Is Eric Weinstein a crackpot?
The grand unified theories of the man who brought us the Intellectual Dark Web.
Is Eric Weinstein—unofficial founder of the “Intellectual Dark Web,” money manager for eccentric billionaire Peter Thiel, and frequent guest on the Joe Rogan show and other power podcasts, where he’s gained a reputation for brilliance—a crackpot?
This question came up near the end of a long conversation I just had on The Wright Show with a mathematician named Timothy Nguyen, and it actually has two dimensions. The first dimension—the main subject of my dialogue with Nguyen—has to do with physics.
Weinstein, who has a PhD in math from Harvard, says he’s developed a unified field theory—a “theory of everything”—that, if correct, could not only put him next to Einstein in the physics pantheon, but put him above Elon Musk in the visionary hierarchy. Whereas Musk wants to take people to Mars, so they can safeguard human civilization in the event that Earth implodes, Weinstein says Mars doesn’t buy us enough insurance. He says his theory of physics—the theory of “Geometric Unity”—could open up whole new vistas: Maybe once we have the universe’s “source code,” which a fully developed version of his theory would provide, we’ll see that Einstein was wrong to think nothing can move faster than the speed of light, and then we can send humans beyond the solar system in search of hospitable planets.
Suppose, Weinstein said on the Lex Fridman podcast, that Musk “got us to Mars, the moon, let’s throw in Titan. Nowhere near good enough. The diversification level is too low.” But you can’t really blame Musk. “He doesn’t know how to do anything else. He knows rockets.” Weinstein, in contrast, knows Geometric Unity, which, he says, can “give us hope of breaking the Einsteinian speed limit.”
So, all told, Weinstein’s theory—which he finally released in written form this April after much drum roll—would, if valid, be quite an accomplishment for someone who, at age 55, has never published a paper in a physics journal.
I’m not fit to pass judgment on Weinstein’s theory or its relevance to the crackpot question. If you want to see that done by someone with appropriate credentials, you can find my conversation with Nguyen (who did work on theoretical physics before leaving academia to do AI research at Google) here.
The dimension of the crackpot question I feel more qualified to explore is the second one:
Weinstein has a tendency to sound like a conspiracy theorist—and, not infrequently, like a victim of the conspiracies he theorizes. He says he would have become famous in math and physics circles decades ago had his ideas not been squelched by what he calls the “Distributed Idea Suppression Complex” (DISC). He says the DISC also kept his brother Bret (a biologist), and his wife Pia Malaney (an economist) from getting due credit for academic work they did as PhD students. Had it not been for the DISC, he says, both might have won Nobel Prizes—which could have meant three Nobels for his family, since, he says, he might have won one too, in a DISCless world.
Among the DISC’s other alleged doings: suppressing non-mainstream ideas about covid’s origins and its possible treatments, misleading Americans about good nutrition, and, several decades ago, producing fake news about a supposed shortage of American scientists and engineers. This last one, says Weinstein, was big, because it helped build support for liberal immigration laws—which allowed “the Chinese to populate our labs and put a proctoscope in the entire university system, which is where we do our research, so they would get the benefits of… all the stuff we were doing with our freedom and then they’d go implement and execute with totalitarianism.” Weinstein didn’t vote for Trump (which his boss Thiel famously did), but he has nationalist leanings and a feel for populist rhetoric. “The enemy is the DISC,” he says.
Weinstein’s DISC paradigm isn’t the craziest species of conspiracy theory—and, in a certain sense, isn’t a conspiracy theory at all. As the D—for “distributed”—suggests, the DISC isn’t a centralized operation, but rather something that emerges from the imperatives of various institutions, including universities and mainstream media. In some cases “DISC” just seems to refer to gatekeepers whose existence is undeniable—influential people and institutions that try to marginalize ideas deemed undesirable. In that sense, the DISC is the thing that, in Weinstein’s view, created an urgent need for the Intellectual Dark Web (whose name he coined), which was conceived as a network of fearless truth tellers who would defy, in particular, the suppression efforts of woke speech police.
