Slate Star Codex

Good for the good god! Utils for the util throne!

Open Thread 5: My Best Friend’s Threadding

I’m off to California for the weekend to attend Alicorn and Mike’s wedding, so don’t expect much SSC for a few days. Here’s an Open Thread to keep you occupied till then.

1. Comments of the “month” are Robby on idealism in Continental philosophy and Anatoly on giraffe sex.

2. Frequent SSC commenter Ialdabaoth has unfairly fallen on some hard times, and also-frequent-SSC-commenter Elissa is asking us to help him out:

I’m posting here on behalf of Brent Dill, known here and elsewhere as ialdabaoth. If you read the comments at SSC, you’ll recognize him as a contributor of rare honesty and insight. If you read Less Wrong, you may have enjoyed some of his posts. If you’d had the chance to talk with him as much as I have, you’d know he’s an awesome guy: clever, resourceful, incisive and deeply moral. Many of you see him as admirable, most as relatable, some as a friend, and more, I hope, as a member of our community.

He could use some help.

Until last Thursday he was gainfully employed as a web developer for a community college in Idaho. Recently, he voluntarily mentioned to his boss that he was concerned that seasonal affective disorder was harming his job performance, who mentioned it to his boss, who suggested in all good faith that Brent should talk to HR to see if they might help through their Employee Assistance Program. In Brent’s words: “Instead, HR asked me a lot of pointed questions about when my performance could turn around and whether I wanted to work there, demanded that I come up with all the solutions (after I admitted that I was already out of brainpower and feeling intimidated), and then directed me to turn in my keys and go home, and that HR would call me on Monday to tell me the status of my employment.” Now, at the end of the day Tuesday, they still haven’t let him know what’s happening, but it doesn’t look good.

I think we can agree that this is some of the worst horseshit.

On the other hand, he’s been wanting to get out of Idaho and into a city with an active rationalist community for a while, so in a sense this is an opportunity.
Ways to help: Brent needs, in order of priority: a job, a place to stay, and funds to cover living and moving expenses– details below. Signal boosts and messages of support are also helpful and appreciated.
Ways NOT to help: Patronizing advice/other-optimizing (useful information is of course welcome), variations on ‘cool story bro’ (the facts here have been corroborated to my satisfaction with hard-to-fake evidence), disrespect in general.

1. Job: Leads and connections would help more than anything else. He’s looking to end up, again, in a good-sized city with an active rationalist community. Candidates include the Bay Area, New York, Boston, Columbus, San Diego, maybe DC or Ann Arbor. He has an excessively complete resume here, but, in short: C#/.NET and SQL developer, also computer game development experience, tabletop board/card game design experience, graphic art and user interface experience, and some team leadership / management experience.

2. Crash space: If you are in one of the above cities, do you have/know of a place for a guy and his cat? How much will it cost, and when will it be available? Probably he’ll ultimately want a roommate situation, but if you’re willing to put him up for a short time that’s also useful information.

3. Funds: Brent is not now in immediate danger of going hungry or homeless, but a couple of months will exhaust his savings, and (although it is hard to know in the current state of things) he has been told that the circumstances constitute “cause” sufficient to keep him from drawing unemployment. Moving will almost certainly cost more than he has on hand. There is a possible future in which he runs out of money stranded in Idaho, which would be not good.

If you feel moved to help, he has set up a gofundme account here. (the goal amount is set at his calculated maximum expenses, but any amount at all would help and be greatly appreciated– he would have preferred not to set a funding goal at all.) Though Brent has pledged to eventually donate double the amount he raises to Effective Altruist causes, we wouldn’t like you to confuse contributing here with charitable giving. Rather, you might want to give in order to show your appreciation for his writing, or to express your solidarity in the struggles and stigma around mental illness, or as a gesture of friendship and community, or just to purchase fuzzies. Also, you can make him do stuff on Youtube, you know, if you want.
Thank you so much for your time and kindness.

I don’t yet have a principled policy on when I will and won’t signal-boost requests for help but I hope it doesn’t reach the point where I have to form one.

3. SOMEONE (who wishes to remain anonymous) MADE FANART OF ME!!!

Click to expand


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 218 Comments

More Links For September 2014

Jeff Kaufman wades through conflicting claims about the effectiveness of SAT coaching.

And speaking of which: Scott Aaronson endorses Steven Pinker’s critique of the college admissions process, which you might remember from the last links post here. Yet another very persuasive essay. Key quote: “I admit that my views on this matter might be colored by my strange (though as I’ve learned, not at all unique) experience, of getting rejected from almost every “top” college in the United States, and then, ten years later, getting recruited for faculty jobs by the very same institutions that had rejected me as a teenager.”

Related to a recent conversation here: How To Fake Your Way Through Hegel. (h/t Oligopsony)

We don’t really know anything about the the London Stone except that it’s been called “the London Stone” and considered important in some way since at least 1100. Unproven theories include a Druidic cult object, the milestone marking the center of Roman Britain, a magical talisman protecting the city, and the stone from which King Arthur pulled his sword. It is currently in a little case built into the front of a bookstore.

Civilization: Beyond Earth (unofficially: “Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri II”) is available for pre-order for its October 24 release and has been gradually releasing faction information. They have a tough job: they need to live up to the beloved factions of their predecessors, match them to real-world countries, have them be sufficiently different to be interesting, and avoid the trap where there is the Generic Military Faction which thinks Strength Is The Greatest Good and the Generic Religious Faction which wants to Kill The Infidel. Currently I rate them a “C”. The Slavic Federation seems almost perfectly generic, the People’s African Union takes the easiest angle possible, the Polystralians are best described as “cute, I guess”, and only the Kavithan Protectorate seems to show slight signs of anything unexpected or creative. Given how burnt I felt after pre-ordering Civilization V, and this game’s reliance on the same engine, I might just wait and see.

Indian officials are investigating how the monkey god Hanuman got issued an official biometric identity card. Also: whose fingerprints and iris are those on there?

California bans Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar from offering carpool services at a lower price. I feel safer already. Don’t you feel safer?

My mother has been a school teacher for a long time, and she swears the kids are getting worse every year. This claim interested me when I first heard it, but I didn’t have any way to investigate. I still don’t, but AskReddit: Teachers Who Have Been Teaching For 20+ Years, How Are The Students Different? suggests that a lot of other people feel the same way. Although many of them think of it less as a gradual decline and more of a one-time drop around the late ’90s or so. Theories welcome.

A Survivor style gameshow where a Republican and Democratic senator compete to make it on an uninhabited desert island will air on the Discovery Channel next month. Key quote: “We can promise you a happy ending — even if it’s only two fewer senators.”

Someone on Reddit asks for the most interesting Google Maps street view scenes, and the site did not disappoint. Also, my home city.

I will always link other people suggesting lithium in the water supply, especially if it’s the New York Times.

As we discuss whether the earning premium for a college degree represents genuine learned skills, signaling value, or a simple proxy for class, it’s worth noting that prostitutes with college degrees earn 31% more than those without.

