The Theory of Displacement Value

The Theory of Displacement Value
Illustration for Atoms vs. Bits by Helen Leon

Update: This concept has been renamed "displacement value"


What do gut bacteria do again? It seems really important to have the right ones, but everyone is vague about what exactly they do.

Well, I’m here to tell you that they do nothing.

And boy is that something.

I’m not saying that good gut bacteria only do nothing. They have numerous benefits, but possibly the most important is just existing and taking up space so that bad bacteria have nowhere to invade. If you accept it as a given that your warm, nutrient-filled gut is invariably going to have stuff living in it, you can see the benefit of having the most harmless tenants possible. Thus:

Displacement value: Benefit caused by the displacement of negative impact, rather than the creation of positive impact.

It’s not just good gut bacteria that have displacement value. Once you start looking for it, you’ll find that the world is filled with similar unsung heroes crowding out the bad guys. To name a few:

Homeopathic medicine

At first blush homeopathic medicine sounds like the ultimate snake oil. It’s literally just water.

At second blush, however, it’s the platonic ideal of a placebo. It’s literally just water.

This means it’s not only one of the few substances we know no one will react to,[1] but it’s also (currently) cheap and abundant. This means patients can afford it and there won’t be huge resource misallocations like how ginseng goes for $8000 per pound and entire cottage industries have sprung up to source it. You could even say that the Northern White Rhino would still be around if consumers preferred homeopathy to horns.

When you compare it to anything else outside of mainstream medicine, it really does seem to be maximally safe in all dimensions. There’s always going to be an alternative medicine space contrasting with empirical treatments, so we’re going to need something to slot in there.

Even the more conventionally-minded sometimes insist on treatment so they feel like they’re being proactive, even if all they actually need is some rest. Isn't homeopathy then preferable to “real” medicine which could induce side effects or have second-order effects like antibiotic resistance?

Considering all this, water-capsule placebos look pretty good.[2]

Tourette’s-like Tics

Since about 2020, adolescent girls have started coming down with Tourette’s-like tics: stereotyped movements and vocal outbursts. The timing and presentation of their symptoms suggest a social contagion rather than typical Tourette’s. This sounds bad, but again, in comparison to what?

For young women, in particular, various social contagions have come and gone. In 1966 “an epidemic of overbreathing among schoolgirls” was reported (it would now be called “hyperventilating”), while many of us will remember the alarming rise of Bulimia in the ’90s. Bulimia thankfully appears to have peaked around 1996, which is especially good news considering it’s one of the deadliest mental illnesses.

But could the most dangerous social contagions be avoided? If they are something of a background inevitability, what sort is the most benign?

I would nominate gesticulations and shouts of “baked beans!” It’s in the craze sweet spot of being visible and weird, while still physically harmless[3] compared to fainting or starvation.

Religion?

Nietzsche’s most famous words were “God is dead”, indicating that rationalism had disproven the ancient claims of religion and resulted in newfound and widespread unbelief. In Ecce Homo, his last original work before going insane, he predicts what will subsequently replace the belief in God:

For when Truth battles against the lies of millennia there will be shock waves, earthquakes, the transposition of hills and valleys such as the world has never yet imagined even in its dreams. The concept “politics” then becomes entirely absorbed into the realm of spiritual warfare. All the mighty worlds of the ancient order of society are blown into space—for they are all based on lies: there will be wars the like of which have never been seen on earth before. Only after me will there be grand politics on earth.

With horrifying accuracy, Nietzsche predicted that political ideology replacing traditional religion would result in unparalleled bloodshed. The dogma of 20th-century totalitarians did indeed become the new religion, and heaven help you if you were their heretic.

The very worst of the 20th-century ideologies have now mostly been left behind, often because of their inherent self-destructiveness. Today, political ideologies are still held with religious fervor, only now they die slower and less dramatic deaths. They remain noxious in the meantime, and their soon-to-be adrift adherents are further conditioned to seek meaning in politics.

After the decline of traditional faith, the ensuing churn of political religions makes me believe that total religiosity is largely conserved; we’ve just been shuffling it around between better or worse vessels.

Through a sort of evolutionary mechanism, belief systems usually moderate over time, similar to how some pathogens trend less virulent. It’s a matter of the wackiest beliefs eventually handicapping or even killing their adherents. The stodgy old religions have had time to go through this process to end up at a comparatively innocuous equilibrium, while the newer political religions are yet to take their lumps.

Thus, Church/Mosque/Synagogue/Temple being boring might truly be a feature, not a bug. Gosh, at its best it's just a bunch of old platitudes on living a good life and how the rewards are spiritual, not material.

Yes, at its best that’s exactly what it is. If it’s much else it’s something far darker, it’s politics.

So see you in the pews, chugging water and screaming “baked beans!”[4]


  1. At normal doses. As for aquagenic urticaria or aquagenic pruritus aka “water allergy”, that is from skin contact; sufferers can still ingest water. ↩︎

  2. Yes, some people are going to pursue homeopathy instead of an empirically effective treatment. If it weren’t homeopathy though, it would likely be something worse or more expensive. The trick is to keep homeopathy countercultural so that it always feels like an alternative to mainstream medicine. Therefore, I’m doing important work by making fun of it. ↩︎

  3. Tics sometimes include hitting themselves or others, obviously I’m not referring to this. ↩︎

  4. As my co-blogger Uri notes, this blog itself is an instance of displacement value. It displaces projects that I might otherwise be diverting my FIRE funds towards. The best thing I can do with my time is nothing, i.e. blog. ↩︎


Thanks to Uri and Kaamya for feedback on drafts of this.



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