But some of the DISC’s influence does seem to involve conspiracy in the strict sense. The ginned-up claims about a shortage of scientists and engineers, says Weinstein, began with a “secret study,” conducted by the National Academy of Sciences, that found “the price of American scientists and engineers was going to hit six figures.” After reflecting on this finding, “they said let’s fake a demographic supply crisis where we wouldn’t have enough scientists.” The result, he says, was a second study that helped build support for the H-1B provision in the 1990 Immigration Act.
Weinstein recounts in similarly dark tones the work in the mid-1990s of “the Boskin Commission,” a Senate-appointed group of five economists whose recommendations for revising the inflation index made it politically easier for the government to cut Social Security costs (by reducing the cost-of-living adjustment for benefits). Senators Bob Packwood and Daniel Moynihan “picked five economists who were willing to play the dirty game,” says Weinstein.
One striking thing about these conspiracies is their intersection with Weinstein’s path through life. He says he met with key people at the National Academy of Sciences on four different occasions, and each time he told them that “I had caught them in this conspiracy against American scientists.” As for the question of why people at the Academy would keep asking Weinstein to repeat his accusation—why they “had me there four times… asked me four times to tell them I’d caught them”: Apparently Weinstein thinks they were gathering intelligence. “They wanted to know, ‘How much do you know? How much do you know?’ And then there’s no record that any of this happened.”
Oddly, for such a delicate debriefing operation, they seem to have sometimes invited journalists. Then again, maybe the journalists were part of the conspiracy. “They had a reporter there from Science magazine. And I spoke. And there’s no record that I ever said anything.”
The Boskin commission, too, turns out to have a Weinstein angle. One of the five economists who was “willing to play the dirty game” is also, according to Weinstein, a big reason his wife Pia didn’t get recognition for her Nobel-caliber work.
That work involved the application of “gauge theory,” a math tool from physics, to economics—something Eric had suggested and helped her develop. As it happens, this tool could be used to calculate the inflation index—indeed, Eric and Pia believed, it was superior to the tools used by the Boskin commission. But, after Harvard economist Dale Jorgenson was appointed to the commission, and Pia, a grad student in the Harvard econ department, met with him and offered him the tool, he was dismissive. His subsequent antagonism, according to the story Eric and Pia told the author of a book called The Physics of Wall Street, seriously damaged her career.
Eric seems to think that gauge theory tools, if adopted by the commission, would have made it harder to fudge the inflation index, and that this explains Jorgenson’s reaction to Pia. So in his mind, Harvard—through Jorgenson’s influence—was implicated in two DISC operations at once. “The way they did it [distorted the inflation index] was they buried what I think is probably the best work in 25 to 50 years in mathematical economics.” Had it not been for this burial of Eric and Pia’s application of gauge theory to economics, there would have been a revolution in economics “where we change the calculus underlying all of economic theory.”
Here is the strange thing about Weinstein’s conspiracy theories: I don’t find them all that strange. I mean, sure, the Weinstein family’s strikingly dramatic connection to them is something whose details I’d like to see independently verified. But it’s not far-fetched to think that, say, senators who are deficit-conscious but afraid to cut benefits would select an inflation index re-evaluation committee that just happened to include economists inclined to move the index in the appropriate direction.
And it wouldn’t shock me if a panel at the National Academy of Sciences charged with assessing the future supply of scientists and engineers was mindful that universities like to have a big pool of grad students so as to maximize research bang per buck. And I’m sure American tech companies would have been happy to add their influence to that cause.
But there are two things that bother me about Weinstein’s approach to all this:
1) In conspiracies, as in physics, Weinstein insists on having a grand unified theory. The DISC’s various activities, according to Weinstein, flow from the need to protect the GIN (the “Gated Institutional Narrative”)—an imperative that in turn is rooted in the need of all kinds of institutions to conceal (for reasons I don’t understand) the fact that they can’t meet the growth expectations they established half a century ago (for reasons I also don’t understand). Or something like that.