A new study uses high-powered genetic clustering techniques to show that schizophrenia is actually eight distinct genetic disorders. Now something like this is almost certainly true, in that there are probably many very different ways you can end up with schizophrenia. On the other hand, there have been lots of attempts to do this sort of thing before and the statistics involved are notoriously iffy – even assuming the relevant axis along which to divide types of schizophrenia is indeed genetic. In any case, whether this is true or not I expect it to be ignored by psychiatry for at least ten years, until (if?) it gets replicated a few times and people find something useful you can do with the information.

I often talk about the contractarian idea that you shouldn’t cause trouble for your neighbors if you wouldn’t want your neighbors causing trouble for you, and I’ve specifically cited disruptive protests as a good example, but it usually stays pretty hypothetical. But here’s a town where the local pastor sent religious people to picket a strip club, and the strip club owner retaliated by sending strippers to picket the church.

Obsidian, one of the oldest substances used by mankind to make tools, still has the sharpest edge of anything known, so much so that obsidian scalpels make surgery safer than the traditional sort.

Before they settled on killing the Jews of Europe, the Nazis had a more creative plan: send them all to Madagascar. They hoped that after taking over Britain they could use the British merchant fleet to transport them, with the voyages being funded by confiscated Jewish assets. Imagine a world in which the plan was successful – say all European Jews deported to Madagascar – but the Nazis were defeated on schedule and the victorious Allies declared Madagascar the world Jewish homeland instead of Israel. Sure, we would probably end up debating Malagasay apartheid with the same fervency as the Gaza War. But the Madagascaraelis would have twenty times the land area of Israel, probably at least double the population (since it would include the six million murdered Europeans) and infinitely more farmland and natural resources. And they would be on a basically uninvade-able island. Between the land God promised us and the land Hitler promised us, I’m kinda going with advantage Hitler here. At the very least it would make good alternate history.

Hair Color Stereotyping And CEO Selection In The United Kingdom. Of the top 500 CEOs in the United Kingdom, 5% have blond hair, compared to 25% of the general population. Evidence of prejudice? Seems possible, although that is a scary large effect. Study also says none of the CEOs were non-white (removes possible confounder, but seems hard for me to believe – I know there’s prejudice, but seriously, 0/500?) and only two were women (which means that this is apparently a prejudice against blond hair in men). If true, this would be strong evidence in favor of the ability of prejudices to impede workplace advancement in a way that might be less confounded and politicized than real studies on race or gender or other more important things like that. But still want more evidence before I believe that blond hair cuts men’s chances of advancement by 80%.

Vox: The Democrats And Republicans Really Are Different. Some political scientists suggest that the Democrats and Republicans aren’t just mirror images of each other, but that they represent fundamentally different sorts of coalitions. The Democrats are a more practical coalition of a bunch of different interest groups, and the Republicans are a more ideologically motivated group of small-government true-believers. This asymmetry reflects a second asymmetry; because policy more often expands than contracts government, and it’s easier to enact policy than reverse it, Republicans are more comfortable with gridlock and dysfunction, which shapes their strategy. Reminds me of Land on the ratchet.

NASA makes the safest and most boring decision possible and chooses both Boeing and SpaceX as joint leaders in the contract to create the next generation of American manned spacecraft. The Reddit comment thread makes a pretty interesting point: Boeing is getting paid $4 billion and SpaceX $2 billion for the exact same service (1 spaceship meeting certain requirements). The reason: Boeing said they could do it for $4 billion, SpaceX said they could do it for $2 billion, and NASA gave both of them what they asked for. That’ll teach SpaceX to dare try to be cost-effective when seeking government bids! But others suggest a more complicated picture, where NASA will experiment to see if they can succeed with such low expenses, and if so they may have won themselves preferential treatment next time.

Less Wrong: Superintelligence Reading Group

The history of spies seducing people. Key quote: “When the KGB tried to blackmail Indonesian President Achmed Sukarno with videotapes of the president having sex with Russian women disguised as flight attendants, Sukarno wasn’t upset. He was pleased. He even asked for more copies of the video to show back in his country.”

What Can Evolutionary Biologists Learn From Creationists? Love thine enemy, for he teaches you the parts of your theory that need further investigation. H/t Dia Pente.

Teen drug and alcohol use continue to fall due to new anti-drug programs, according to same logic by which all rain dances work eventually.

Jeff Kaufman: Policies That Would Probably Make Us A Lot Better Off. Please assume this, if not quite a Consensus Rationalist Opinion on politics, is a lot closer to such than what random people on Tumblr accuse us of believing.

Seen on Tumblr: “When you hear this joke about Russell’s Paradox, you won’t be able to contain yourself.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 189 Comments

Joint Over- and Underdiagnosis

Today I had several more terrible lectures on ADHD.

In one of them, I was informed that America is medicalizing normal childhood mischief and loading anyone who gets worse than a B+ up with Ritalin or amphetamines as part of the pathologization of everyday life.

In another, I was informed that ADHD is shamefully underdiagnosed and most of the children who need stimulants most are going without them and failing school unnecessarily, so we need better screening programs and more efforts to seek out potential sufferers of the condition.

So I asked one of my attendings, Dr. L, which one it was. Are we overdosing ADHD? Or underdiagnosing it?

He answered that we are both overdiagnosing and underdiagnosing ADHD, the same as every other psychiatric disease, and then explained this so it made perfect sense and I was embarassed for not realizing it before.

Suppose that 3% of the population has ADHD.

Suppose that of people with ADHD, 50% of them realize they have ADHD like symptoms and go to a psychiatrist to get checked out.

Suppose that of people without ADHD, 10% of them falsely believe they have ADHD and also go to a psychiatrist to get checked out.

The Conners Continuous Performance Test is a commonly used test that evaluates children for ADHD. It is found to have a sensitivity of 75% and a specificity of 73%. In theory our system is based on faith that a trained psychiatrist can do better than a neuropsychological test; in practice they probably do much worse. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and say this is an excellent psychiatrist who outperforms the test handily and has both a sensitivity and specificity of 85%.

We can see that of every 100 people, 3 will have ADHD and 97 won’t. 1.5 true patients and 9.7 false patients will show up for psychiatric evaluation. The psychiatrist will diagnose 1.275 true patients and 1.455 false patients with the condition, and prescribes stimulants according to the diagnosis.

So we have three things that, surprisingly, all happen at once:

1. We have an excellent psychiatrist who outperforms the tests and is right 85% of the time.
2. The majority of people who are on Ritalin, shouldn’t be.
3. The majority of people who should be on Ritalin, aren’t.

Number two sounds a lot like what we mean by “overdiagnosis”, and number three sounds a lot like what we mean by “underdiagnosis”. So even with a pretty good psychiatrist acting honestly, we expect ADHD to be both overdiagnosed and underdiagnosed at the same time.

Even in conditions that do not quite satisfy the “majority” part of (2) and (3), we might still expect it to be true at the same time that a sizeable chunk of people diagnosed with the disease don’t have it and a sizeable chunk of people with the disease aren’t diagnosed.

If this seems counterintuitive, it is just another example of the annoying world of medical sensitivity and specificity statistics, which are constantly tripping up even the most experienced doctors. See also the infamous mammogram problem.

