Some years ago, I have participated at and especially listened to numerous high-brow discussions about signalling theory. Several fellow Harvard Junior Fellows did this segment of general biology at the world class level so I couldn't have escaped. Richard Dawkins was among those who have participated in the discussion whether the signalling should be considered an attribute of individuals, groups, genes, or species, and many other "details". What am I talking about?
Animals (and humans) communicate in various ways and they need to send the information to their prey, to predators, to potential or current sexual partners, and more. "I am great" is a very typical message that needs to be sent but some individuals may be incentivized to lie and cheat and send this "information" even when it is untrue. One of the core tenets of signaling theory is that the best and strongest (or most credible!) signals are the costliest ones.
The peacock's tail is a popular prototype of this principle. A beautiful tail (I mean a handsome one because, like for ducks, the attractive colorful ones are male!) takes a huge amount of work to be produced (well, it's done mostly by "unconscious" cells in the peacock's body but it doesn't matter) and it is seemingly useless. In reality, it plays a role and the role is in signalling. By having this useless colorful stuff, the handsome male allows the females to reasonably conclude that "this dude can afford it". Well, the dude can afford the production of a useless organ. But it can also afford being visible which indicates that he is more likely to be able to escape from the predators (he probably needs to demonstrate his speed often if he is this visible).
A handicap race is a horse race in which better horses carry greater weights. Why is it arranged in this way? It is arranged so that it is harder to guess who wins and the bookmakers offer the same rate for all the horses. It is clear that the bookmakers have the interest to balance the chances as much as possible, otherwise the betters would bet on the best horse and they would have a higher chance of winning (and the bookmaker could lose money). It follows that you may determine the best horse (according to the information known to the organizers) by finding the horse with the heaviest handicap (weight).
We may find these situations in most species including humans, of course. And I mean even advanced activities such as the Bitcoin mining. Like the peacock's tail, the sequence of numbers "calculated" by the Bitcoin miners (it is not a real "calculation": one simply tries the possible long codes one-by-one and waits for one that obeys a condition that is unlikely to be obeyed) is intrinsically useless but it plays a role of credibly signalling to the system that the miner is serious about being responsible for the confirmation of the Bitcoin transactions. Well, there is a difference from the peacocks. Better, faster peacocks mean the high likelihood of good offspring and survival of the family. Having some Bitcoin miners who may prove to hold a majority of the GPU power is useless for the system (because fiat currencies and/or lottery tickets replace "what the Bitcoin network may do" and they do it better). Bitcoin mining is a genuine waste of an incredible amount of electricity.
For some time, it could have been right to consider virtue signalling to be a human example of signaling theory. According to Wikipedia,
Virtue signalling is a public expression of a moral viewpoint with the intent of communicating good character.Some years ago, the new leftists could have been "new", indeed, and by screaming ludicrous idiocies such as "there are numerous sexes or genders", they indicated that they have belonged to the avant garde and they demanded a position in the avant garde. Also, they often paid a price because in the good old times, "progressives" screaming similar things (or things similar to Gr@ta Thunberg) were refused as friends, employees, and they were often locked in padded cells. Supporters of Hamas (and its plan to liquidate Israel) were placed in prisons and so on. The price of this signal was damn real and that is why the signal was strong or credible, like the colorful peacock's tail.
But a point that I tried to make in the previous blog post (including the very title) – and in a discussion with Honza underneath that article – is that what otherwise reasonable, non-progressive people often call "virtue signalling" is actually no longer composed of strong or credible signals. We could say that most of these "signals" are so weak that they are no signals at all. They are transferring almost no information in bits (and, correspondingly, the people saying the PC falsehoods don't really "gain" anything significant because such falsehoods became so abundant). Indeed, as signalling theory says, this conclusion is right simply because we have switched to a societal environment where the people pay pretty much no price for behaving like the unhinged extreme leftists. Authors of woke assertions may be rewarded by the leftist system; and there is no real punishment from the honest and sensible people because those are effectively non-existent. So one collects net benefits for saying "there are more than 2 sexes and \(1+1\neq 2\)"! And everyone has heard these clichés, it's so easy to repeat them, and that's why the repetition of these widespread lies is the attitude of choice for the laziest people (and those are an increasing fraction of the society).
This deterioration of the society occurred primarily because the "enforcers of the costs" ceased to work properly and they became (sometimes softcore versions) of the left-wing activists. Because the people saying and doing insane things no longer pay any (significant) price, they are no longer sending any (significant) information. Saying stupid and dangerous things such as "there are at least 10 sexes" or "we need to fill our countries with millions of Muslim immigrants" have become the "default expectations" in many environments, especially in Western Europe and North America. There used to be people who were firing or otherwise punishing the authors of similar insanities, who have fired employees who expected to get a salary just because they had a sexual identity or a particular skin color. But these days, the responsible people are not doing their work – the extremely important work of punishing and eliminating snowflakes, SJWs, and similar liars, pests, and parasites.
