call that a pack. If you haven’t found one, do it now, before this widening gyre makes it impossible.

To learn more about Epsilon Theory and be notified when we release new content sign up here. You’ll receive an email every week and your information will never be shared with anyone else.


  1. That’s what this is about?!?!?!?! I just saw the pictures online and assumed it was just a bunch of ahole Patriot fans circling the wagons outside of Arrowhead. Ugh, I like my version better.

  2. The best advice I’ve seen on this is to wait 48 hrs before diving in. Let the echo chambers stop reverberating. Then look. Not easy to do these days.

  3. The Fear Industry…Do not drink anyones Coo-liad, anyone! You should always look to improve but always remain a skeptic and one Missionary trying to replace another Missionary…

    “Are you preparing for another war, Plutarch?” I ask.

    “Oh, not now. Now we’re in that sweet period where everyone agrees that our recent horrors should never be repeated,” he says. “But collective thinking is usually short-lived. We’re fickle, stupid beings with poor memories and a great gift for self-destruction. Although who knows? Maybe this will be it, Katniss.”

    “What?” I ask.

    “The time it sticks. Maybe we are witnessing the evolution of the human race. Think about that.”

    – Mockingjay, chapter 27…she kills the other missionary in the end…the supposed good missionary.

    [A political cult is characterised by a political or economic doctrine that answers all the ‘big questions’ about life, the world and everything else. The doctrine that is handed down is then to be conceived of as a way to live one’s life – a project, handed down from Mount Sinai, that one is under the moral obligation to spread far and wide. This is why we refer to these movements as cults. And it is this that gives them such an awesome status in the glazed eyes of their devotees.

    Finally, the political cult will usually offer their followers the possibility of a Heaven on Earth. If the follower behaves well and spreads their beliefs to others they will eventually arrive at some sort of Utopia. This is their reward for believing in the doctrines, despite these doctrines being ridiculed by others.] --Pilkington

    Just go buy some gold bars, scream hyperinflation and the like…people love fear and paranoia and it sells very well with high profit margins!

  4. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    At least that long. The perilous part of the racket is the “if you are silent, you are complicit” line that seeks to compel earlier action (externally) and the panicked impression that we are not appropriately offsetting some other side’s perspective (usually an internal impetus).

  5. Totally agree, I’ve started to highly curate the content I consume. Reading primarily via Feedly, curated blogs and email news letters. Perhaps a small wiki page or something where ET readers can post their favorite sources (with a tag to identify if it’s leaning to one side of the gyre) would be neat. Would be happy to setup hosting for something like that if people are interested.

    The narrative map did spark a thought in my mind. I’ve realized it takes hard work, careful thought and an elastic mind to try and navigate these complex issues. It almost seems as if the general news “browsing” public will never go through the effort to try, as it feels to good, and is far to easy to simply get angry.

    But, how could we use data to help inform the general populous that the “chain of articles” leads them down the path towards an end of the gyre. This is sort of what Read Across the Line app tries to do. I’m imaging a chrome or safari plugin that shows you “where” on the narrative map you currently are, and where the links on the page are leading you. One could also think of an automated system that given your region “txts” you an alert if the current news station is heavily influenced. I understand that the “backfire effect” is pretty strong so this may be a non-starter.

  6. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    If it were possible (and it probably is) to do this in a systematic way, this is a…really interesting idea, Willem. I’m always concerned about the injection of priors into the structure of something like this, but that goes with the territory. I’ll bring it up with the Quid team in our next conversation.

  7. Phenomenal. This is an excellent article and perfect timing. I was watching this unfold this weekend on social media and felt the emotional pulls in each direction like the tide was going out on me. Probably because of bias against a lazy media I withheld judgement and wondered what else would come to light, but I still felt strongly pulled towards the “racist!” meme. The next day the “full video” clips started coming out and I strongly felt compelled to the “biased media!” meme. What was lost on me was as you pointed out the fact that this happened rapidly. The whipsaw was like a wave on a highschool physics graph with the midline being “I don’t care” and it pulled you a great distance one way away from center and then just as far in the opposite direction. The strength of each of those pulls was interestingly strong, but the speed for that wave cycle from beginning to end was really amazing.

    It would be interesting to map these events out on a linear graph in chronological order. Things like “Kavanaugh!” “Shutdown/Wall!” etc. I wonder what they look like if we mapped them out as individual waves in a chronological sequence and then measured intensity and wavelength for each event. I think that would be an interesting exercise.

  8. Avatar for fvc fvc says:

    The beauty of managing global assets from far away in the Southern hemisphere is that we often “miss” the bluster of these false narratives. We certainly don’t miss that at all! Clear Eyes, Full Hearts.

  9. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    It would. We can actually do this now when it takes place over days. Our present tools haven’t yet accommodated looking at these things over…well…hours. But no reason they can’t. We will explore it.

  10. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    It is a rare luxury, but alas, I fear we shall all have our day in the sun!

Continue the discussion at the Epsilon Theory Forum

7 more replies


Avatar for rguinn Avatar for Victor_K Avatar for jason-olson Avatar for chudson Avatar for charles Avatar for u3sandifer Avatar for fvc Avatar for willemave Avatar for Melankomas Avatar for grooney

The Latest From Epsilon Theory


This commentary is being provided to you as general information only and should not be taken as investment advice. The opinions expressed in these materials represent the personal views of the author(s). It is not investment research or a research recommendation, as it does not constitute substantive research or analysis. Any action that you take as a result of information contained in this document is ultimately your responsibility. Epsilon Theory will not accept liability for any loss or damage, including without limitation to any loss of profit, which may arise directly or indirectly from use of or reliance on such information. Consult your investment advisor before making any investment decisions. It must be noted, that no one can accurately predict the future of the market with certainty or guarantee future investment performance. Past performance is not a guarantee of future results.

Statements in this communication are forward-looking statements. The forward-looking statements and other views expressed herein are as of the date of this publication. Actual future results or occurrences may differ significantly from those anticipated in any forward-looking statements, and there is no guarantee that any predictions will come to pass. The views expressed herein are subject to change at any time, due to numerous market and other factors. Epsilon Theory disclaims any obligation to update publicly or revise any forward-looking statements or views expressed herein. This information is neither an offer to sell nor a solicitation of any offer to buy any securities. This commentary has been prepared without regard to the individual financial circumstances and objectives of persons who receive it. Epsilon Theory recommends that investors independently evaluate particular investments and strategies, and encourages investors to seek the advice of a financial advisor. The appropriateness of a particular investment or strategy will depend on an investor’s individual circumstances and objectives.