Once I understood this joint-overdiagnosis-and-underdiagnosis problem, several other candidate situations immediately leapt to mind. Antidepressants are almost certainly both overprescribed and underprescribed. So are opiate pain medications.

Not all the relevant examples are medical. I was reminded of Athrelon’s recent attempts to explain to me his version of the far-right concept of anarcho-tyranny. At first this didn’t make sense to me – how could there be anarchy and tyranny at the same time? Athrelon was able to walk me through the logic, which it turns out is the exact same as above. Imagine the government as trying to “diagnose” the situations where it needs to use force, and over- and under- diagnosing them at the same time. He will make this into a blog post soon, and I will link you to it.

Athrelon is a doctor. This may or may not be a coincidence. Sensitivity and specificity statistics are weird.

[Ozy] A Response to Spandrell

[Content note: Gender, relationships, sexuality. Some sexually explicit content. Discussion without endorsement of various forms of transphobia, homophobia, et cetera. Ozy wishes you to know they wrote this in a very timely manner after Spandrell's original post and I just took forever to publish it.]

I made fun of this post on my tumblr and then Scott requested I actually argue with it.

First, let’s address the issue of homosexuality. Spandrell argues that “There’s no way on earth that a condition that makes you lose attraction towards the opposite sex is going to survive natural selection.” On the contrary, there is a lot of animal homosexuality. The linked book contains much fascinating information, such as the fact that animal sexuality has been documented in almost 500 species and that, in one study, ninety percent of observed giraffe sex was between two males. I am not sure why animal homosexuality is so common: I am not an evolutionary biologist myself. But it suggests that the simplistic model in which fucking something other than a vagina is not selected for is incorrect.

In addition, homosexuality is probably not inborn. A Swedish twin study with a sample size of 7600 found that genetic factors and shared-environment factors together explained only a third of the variance in sexual orientation, while two-thirds were explained by unshared environment. In short: sexual orientation in humans is less inborn than how hardworking you are. Indeed, Spandrell admits as much, saying that we do not know the cause of gayness. Maybe because it’s not inborn? Just saying.

One must point out that the “born this way” myth was invented by LGBT people to get people to accept us: “we can’t help it! It is mean to hurt people because of something they can’t help! Don’t worry, it’s genetic, accepting us won’t make anyone else gay!” I don’t fully understand what the Cathedral is, but if anything is part of the Cathedral the Human Rights Campaign is, and I feel like that is a fairly depressing amount of belief in the Cathedral’s myths from a self-declared neoreactionary.

Spandrell argues that female paraphiliacs do not exist because they do not usually tell researchers about being paraphiliacs. Unfortunately, he is missing the very large confounding variable, which is that women are fucking liars about sex. As I pointed out in my Anti-Heartiste FAQ, evidence suggests that the entire sexual partner gap between men and women is explicable by women being goddamned liars. There is no reason to believe they wouldn’t also be goddamned liars about their paraphilias.

Spandrell challenged me in his comment section– if female paraphilia is a thing– to find cases of female death by autoerotic asphyxiation. It is true that women are less likely to die by autoerotic asphyxiation. However, women are less likely than men to masturbate, and even when they do they masturbate less often than men do, decreasing the risk of women dying through masturbation. However, this is self-report data and thus falls under the “women are goddamned liars” explanation. Autoerotic asphyxiation deaths are massively undercounted to begin with; it is relatively common for people who die by autoerotic asphyxiation to be mistaken for suicides or “sanitized” by family members who don’t want to admit their child died by masturbation. Given that women lie massively about sex, it is possible that families are more likely to sanitize female autoerotic asphyxiators. Finally, I hate to be the feminist who points this out to the neoreactionary, but men and women are different. This probably extends to sexual fetishes. I admit that none of these are particularly solid arguments. However, I do have reason to believe that women have things that may be considered paraphilias.


The rise of the ebook has massively expanded the amount of porn that women read. Like I said, women are fucking liars about sex. They want to read porn, but they don’t want to admit that they want to read porn– and as plausibly deniable as Harlequins are, those Fabio covers make it look a little too much like porn for a lot of readers.

Ellora’s Cave is the largest erotic ebook producer in the United States. If you are curious whether women have paraphilias, you can explore the BDSM Elements section, featuring such titles as Taming the Raven’s Son, Pack and Mate, and Elf Struck (tagline: “When a BDSM slut is matched with a warrior virgin, both tempers and desires flare.”)

Part of the problem here is that I don’t fully understand what qualifies as a ‘paraphilia’ in Spandrell’s analysis. Spandrell provides as examples: “There are all sorts of paraphilias, all of which seem to only occur in men. Some men are attracted to babies, others to feet, others to shoes, others to obese women, others to old women. There’s a lot of weird stuff out there.” If we are going to the “at least as weird as being attracted to fat women” standard, then I feel like a lot of non-BDSM things in Ellora’s Cave count. For instance, paranormal erotic romance is basically just a fetish for fucking vampires and werewolves.

However, I suspect that female paraphilias are also going to be structurally different than male paraphilias. Eliade’s List of Fanfiction Kinks, Tropes, and Cliches is the most extensive list I’m aware of of fanfiction porn tropes. Literally, I have never been able to think of one that is popular and not on her list. The interesting thing about Eliade’s list– which is something I’ve found personally in my fanfiction consumption– is the lack of distinction between purely sexual and purely narrative tropes. The list does include things like “intercrural or interfemoral sex (i.e., thrusting cock between partner’s thighs),” but also things like “makeovers.” I suspect a list of favorite male porn tropes would be unlikely to include makeovers. Similarly, it’s a common observation that a plot what plot story on AO3, which is female-dominated, and an extraordinarily plotty story on Literotica, which is male-dominated, contain approximately the same amount of plot. I suspect when one studies female paraphilias one will find primarily narrative paraphilias: where men tend to fetishize a single act, women tend to fetishize an overall storyline. While one might not consider the latter to be a paraphilia, that seems to be far more related to an androcentric definition of paraphilia than a difference in the prevalence of paraphilias between men and women per se.

Finally, let us discuss trans women. To be honest, I don’t fully understand what the difference between “trans women are homosexual men” and “trans women are heterosexual women” is. The empirical facts remain the same: many trans women transition as soon as possible, are attracted to men, and behave in ways typically considered feminine. All I can figure is that it is the result of a belief that we should call trans women men in order to be pointlessly upsetting to them.

I am aware of two studies applying Blanchard’s autogynephilia questionnaire to a group of cisgender women. The first, unpaywalled here, I shall ignore because of its 29-person sample size, despite its astonishing revelation that 93% of cisgender women are autogynephiles by Blanchard’s definition. The second actually has a reasonable sample size, so let’s examine it more closely. The study divided autogynephiliac arousal into two categories– Autogynephiliac Interpersonal Fantasy (essentially, sexual fantasies about being admired as female) and the Core Autogynephilia Scale (essentially, sexual fantasies about being a very sexy woman). There was no difference between cisgender women and transgender women in the Autogynephiliac Interpersonal Fantasy scale. However, transgender women scored significantly higher on the Core Autogynephilia Scale.