Personally, I like to explain nefarious activities in a less unified yet simpler way: They result from people doing the kinds of things people do. Senators like to dodge political responsibility for budget cuts. University presidents like smart and hardworking graduate students who will settle for low stipends. Heads of big companies favor pretty much anything that will cut labor costs. And if you ask an economist if he’d like to abandon analytical tools he’s painstakingly mastered and take a crash course in an alien language called “gauge theory” (and, what’s more, convince four other people on a Senate-appointed commission to suspend operations while they join him on this journey)—well, I can imagine reasons he’d demur whether or not he’s vigilantly defending the Gated Institutional Narrative.
So too with Weinstein’s claim that his brother got way too little credit for an important idea in biology. The story itself—told in an episode of Eric’s podcast The Portal—sounds fairly plausible (though whether the idea was Nobel-worthy is another question). But why invoke the DISC? How about just saying that Bret, when a young, naive grad student, made the mistake of sharing his unpublished idea with a high-powered scientist by phone, thus leaving no written record of the communication and making it easy for the scientist to deploy the idea without crediting Bret? Sometimes people steal stuff.
These and other purported DISC doings can be explained via basic human motivations: to raise social status (idea-stealing professors), to save time and protect social status (new-idea-resisting professors), to dodge blame (senators), to make or save money (university presidents, tech company CEOs), and so on. In fact, we have all, at one time or another, in one way or another, betrayed the cause of truth in the service of basic human motivations. Which leads to the second thing that bothers me about the way Weinstein talks about this stuff:
2. Weinstein doesn’t realize that he is now part of a distributed idea suppression complex. This brings us back to Timothy Nguyen. He co-authored a paper that is the only serious written critique of Weinstein’s grand theory of physics to date. Weinstein, who had long said he welcomes criticism of his theory, is refusing to engage with it. And when, in a Clubhouse session in May, a math professor asked when he was going to respond to the paper, he went on a weird rant, making uncorroborated ad hominem attacks.
The rant is worth listening to, but before you click that link, there are three things you should know: (1) Nguyen co-authored his critique with a physics PhD who isn’t in academia and who, for career reasons, chose to publish under a pseudonym, “Theo Polya”—and Weinstein cites this anonymity as reason not to respond to the paper. (2) Weinstein’s seeming allegation that Nguyen and Polya have made “misogynistic” remarks and, specifically, “disrespected” a well-known physicist named Sabine Hossenfelder is odd in light of the fact that Hossenfelder let Nguyen use her blog to launch the paper critiquing Weinstein’s theory. (3) The “server” Weinstein keeps referring to is a Discord discussion group that Nguyen has participated in; Weinstein seems to be holding him responsible for everything anyone (allegedly) said there.
As you listen to Weinstein’s Clubhouse discourse, note a voice in the background supporting Weinstein’s argument that a paper with an anonymous co-author shouldn’t be taken seriously. That’s Brian Keating, a physicist who is hosting the Clubhouse session and is host of an important science podcast called Into the Impossible, which has repeatedly given Weinstein a platform for discussing his grand theory.
It seems safe to say that Nguyen won’t be appearing on Into the Impossible. And I doubt he’ll appear on other big podcasts where Weinstein has discussed Geometric Unity, such as Lex Fridman’s influential show or Joe Rogan’s very, very influential show (on which Weinstein referred dismissively to Nguyen’s paper without mentioning his name). Weinstein seems pretty tight with all three hosts.
Are these podcasts, so long as they grant access to Weinstein but not Nguyen, part of a “distributed idea suppression complex”? If you apply the term as broadly as Weinstein does, the answer is yes. No doubt Weinstein, if he were in Nguyen’s shoes, would answer the question that way.
