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The Woodchopper and Fisherman of the Intellectual World

The Woodchopper and Fisherman of the Intellectual World

  • Financial media tends to focus on short-term thinking, but what about issues with a much, much broader scope — across time and space?
  • On the heels of an earth-rippling advance in physics, Dr. Paul Sullivan argues that scientists need to communicate better to the public, so we can all understand the stakes in our rapidly changing world.
  • How will a warming planet, dwindling natural resources and the advent of AI affect humanity? It might just depend on our willingness to listen and learn.

Dr. Paul Sullivan hates the expression “black swan” when it’s used to describe an unforeseen (and unpredictable) event. 

“There are black swans in Australia,” he says. “There are black and white swans in Chile. … [The concept of a] black swan is definitely an Anglo-centric view of looking at the world. Black swans happen every day and we should really call them something else.”

Paul would know. As a longtime researcher, writer and educator, he has been to every continent, “except for Antarctica,” he notes. “I’ve published media on every continent and I’m pretty sure except Antarctica. I don’t think they have a journal there … ask the penguins.”

It wouldn’t surprise me if he could ask them. 

Paul is an illustrious polymath, with an emphasis on energy, natural resources and geopolitics. He serves as an advisor to numerous energy companies and consortiums; a distinguished fellow at KFCRIS, the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center and the National Council of U.S.–Arab Relations; an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University and a contributor to Arab News. His CV includes positions at the National Defense University, Georgetown and Yale (his alma mater) as well as news outlets in Turkey and Mongolia. 

“I’ve had people ask me, ‘Why don’t you just settle on one subject?’” says Paul. “Well, with my mind, I would be bored silly after 24 hours and be an impossible person to deal with because I have to constantly dig for new ideas.” 

In order to understand the world better, he believes we should “dig into the issues on the edges that no one would really think about. Pick up a book, pick up a magazine, pick up a journal, pick up a map that has nothing to do with what you’re looking at and twist your mind a little bit.”

We have no qualms about mind-bending topics here on Top Traders Unplugged. Here are selected highlights of the latest episode in our Galactic Macro series. Host (and resident extraterrestrial aficionado) David Dorr explores all corners of the global map with Paul, including the ivory towers of academia, the hallowed halls of the world’s elite physics labs and much more.

Upside-down and interconnected 

Well into his sixties, Paul shows no signs of slowing down. His work “keeps me alive in many ways,” he says. “It keeps life interesting. The questions we have today … some of them I’ve been thinking about for many, many years; others are kind of new to [me]. But you can’t understand any of this stuff through one discipline.”

“It’s definitely cross-disciplinary,” David agrees.

“No, it’s even more than that,” Paul replies, ever the professor. “It’s cross-cultural, it’s inter-religious, it’s inter-linguistic, it’s inter-philosophical. To be a really good investor or advisor, you have to understand so many different fields. … Like this morning’s numbers out of the BLS [Bureau of Labor Statistics]: The employment rate is going up, unemployment went down, GDP [is trending] sharply upward. Conclusion: interest rates are going to increase. But there’s a lot more going on there.”

His major critique of mass media, particularly financial journalism, is that it emphasizes short-term thinking. 

“It’s all so short-term as to be ridiculous,” he says. “If you’re going to be an investor, you have to think long-term, short-term, medium-term and then upside-down term.”

Ripple effects

Paul and David’s conversation takes place on June 29, 2023, which happened to be the day after scientists announced a massive triumph in the field of physics: long-awaited confirmation that gravitational waves ripple the fabric of space and time. The North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves (NANOGrav) team released their findings simultaneously with teams in Europe, India, Australia and China.

“Obviously I’m a big geek on the UFO subject,” says David. “Do you think that we’re about to have some breakthroughs in physics?”

“Well, I think we have breakthroughs in physics all the time, but a lot of it never really hits the public,” Paul counters. “As an undergraduate back in the late 1970s — when dinosaurs were roaming around in Massachusetts — I, just on a whim, took an astrophysics course as a freshman. I was the only freshman in the room. I figured It’s high-level math; I can handle high-level math. Then I started to get into the reality of what we were studying. … It was such a huge intellectual leap. I found it fascinating. I couldn’t sleep thinking about the stuff.”

But so much has changed in physics within our lifetimes, he adds. 