To put it bluntly, this makes no goddamned sense. Cis women are just as likely as trans women to have a particular subtype of autogynephilia, but less likely to have autogynephilia itself?

Let us look at the Core Autogynephilia Scale a little more closely. The study authors modified the scale so that the cis woman population were asked if they have ever sexually fantasized about themselves having attractive or more attractive female body parts. However, imagine that you have a vagina and you have sexual fantasies in which you have a vagina. Nothing interesting here, probably going to mark “no” on the relevant questionnaire. Now imagine that you have a penis and you have sexual fantasies in which you have a vagina. You’re going to notice. This is contrary to expectations. If someone asks you “do you have sexual fantasies about having an attractive or more attractive vagina?”, you’re probably going to mark yes (assuming you don’t specifically fetishize having ugly genitals). The exact same behavior leads cis women to mark “no” and trans women to mark “yes.”

Essentially, autogynephilia is ordinary female sexuality. Women are often erotically aroused by dressing in lingerie and wearing makeup; women are erotically aroused by looking at themselves naked; women have sexual fantasies in which they have vulvas; for that matter, women are erotically aroused by imagining themselves as sexier than they are. If we assume that trans women are, well, women’s minds in men’s bodies, this entirely explains the autogynephilia data: women have female-typical sexuality instead of male-typical sexuality. (It does not explain the autogynephilia anecdotes, as one assumes it is quite uncommon for cis women to be aroused by the idea of knitting, but those seem to be selected for vividness rather than for representationality. One guy who is turned on by the idea of knitting does not mean that every trans woman who is attracted to other women is an autogynephile.)

Now, the pro-autogynephilia group may respond, “but it is normal for cis women to fantasize about having a vagina and deviant for trans women to!” But in that case there is no way for trans women to win. If they had sexual fantasies in which they had a penis, you would be like “ah, yes, that is proof they are men. Why would they even want sexual reassignment surgery if they are fine with having a penis?” Since they instead fantasize about having a vagina, you would be like “that is sexual deviancy!” There is no evidence that can convince you that trans women genuinely have what they say they have– a condition in which they are genuinely upset by their bodies, being seen as male, or both, which is best treated by allowing them to transition.

Spandrell opines that allowing trans women to transition and get sex reassignment surgery “can’t work well, at the very least because men have male sex drives, which are a very dangerous thing when not constrained by women.” I must remind him that the male sex drive is mediated through testosterone. Trans women typically take estrogens and anti-androgens, which lower the libido to the level of an otherwise-comparable cis woman. A woman who has had sexual reassignment surgery does not even have testicles to produce testosterone. She could not possibly have a male sex drive, unless Spandrell is advocating the theory that the male sex drive is actually mediated by ghost balls.

Finally, I must address the notion that I am an autoandrophile. First, I find it highly amusing that Spandrell believes I am the first trans person assigned female at birth to be attracted to men. I assure you I am certainly not. Second, my fetish is (mostly SFW, but TMI warning) very well documented. It is such a shame how no one ever does research before they insult you these days.

Third, I must clarify what I meant in that particular comment. In my experience, social dysphoria is subject to the hedonic treadmill: I was elated the first time someone called me ‘zie,’ but now it is an everyday thing. I imagine that if I went back, I would spend six months or so in a pit of constant dysphoria, but eventually get used to it. However, I have been constantly distressed by my breasts since puberty; when I thought I was cis, I would have constant fantasies of cutting them off with a knife; when I stop binding regularly, I notice a deep loss of psychological stability. The hedonic treadmill simply does not work for me having breasts. I value my relationship highly, but not that highly. (Being monogamous was a similar constant drain on me, and being polyamorous– several years after I started– is still a major contributor to my happiness, which is the reason I say it would be extremely hard to go back to monogamy.)

Does Class Warfare Have A Free-Rider Problem?

Here are two comments I’ve gotten on this blog in the past few weeks:

Progressivism is under massive selective pressure to actually cause problems because that leads to more power for progressivism.

Sasha and Malia Obama will get affirmative action, even though their own father has publicly admitted its ridiculous. Therefore, black elites have a stake in keeping black masses as poor and miserable as possible, to continue justifying affirmative action.

These seem like they can be easily dismissed as conspiracy theories, but what is the exact structure of that dismissal?

Well, first, it requires that people have an almost comical level of evil. Think of the Secretary of Health and Human Services noticing that, if she enacted terrible policies that made everyone in the country sick, people would demand more resources for health care and her empire would grow. It’s hard for me to imagine someone that Slytherin.

Second, it sounds like it requires literal conspiracy. In the second example, one of two things must happen. Either every black elite has to come up with the plan independently and work together in synchrony to carry it out – each taking it on faith that the other elites are doing their part. Or one person has to come up with the plan, convince everyone else that that’s the plan, and send them their marching orders (“You! Do your part to help keep the masses poor by voting against this much-needed education reform!”), all without the media catching wind of any of this.

Third, this makes the same mistake I accused Marx of in the last post. It assumes a free solution to all coordination problems.

Suppose we grant the conspiracy theorists their point that it is indeed in the interest of all black elites to keep the black masses poor so they can benefit from affirmative action. Suppose we even grant that they are evil enough to want to try this plan despite the suffering it will produce. And suppose they’re all really good at communicating through heavily encrypted email, so we solve the conspiracy aspect. The plan still doesn’t work.

Every elite benefits from the entire plan being pulled off. But now there’s a free rider problem. Each elite would have to expend some individual effort to keep everybody else down. Maybe it’s going out of their way to rally opposition to a useful reform. Maybe it’s having to take an unpopular position and so looking like the bad guy. All I’m saying is that quashing the dreams of the next generation of minority children is harder than sitting on your tuchus playing video games. Their own contribution doesn’t help the cause very much on net, so their incentive is to defect and hope everyone else does it.

Just as good people playing normal politics have a hard time rallying support for genuinely important causes like stopping global warming or enforcing Net Neutrality, so evil people playing Conspiracy Politics should have a hard time convincing their target demographic to get out of bed and join in their oppression.

But in fact they have it much harder. Good people playing normal politics can use a host of techniques – phone banks, door-to-door campaigns, benefit concerts, leaflets in the mail, celebrity endorsements – to rally people to action. Evil people playing Conspiracy Politics can’t do any of that without greatly increasing their risk of getting caught.

And when good people do rally the masses to their cause, it seems to be through an appeal to morality. Like “Yes, I know it would be much easier for you to sit back and let other people solve global warming, but you have an ethical responsibility to participate in this, and won’t you feel good about yourself knowing you’ve made a difference.”

Obviously if your campaign is “Cause as many problems as possible to increase the size of government” this is harder to pull off.

This seems to me to be a little-acknowledged third reason to dismiss conspiracy theories of this sort. But you don’t care. You’ve already wandered off, wondering why I’m wasting my time debunking things nobody (except apparently the rare SSC commenter) believes anyway.

But what if we apply this to more common claims? What about class warfare?

It is widely believed that the rich have captured government for their own ends. For example, rich people use their money and power to decrease tax rates on the wealthy and sabotage legislation meant to protect the working man.