In my conversation with Nguyen, he seemed to suggest, while declining to go into detail, that Weinstein has pro-actively reached out to influential people in an attempt to limit the attention paid to his critique of Weinstein’s theory. But even if he’s wrong about that—or if I misunderstood him—the Clubhouse tape alone is strong evidence that Weinstein is actively trying to marginalize the critique by stigmatizing Nguyen. Weinstein, who has organized much of his world view around opposition to people who try to suppress ideas they find threatening, is now one of those people.
As for whether Weinstein is a crackpot: I can think of three reasons to shy away from an affirmative answer.
(1) Strange as some of Weinstein’s stranger stories are, I’d have to do more research before passing final judgment on them. And some of them I could never judge. For example: Weinstein says that as a graduate student he discovered some famous equations called the “Seiberg-Witten equations” before Seiberg and Witten did, but the DISC—in the form of Harvard faculty who dismissed his work as unimportant, just as they did with Geometric Unity—squashed this idea. Nguyen, who did his PhD dissertation on the Seiberg-Witten equations and discussed them with Weinstein on Discord back when the two were on speaking terms, has grave doubts about this claim. But who am I to say?
(2) I feel about crackpottery the way I feel about idea suppression. There’s a lot of it around, and it comes in varying degrees. So it’s hard to divide the world cleanly into crackpots and non-crackpots. To put it another way:
Weinstein does appear to have a higher degree of crackpottery than most people, but look at some parts of his psychology that drive it: he thinks his ideas are very important; he thinks he doesn’t get as much credit as he deserves (especially for those important ideas); he interprets in unflattering, even dark, terms the motivations of people who seem to keep him (or his relatives) from getting credit; he strains to see pattern where it may not exist. I could go on, but the point is this: Don’t pretty much all of us have these tendencies? Aren’t they just parts of human nature?
Of course, they’re tuned to different levels in different people. And Weinstein’s seem set at 11. But the fact that most of us (certainly including me) have at one time or another been misled by them into believing things that weren’t true makes it hard to draw a crisp line between crackpots and everybody else.
(3) Words like “crackpot” can be tools of idea suppression. They’re sometimes used to get us to ignore people’s arguments. Of course, there are people who are so far gone that there’s no point in listening to anything they say, but I don’t think Weinstein is in that class. He’s very smart and knowledgeable, which is one reason he’s a valued podcast guest, even if another reason he’s a valued podcast guest—his powerful attraction to bold, arresting declarations—is reason to carefully and skeptically inspect his claims and proposals.
So, all told, I think I’ll refrain from applying the ‘crackpot’ label here. I don’t think we should marginalize Weinstein’s ideas by stigmatizing him—even if he’s trying to do that to someone else.
Notes: Quotes from Weinstein, except where links indicate otherwise, come from the Joe Rogan podcast, episode #1628. And here, again, is my conversation with mathematician Timothy Nguyen about Weinstein’s theory of Geometric Unity.
Excellent, thoughtful, analysis. The other natural human tendency that I am aware of (especially as a scientist) is the search for patterns and then explaining those patterns with a model. Models are necessarily wrong in that they are simplifications, that is they only explain X percent (less than 100 and often far less than 100) of the observed variation. But we LOVE explanations that simplify reality because they make us feel smart AND they give us confidence (which is very sexy and therefore has its own evolutionary benefits). Going into battle, who are you more like to follow the guy that says, “I know we can win with my plan!” Or the guy who says, “I’m not sure we can win this way but we ought give it our best shot with the understanding that it might not work.”
I have had enough brilliant people in my life who have made similar claims—“I discovered this theory before that person did”; “My ideas undermined someone else’s power, so they suppressed them”—that this analysis rings very, very true. It doesn’t mean they aren’t truly brilliant, even genius, or that decision makers made choices they disagreed with. But there’s a constant sense that the world owes them something for their brilliance (recognition, money, a Nobel Prize). It’s an exhausting thing to live with.
I watched Weinstein with his wife on Rogan’s podcast the first time they were on I think. She was really interesting. I’d have been willing to hear more of her but had no need to listen to him ever again.