“People are still thinking in Newtonian physics, in Einsteinian physics and even Max Planck-[ian] quantum physics. It’s different. Every generation, it seems, has a new physics, a new way of looking at it, but it doesn’t filter into the public for many years after that — mostly because scientists are really bad communicators of what they do.”

Ideas with a-peel

After he finished his Ph.D., one of Paul’s first jobs was at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where “folks were working on cutting-edge things and pie-in-the-sky things that companies would invest in,” he recalls. “I had such a tough time understanding the super-brainiac physicists.” 

The scientists he worked with had a tough time translating their ideas onto paper; even the academic papers they did write had audiences of “maybe 20 people” and were destined only to collect dust in university libraries. And this phenomenon isn’t limited to astrophysics: Paul remembers how his MIT-trained linguistics professor in college “couldn’t explain how to open up a pizza box without getting overly complicated.”

As humanity grapples with challenges like climate change, Paul says it’s critical for even notoriously difficult disciplines to capture our imaginations.

“If we’re going to do anything positive to help solve some of the [issues] we face, we have to get the ‘edge’ ideas out into the public.”

New inventions and discoveries are “kind of like an orange,” Paul says. “The ideas are the outside, the peel. But the public is on the inside — in the orange, in the juice, and the stuff never gets to them except after many years. The government’s not doing a very good job of moving these ideas to the public either, except for military applications.”

However, war won’t be the answer to our energy problems — although war might very well break out over dwindling energy resources. 

“But that’s the stupid man’s answer to energy resource stress,” says Paul.

Ready or not…

Paul doesn’t consider himself a “great thinker.” He self-identifies as “more of the woodchopper and the fisherman of the intellectual world.” 

To use a musical metaphor, “I’m not the guy who figures out how to make a new Stradivarius,” he adds. “But you see, once a new Stradivarius is figured out, it will take years for people to figure out how to use it.”

That’s an apt analogy for the next topic of conversation: artificial intelligence. Paul and David both worry that very few people outside of niche scientific and academic circles truly grasp the nature of AI, let alone its implications. Paul admits that while he doesn’t fully understand AI, he does see both applications and dangers to its widespread and astonishingly quick adoption.   

“The problem isn’t the technology and the thinking and development of new ideas. It’s that morality and ethics are not keeping up with these changes,” Paul says. “Are we a moral society within AI? Are we even ready for this? I don’t think we are.”

Remember that the next time you query your new friend ChatGPT.

Aligning AI with our human moral compass

David points out that those who do understand the risks of AI, at least as well as anyone can, talk about the problem of “alignment”: We can’t design AI to be controlled; the best we can do is align it with human needs — and ethics. 

Experts suggest that we should have been building large language models and neural networks alongside alignment models — the frameworks that incorporate concepts like morality.

Paul thinks about this issue through another lens: Wittgensteinian private language.

The inimitable 20th-century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein believed that we never really communicate with each other because every individual has their own private understanding of the world, and thus of the words they use. Our personal histories and experiences change the meanings of almost everything we express.

“Does every word you’re taking in from me have the same meaning?” he asks David.  

David replies that it would be impossible for that to be true.

Now, if we apply Wittgenstein’s theory to AI — and we recognize that few people understand much about the concept — it’s unlikely that most of humanity will ever see negative consequences coming.

“Regular folks are pretty much lost on things as simplistic as the price of eggs. This is not to disparage or insult. The functional literacy of the average American … 65% of the public could not read a complicated paragraph. Now we’re introducing these complicated new technologies and this world-changing set of ideas. … Why do you think people can’t understand economic policy? They’ve never had economics training.”

Education about critical issues like energy — how it works, where it comes from and how it’s changing — is “in miserable shape” both in the U.S. and around the world. 

“That’s why our policies are not going in the direction they should be,” Paul adds. “You cannot make proper public policies without having a public that’s ready to understand them.”

That’s something we can all wrap our minds around. And while I can’t solve this problem in one fell swoop, let’s hope that Galactic Macro is a start.

This is based on an episode of Top Traders Unplugged, a bi-weekly podcast with the most interesting and experienced investors, economists, traders and thought leaders in the world. Sign up to our Newsletter or Subscribe on your preferred podcast platform so that you don’t miss out on future episodes.