But this ought to fall victim to the same coordination problems. After all, suppose you are a rich person who makes $1 million per year. You would like the government to cut federal taxes on the wealthy from 40% down to 30%, which would save you $100,000 per year. One might think you would be willing to spend up to $100,000 to effect this goal.

But in fact it requires the concerted effort of all the rich people across the country to make this happen. A single $100,000 donation isn’t going to change federal level policy in such a spectacular way. Realistically your effort will be a drop in a bucket that your entire class needs to contribute to.

Once again we encounter free rider problems. Suppose a representative of the Rich People’s Union asks for a $10,000 donation to fight for lower taxes. There are hundreds of thousands of rich people, so you’re pretty sure your one donation isn’t going to push anything over the edge one way or the other. Supposing the tax cut goes through, you will get the same benefit whether you donated or not; supposing it doesn’t, you won’t gain anything either way. It’s easy to see that in either case the rational self-interested thing to do is to refuse to donate.

There are a couple of rare exceptions to this. If you are Bill Gates and make a billion dollars a year, so that you would gain $100 million from the tax cut, it might be worth bribing the necessary legislators all on your own, on the grounds that if something needs to be done right you had better do it yourself. Likewise, if you’re Exxon Mobil or the Koch brothers, then you might be a big enough chunk of the target population for certain specific environmental regulations that it’s worth using your own money to fight it whether or not others join in.

But a general focus on the interests of the rich? Not likely.

Yet the rich do seem to get their way a disproportionate amount of the time, and this seems to require an explanation.

I am reminded of the research I looked at in Plutocracy Isn’t About Money. People seem to donate surprisingly little to political candidates, and donations don’t seem to help. This seems consistent with the idea that rich people don’t directly coordinate to bribe politicians in their favor. I suggested a couple of different hypotheses, like that maybe the rich win because of “soft power” – ie the media and universities and politicians are mostly rich or are run by rich people who just sort of naturally let their opinions percolate through without much deliberate effort.

An alternative explanation preserves our intuitive belief that the rich sure do seem to influence politics a lot. Maybe rich people, like poor people, participate in politics because of sincere belief in their moral values, and their values are by what seems a weird coincidence the ones that help make them richer.

Like, Mitt Romney’s zillion-dollar-a-plate fundraisers seem to always be pretty full. It can’t literally be in a rich person’s self-interest to buy a plate there. But a lot of rich people could have conservative-libertarian-pro-business ideas that encourage them to quasi-altruistically support Mitt Romney in order to push their values.

But this is really weird and interesting – much more interesting than it looks. It suggests that, in the presence of a useful selfish goal to coordinate around, a value system will “spring up” that convinces people to support it for altruistic reasons.

I’m not just talking about normal altruism here. A rich person motivated by normal altruism per se might be against tax cuts for the rich, in order to better preserve social services for the less fortunate. And I’m not just talking about normal selfishness either. A rich person motivated by selfishness would hang out in his mansion all day instead of wasting money on fundraisers. I’m talking about a moral system which is genuinely self-sacrificing on the individual level, but which when universalized has the effect of helping the rich person get richer.

It’s worth thinking about this in contractarian terms. A rich person, minus the veil of ignorance, wouldn’t support everyone pitching in to help the poor, because he knows he’s not poor and so gains nothing. A rich person, minus the veil of ignorance, would support a binding pact among all rich people to pitch in to support tax cuts on the rich, because she knows she would gain more than she loses from such an agreement.

But as far as I can tell, this calculation is never made on a conscious level. What happens on a conscious level is the rich person finds themselves supporting some moral philosophy – libertarianism, Objectivism, prosperity gospel, whatever – which says it is morally wrong to raise taxes on the rich, so much so that one should altruistically make personal sacrifices in order to stop them from being raised. And then these moral philosophies spread, and without any conscious awareness, the rich people find themselves coordinating very nicely to protect their class interests.

I hope you agree that if this is true, it is spooky. I admit on this blog I sometimes mock human nature and human cognition a little too much, but this particular cognitive process is really impressive. I hope whatever angel designed it got a promotion.

So although I haven’t really thought this through too much, I would suggest a dichotomy. Either there’s some sort of spooky system that generates heartfelt moral philosophies on demand to solve coordination problems, or the rich aren’t actually coordinating and just consistently keep getting lucky.

I don’t like this because it raises more questions than it answers. Why don’t the poor coordinate this well? Too many of them? And if this is true, how sure should we be of our previous belief that the Secretary of Health and Human Services isn’t coordinating with all the other progressive bureaucrats to deliberately cause social problems?

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 298 Comments

Book Review: Singer on Marx

I’m not embarassed for choosing Singer’s Marx: A Very Short Introduction as a jumping-off point for learning more leftist philosophy. I weighed the costs and benefits of reading primary sources versus summaries and commentaries, and decided in favor of the latter.

The clincher was that the rare times I felt like I really understand certain thinkers and philosophies on a deep level, it’s rarely been the primary sources that did it for me, even when I’d read them. It’s only after hearing a bunch of different people attack the same idea from different angles that I’ve gotten the gist of it. The primary sources – especially when they’re translated, especially when they’re from the olden days before people discovered how to be interesting – just turn me off. Singer is a known person who can think and write clearly, and his book was just about the shortest I could find, so I jumped on it, hoping I would find a more sympathetic portrayal of someone whom my society has been trying to cast as a demon or monster.

And I don’t know if this is an artifact of Singer or a genuine insight into Marx, but as far as I can tell he’s even worse than I thought.


What really clinched this for me was the discussion of Marx’s (lack of) description of how to run a communist state. I’d always heard that Marx was long on condemnations of capitalism and short on blueprints for communism, and the couple of Marx’s works I read in college confirmed he really didn’t talk about that very much. It seemed like a pretty big gap.

But I’d always dismissed this as an excusable error. When I was really young – maybe six or seven – I fancied myself a great inventor. The way I would invent something – let’s say a spaceship – was to draw a picture of a spaceship. I would label it with notes like “engine goes here” and “power source here” and then rest on my laurels, satisfied that I had invented interstellar travel at age seven. It always confused me that adults, who presumably should be pretty smart, had failed to do this. Occasionally I would bring this up to someone like my parents, and they would ask a question like “Okay, but how does the power source work?” and I would answer “Through quantum!” and then get very annoyed that people didn’t even know about quantum.

(I was seven years old. What’s your excuse, New Age community?)

I figured that Marx had just fallen into a similar trap. He’d probably made a few vague plans, like “Oh, decisions will be made by a committee of workers,” and “Property will be held in common and consensus democracy will choose who gets what,” and felt like the rest was just details. That’s the sort of error I could at least sympathize with, despite its horrendous consequences.

But in fact Marx was philosophically opposed, as a matter of principle, to any planning about the structure of communist governments or economies. He would come out and say “It is irresponsible to talk about how communist governments and economies will work.” He believed it was a scientific law, analogous to the laws of physics, that once capitalism was removed, a perfect communist government would form of its own accord. There might be some very light planning, a couple of discussions, but these would just be epiphenomena of the governing historical laws working themselves out. Just as, a dam having been removed, a river will eventually reach the sea somehow, so capitalism having been removed society will eventually reach a perfect state of freedom and cooperation.