Two or three decades ago (and maybe even one decade ago), every single research group that has had any nontrivial record in doing nontrivial research in theoretical high-energy physics would quickly refuse a person who parrotted extremely dumb anti-physics clichés from some of the crappiest popular books or cesspools on the Internet. In July 2020, co-father of string theory John Schwarz gave an extensive interview about his role in the rise of string theory, the mechanisms that worked within the universities then and now, and also about the old critics of string theory such as Feynman and especially Glashow, the latter was an extreme example. Schwarz also mentioned the critics at a "different level":
Because he was really an extreme example. There were a couple popular books that attacked string theory about a decade or so ago. The authors clearly had chips on their shoulders. For people without a physics background it’s not possible to assess whether what they’re reading makes sense or not. But anyone with at least an undergraduate education in physics I think can recognize that they should not be taken seriously.Right. A person who says ludicrous things such as "there are 12 equally good competitors [candidate unifying theories] to string theory" is clearly hopeless even as an undergraduate student who could consider becoming a theoretical physicist. Well, I think that Schwarz slightly overstated the situation. There are surely very many alumni with undergraduate degrees (even physics-related ones) who still don't get why it is so hard to unify Einstein's gravity and quantum field theory and they may believe that you may easily invent 12 different theories or you may ignore string theory. But they are not good enough alumni to be considered for a graduate school. A student with theoretical physics inclinations simply does understand these basic things as an undergraduate (or earlier). The conclusion "string theory is the only game in town" isn't being taught and can't be really taught (because indoctrination doesn't deserve to be called teaching) but every promising student is capable of extracting this message from numerous partial insights that he or she has mastered, at least to some extent.
So in the past, those who wanted to brag about being "courageous anti-string-theory warriors" did pay a price. They gained the ability to gain a position in the community of activists of some sort but they couldn't have gotten jobs etc. The situation has changed. Of course you may get jobs (so far at subpar universities) even when you say similarly ultra-stupid things about unification in physics. But that was just the first step. The quality of the education and research is collapsing at all levels. So years later, it became normal to deny quantum mechanics and you may find people who are employed as researchers who are really uncertain whether \(1+1=2\) now. The average intellectual credentials expected from the undergrads are probably lower than those expected from high school students half a century ago.
Because "being an absolute trash from the mathematics and physics viewpoint" has become so common (if not the "default expectation") in most environments, including those that were rather good just a decade ago, similar gestures of "alignment with similar activist groups", e.g. "alignment with those who claim that \(1+1\neq 2\)", became the default standard, almost equivalent to "saying nothing", and people saying these stupid things no longer pay any (significant) price and no longer convey any (significant) information.
The situation has really reversed and the following quote by George Orwell became essential for the undergranding of these matters:
In a time of deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act.Sadly, that is where the Western nations find themselves at nowadays. It is the sane side, the side that keeps its \(1+1=2\), that is doing something courageous now (sadly, the manifestations of this courage are increasingly infrequent). And I am not talking just about those of us who say all these things "without any filtering or suppression of the volume". Even people who say "partly true or partly heretical statements" are displaying some nontrivial courage in these times. Even a "somewhat relaxed progressive" who says something that is vaguely "progressive" but it is not a carbon copy of the preferred far left talking points is taking a risk, becomes visible, and is conveying the information about himself or herself. I think it's important for conservatives to have some appreciation for these potentially semi-sane and courageous "moderate leftists" of many flavors.
So I am convinced that if you want to use signalling theory properly, you should take the new situation into account. I think that "virtue signalling" has really become a misnomer for the far left talking points. Instead, in agreement with Orwell's quote, it is the sensible people such as those who say that \(1+1=2\) who are "virtue signalling". They may be paying their high price for \(1+1=2\) and "there are two sexes" and "importing millions of Muslims is a suicide" and other things. But by embracing these risks or paying these prices (and numerous people have paid a high price), these people are credibly showing some integrity, courage, and understanding of the vital principles of the world. It is "us" who is virtue signalling now! And the situation will only be fixed when "someone" makes sure that the people saying insane lies are paying their prices prices again, e.g. that the Gr@tins are returned to the padded cells or jails where they have always belonged. After these fixes occur, "virtue signalling" may become appropriate for the rank-and-file new leftists but it is not an appropriate label today.
And that's the memo.