Singer blames Hegel. Hegel viewed all human history as the World-Spirit trying to recognize and incarnate itself. As it overcomes its various confusions and false dichotomies, it advances into forms that more completely incarnate the World-Spirit and then moves onto the next problem. Finally, it ends with the World-Spirit completely incarnated – possibly in the form of early 19th century Prussia – and everything is great forever.

Marx famously exports Hegel’s mysticism into a materialistic version where the World-Spirit operates upon class relations rather than the interconnectedness of all things, and where you don’t come out and call it the World-Spirit – but he basically keeps the system intact. So once the World-Spirit resolves the dichotomy between Capitalist and Proletariat, then it can more completely incarnate itself and move on to the next problem. Except that this is the final problem (the proof of this is trivial and is left as exercise for the reader) so the World-Spirit becomes fully incarnate and everything is great forever. And you want to plan for how that should happen? Are you saying you know better than the World-Spirit, Comrade?

I am starting to think I was previously a little too charitable toward Marx. My objections were of the sort “You didn’t really consider the idea of welfare capitalism with a social safety net” or “communist society is very difficult to implement in principle,” whereas they should have looked more like “You are basically just telling us to destroy all of the institutions that sustain human civilization and trust that what is baaaasically a giant planet-sized ghost will make sure everything works out.”


Conservatives always complain that liberals “deny human nature”, and I had always thought that complaint was unfair. Like sure, liberals say that you can make people less racist, and one could counterargue that a tendency toward racism is inborn, but it sure seems like you can make that tendency more or less strongly expressed and that this is important. This is part of the view I argue in Nature Is Not A Slate, It’s A Series Of Levers.

But here I have to give conservatives their due. As far as I can tell, Marx literally, so strongly as to be unstrawmannable, believed there was no such thing as human nature and everything was completely malleable.

Feuerbach resolves the essence of religion into the essence of man. But the essence of man is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In reality, it is the ensemble of the social relations.


It is evidence that economics establishes an alienated form of social intercourse as the essential, original, and natural form

Which Singer glosses with:

This is the gist of Marx’s objection to classical economics. Marx does not challenge the classical economists within the presuppositions of their science. Instead, he takes a viewpoint outside those presuppositions and argues that private property, competition, greed, and so on are to be found only in a particular condition of human existence, a condition of alienation.

I understand this is still a matter of some debate in the Marxist community. But it seems to me that if Singer is right, if this is genuinely Marx’s view, it seems likely to be part of what contributed to his inexcusable error above.

You or I, upon hearing that the plan is to get rid of all government and just have people share all property in common, might ask questions like “But what if someone wants more than their share?” Marx had no interest in that question, because he believed that there was no such thing as human nature, and things like “People sometimes want more than their shares of things” are contingent upon material relations and modes of production, most notably capitalism. If you get rid of capitalism, human beings change completely, such that “wanting more than your share” is no more likely than growing a third arm.

A lot of the liberals I know try to distance themselves from people like Stalin by saying that Marx had a pure original doctrine that they corrupted. But I am finding myself much more sympathetic to the dictators and secret police. They may not have been very nice people, but they were, in a sense, operating in Near Mode. They couldn’t just tell themselves “After the Revolution, no one is going to demand more than their share,” because their philosophies were shaped by the experience of having their subordinates come up to them and say “Boss, that Revolution went great, but now someone’s demanding more than their share, what should we do?” Their systems seem to be part of the unavoidable collision of Marxist doctrine with reality. It’s possible that there are other, better ways to deal with that collision, but “returning to the purity of Marx” doesn’t seem like a workable option.


There was one part that made me more sympathetic to Marx. Singer writes:

Marx saw that the liberal definition of freedom is open to a fundamental objection. Suppose I live in the suburbs and work in the city. I could drive my car to work, or take the bus. I prefer not to wait around for the bus, and so I take my car. Fifty thousand other people living in my suburb face the same choice and make the same decision. The road to town is choked with cars. It takes each of us an hour to travel ten miles. In this situation, according to the liberal conception of freedom, we have all chosen freely. Yet the outcome is something none of us want. If we all went by bus, the roads would be empty and we could cover the distance in twenty minutes. Even with the inconvenience of waiting at the bus stop, we would all prefer that. We are, of course, free to alter our choice of transportation, but what can we do? While so many cars slow the bus down, why should any individual choose differently? The liberal conception of freedom has led to a paradox: we have each chosen in our own interests, but the result is in no one’s interest. Individual rationality, collective irrationality…

Marx saw that capitalism involves this kind of collective irrationality. In precapitalist systems it was obvious that most people did not control their own destiny – under feudalism, for instance, serfs had to work for their lords. Capitalism seems different because people are in theory free to work for themselves or for others as they choose. Yet most workers have as little control over their lives as feudal serfs. This is not because they have chosen badly, nor is it because of the physical limits of our resources and technology. It is because the cumulative effect of countless individual choices is a society that no one – not even the capitalists – has chosen. Where those who hold the liberal conception of freedom would say we are free because we are not subject to deliberate interference by other humans, Marx says we are not free because we do not control our own society.

This is good. In fact, this is the insight that I spent about fifteen years of my life looking for, ever since I first discovered libertarianism and felt like there was definitely an important problem with it, but couldn’t quite verbalize what it was. It’s something I finally figured out only within the last year or so and didn’t fully write up until Meditations on Moloch. And Marx seems to have sort of had it. I read the relevant section of Marx when I was younger, where he was talking about how capitalists would compete each other into the ground whether they wanted to or not, and I remember dismissing it with a “capitalists have not competed each other into the ground, for this this and this reason”, dismissing the incorrect object-level argument without realizing the important meta-level insight beneath it (something I have since learned to stop doing). If Marx really had that meta-level insight – really had it, and not just stumbled across a couple of useful examples of it without realizing the pattern – then that would make his fame justly deserved.

But two things here discourage me. First, Marx seems so confused about everything that it’s hard to parse him as really understanding this, as opposed to simply noticing one example of it that serves as a useful argument against capitalism. I notice Singer had to come up with his own clever example of this instead of quoting anything from any of Marx’s works. Second, the insight does not seem original to Marx. Tragedy of the commons was understood as early as 1833 and Malthus was talking about similar problems related to population explosions before Marx was even born. John Stuart Mill, writing twenty years before Das Kapital, had already explained the basic principle quite well:

To a fourth case of exception I must request particular attention, it being one to which as it appears to me, the attention of political economists has not yet been sufficiently drawn. There are matters in which the interference of law is required, not to overrule the judgment of individuals respecting their own interest, but to give effect to that judgment: they being unable to give effect to it except by concert, which concert again cannot be effectual unless it receives validity and sanction from the law. For illustration, and without prejudging the particular point, I may advert to the question of diminishing the hours of labour. Let us suppose, what is at least supposable, whether it be the fact or not—that a general reduction of the hours of factory labour, say from ten to nine,*119 would be for the advantage of the workpeople: that they would receive as high wages, or nearly as high, for nine hours’ labour as they receive for ten. If this would be the result, and if the operatives generally are convinced that it would, the limitation, some may say, will be adopted spontaneously. I answer, that it will not be adopted unless the body of operatives bind themselves to one another to abide by it. A workman who refused to work more than nine hours while there were others who worked ten, would either not be employed at all, or if employed, must submit to lose one-tenth of his wages. However convinced, therefore, he may be that it is the interest of the class to work short time, it is contrary to his own interest to set the example, unless he is well assured that all or most others will follow it. But suppose a general agreement of the whole class: might not this be effectual without the sanction of law? Not unless enforced by opinion with a rigour practically equal to that of law. For however beneficial the observance of the regulation might be to the class collectively, the immediate interest of every individual would lie in violating it: and the more numerous those were who adhered to the rule, the more would individuals gain by departing from it.

So one might apply to Marx the old cliche: that he has much that is good and original, but what is good is not original and what is original is not good.

But it is interesting to analyze Marx as groping toward something game theoretic. This comes across to me in some of his discussions of labor. Marx thinks all value is labor. Yes, capital is nice, but in a sense it is only “crystallized labor” – the fact that a capitalist owns a factory only means that at some other point he got laborers to build a factory for him. So labor does everything, but it gets only a tiny share of the gains produced. This is because capitalists are oppressing the laborers. Once laborers realize what’s up, they can choose to labor in such a way as to give themselves the full gains of their labor.

I think here that he is thinking of coordination as something that happens instantly in the absence of any obstacle to coordination, and the obstacle to coordination is the capitalists and the “false consciousness” they produce. Remove the capitalists, and the workers – who represent the full productive power of humanity – can direct that productive power to however it is most useful. In my language, Marx simply assumed the invisible nation, thought that the result of perfect negotiation by ideal game theoretic agents with 100% cooperation under a veil of ignorance – would also be the result of real negotiation in the real world, as long as there were no capitalists involved. Maybe this idea – of gradually approaching the invisible nation – is what stood in for the World-Spirit in his dialecticalism. Maybe in 1870, this sort of thinking was excusable.

If capitalists are to be thought of as anything other than parasites, part of the explanation of their contribution has to involve coordination. If Marx didn’t understand that coordination is just as hard to produce as linen or armaments or whatever, if he thought you could just assume it, then capitalists seem useless and getting rid of all previous forms of government so that insta-coordination can solve everything seems like a pretty swell idea.

If you admit that, capitalists having disappeared, there’s still going to be competition, positive and negative sum games, free rider problems, tragedies of the commons, and all the rest, then you’ve got to invent a system that solves all of those issues better than capitalism does. That seems to be the real challenge Marxist intellectuals should be setting themselves, and I hope to eventually discover some who have good answers to it. But at least from the little I learned from Singer, I see no reason to believe Marx had the clarity of thought to even understand the question.

What The Hell, Hegel?

I’m reading through Marx: A Very Short Introduction, and one of its best features is its focus on Marx’s influence from Hegel. Hegel is really interesting.

I should rephrase that. Hegel is famously boring. His books are boring. His ideas are boring. He was even apparently a boring person – a recent biography of him was criticized on the grounds that “Hegel’s life was really not eventful enough to support a graceful biography of eight hundred pages”. But the phenomenon of Hegel is interesting. I don’t know of any other philosopher with such high variance.

Engels says of Hegel:

One can imagine what a tremendous effect this Hegelian system must have produced in the philosophy-tinged atmosphere of Germany. It was a triumphal procession which lasted for decades and which by no means came to a standstill on the death of Hegel. On the contrary, it was from 1830 to 1840 that Hegelianism reigned most exclusively, and to a greater or lesser extent infected even its opponents.

Such sweeping statements might be expected of the somewhat pro-Hegelian Engels. But even Russell, who mocked Hegel incessantly, admitted that:

“By the end of [the 19th century], the leading academic philosophers, both in America and Britain, were largely Hegelian”

It is fun to see what comes up on a Google search for “Hegel dominated”:

Rockmore in Marx After Marxism: “As Marx was forging his conceptual arms, Hegel dominated the philosophical debate in a way that is now difficult to comprehend.”

A Christian Appraisal Of Contemporary Philosophy: “Near the beginning of the nineteenth century, Hegel dominated all philosophy…after his death his philosophy spread from Germany, overshadowed all else in England, and was widely held in American Universities.”

Tufts course catalog: “At the end of the nineteenth century, a form of Idealism derived from Hegel dominated philosophy.”

Psychoanalysis and Culture: “Freud grew up in a Hegel-dominated cultural universe. Though we have no record that Freud read Hegel, that was unnecessary, for Hegel’s thought defined an important part of the philosophical world in which Freud’s thinking developed.”

Encyclopaedia Britannica: “From 1818 until his death in 1831, Hegel dominated the highest thought.”

A Historical Sketch Of Sociological Theory: “According to Ball, it is difficult for us to appreciate the degree to which Hegel dominated German thought in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. It was largely within the framework of his philosophy that educated Germans discussed history, politics and culture”

Or, to merge all of these together, it is “difficult for us to appreciate” and “now difficult to comprehend” how Hegel “dominated”, “defined”, “overshadowed”, and “reigned” in “Germany”, “England”, “American universities”, and “the philosophical world” in “the beginning of the nineteenth century”, “from 1818 until his death in 1831″, “the time from 1830 to 1840″, “the second quarter of the nineteenth century”, “the end of the nineteenth century”, and “the time Freud’s thinking developed” (Freud was born 1856 and would have been in university in the 1870s).

I will take this as evidence that Hegel was really really important for the entire nineteenth century.

On the other hand, it’s hard to find many people who will put in good words for him now. In fact, hilarious pithy denunciations of Hegel are an entire sub-genre. Hegel’s Wikiquote page, among other sources, includes:

“Hegel’s philosophy illustrates an important truth, namely, that the worse your logic, the more interesting the consequences to which it gives rise.” – Bertrand Russell

“When I was young, most teachers of philosophy in British and American universities were Hegelians, so that, until I read Hegel, I supposed there must be some truth to his system; I was cured, however, by discovering that everything he said on the philosophy of mathematics was plain nonsense. Hegel’s philosophy is so odd that one would not have expected him to be able to get sane men to accept it, but he did. He set it out with so much obscurity that people thought it must be profound. It can quite easily be expounded lucidly in words of one syllable, but then its absurdity becomes obvious.” – Bertrand Russell

“Among Noah’s sons was one who covered the shame of his father, but the Hegelians are still tearing away the cloak which time and oblivion had sympathetically thrown over the shame of their Master.” – Heinrich Schumacher

“Hegel’s was an interesting thesis, giving unity and meaning to the revolutions of human affairs. Like other historical theories, it required, if it was to be made plausible, some distortion of facts and considerable ignorance. Hegel, like Mane and Spengler after him, possessed both these qualifications.” – Bertrand Russell (are you starting to notice a trend here?)

“While scientists were performing astounding feats of disciplined reason [during the Enlightenment], breaking down the barriers of the “unknowable” in every field of knowledge, charting the course of light rays in space or the course of blood in the capillaries of man’s body — what philosophy was offering them, as interpretation of and guidance for their achievements was the plain Witchdoctory of Hegel, who proclaimed that matter does not exist at all, that everything is Idea (not somebody’s idea, just Idea), and that this Idea operates by the dialectical process of a new “super-logic” which proves that contradictions are the law of reality, that A is non-A, and that omniscience about the physical universe (including electricity, gravitation, the solar system, etc.) is to be derived, not from the observation of facts, but from the contemplation of that Idea’s triple somersaults inside his, Hegel’s, mind. This was offered as a philosophy of reason.” – Ayn Rand (unsurprisingly)

A book review by Roger Kimball helps round out the picture. Along with presenting the legend that Hegel said that “only one person only understood me, and even he misunderstood me”, Kimball writes:

Like many people who have soldiered through a fair number of Hegel’s books, I was both awed and depressed by their glittering opacity. With the possible exception of Heidegger, Hegel is far and away the most difficult “great philosopher” I have ever studied. There was much that I did not understand. I secretly suspected that no one—not even my teachers—really understood him, and it was nice to have that prejudice supported from the master’s own lips.

Is it worth the effort? I mean, you spend a hundred hours poring over Phenomenology of SpiritThe Phenomenology of Spirit —widely considered to be Hegel’s masterpiece—and what do you have to show for it? The book is supposed to take you from the naïve, “immediate” position of “sense certainty” to Absolute Knowledge, “or Spirit that knows itself as Spirit.” That sounds pretty good, especially when you are, say, eighteen and are busy soaking up ideas guaranteed to mystify and alarm your parents. But what do you suppose it means?

Despite trying really hard to say some nice things about Hegel, just about the best that Kimball can do is:

So why read Hegel? Just as doctors learn a lot about health by studying diseases, so we can learn a lot about philosophical health by studying Hegel.

The phrase “damning with faint praise” seems insufficient here.

Worse, Hegel has been criticized as a racist, a totalitarian, a proto-Nazi, and the kind of rationalist everyone hates – complete with stories about how he proved from first principles that there were only seven planets (not quite true, although he does seem to have made some similar inexcusable scientific errors. He was mocked (with some justice) for believing that his own work represented the final achievement of God’s plan for the Universe, and that the objective progress of history had culminated in the early 19th century Prussian state.

As a result, when I spent four years getting a bachelors in Philosophy, not only did I not receive a word of instruction in Hegel, but I was actively pushed away from him with frequent derogatory references.

I should qualify all this. Part of it is the analytic-continental divide. Hegel ended up well on the continental side of that, so even though analytics have a dim opinion of him, I’m pretty sure he remains studied and well-respected within continental circles. Indeed, the split may have necessitated analytics dismiss him in order to justify ignoring him, given that not ignoring him would mean engaging him would mean reading him would meaning not having the time or energy to do anything else.

But since we’ve already brought in Google as a philosophical authority, we might as well note that it autocompletes “hegel is” into “hegel is impossible to understand”. This seems to be pretty close to a consensus position right now.


I know pretty much nothing about Hegel and am not nearly qualified to have an opinion on the debate about whether his inscrutability conceals deep wisdom or total nonsense. But there are a few points I draw from his rise and fall without being able to judge it philosophically.

I deliberately avoided discussing philosophy in my post How Common Are Science Failures?, first because it’s outside the reference class but second because philosophy can’t even get its act together enough to fail. These sorts of “science failures” are cases where the scientific community unites around a single consensus belief, but later discovers that belief was disastrously wrong. But philosophy can practically never unite around a single consensus belief, and it rarely disproves anything thoroughly enough to admit the error.

Hegel seems like a rare example of a philosophical consensus caught in contradiction. For a good chunk of the 19th century a very large part of the philosophical community agreed Hegel had solved everything, was a genius, was the be-all and end-all of philosophy. Later, at least the British and American communities did a total about-face and concluded that Hegel was a crackpot who, if he didn’t invent the technique of “if you can’t convince ‘em, confuse ‘em”, at least perfected it.

You can go one of two directions with this. First, you can say that people in the past were very gullible, that this confirms our prejudice that philosophers are silly people who will believe pretty much anything if it is billed as metaphysics and contains some confusing references to being and spirit.

Or you could say that people nowadays are so vapid, so demanding of instant gratification and unwilling to cover large inferential distances, that we’ve lost the ability to understand difficult ideas like those of Hegel.

I am the first type of person by temperament, but trying to become more sympathetic to the second way of thinking. Part of this is because on the rare occasions I do understand something difficult, I am acutely aware of all the people accusing it of being a confusing mass of jargon disguising a lack of real insight – and of how wrong these people are. “Ha ha, look at all these smart erudite domain experts who believe a stupid thing, that just proves smart domain experts lack common sense” now seems like a huge failure mode to me. There’s also a certain intellectual version of Chesterton’s Fence which looks kind of like “Don’t dismiss an idea until you can see why it would be so tempting for other people to believe”. Right now I don’t see the temptation in Hegel or for that matter any of Continental philosophy. That half of the philosophical universe, including many people who display objective signs of brilliance – has decided to just wallow in pointless obscurantism seems to beggar belief.

My inability to be tempted by Hegel brings me to another point: what parts of my thought, right now, are Hegelian? Hegel seems like a classic case where we should read history of philosophy backwards – if almost all philosophical thought for fifty to a hundred years was Hegelian, modernity should be absolutely saturated with Hegelian ideas. That means I might get less gain from trying to read Hegel forward (to see if he has startling insights I didn’t know) and more gain from trying to read him backwards (to see if he is the source of things I assumed unquestioningly, and that negating them – as the contingent opinions of some German guy who thought 19th century Prussia was objectively perfect – would produce startling insights).

I don’t know enough Hegel to do a good job of this. One easy target might be the modern belief in human progress or linear history. Fukuyama (“The End of History”) writes:

For better or worse, much of Hegel’s historicism has become part of our contemporary intellectual baggage. The notion that mankind has progresses through a series of primitive stages of consciousness on his path to the present, and that these stages corresponded to concrete forms of social organization, such as tribal, slave owning, theocratic, and finally democratic egalitarian societies, has become inseparable form the modern understanding of man. Hegel was the first philosopher to speak the language of modern social science, insofar as man for him was the product of his concrete historical and social environment and not, as earlier natural right theorists would have it, a collection of more or less fixed “natural” attributes. The mastery and transformation of man’s natural environment through the application of science and technology was originally not a Marxist concept, but a Hegelian one. Unlike later historicists whose historical relativism degenerated into relativism tout court, however, Hegel believed that history culminated in an absolute moment — a moment in which a final, rational form of society and state became victorious

But I find both more unexpected and more plausible David Chapman’s theories that Hegel inspired modern Westernized Buddhism, the hippie movement, and the New Age. He breaks his arguments into a bunch of posts that aren’t really collected in any organized way, but I would recommend An Improbable Re-Animation, Bad Ideas From Dead Germans, and Zen vs. The US Navy. Chapman’s argument isn’t very developed, but just raising the idea is enough to make its evidential support obvious. Hegel’s system was based around the principle that the key principle of the universe was a divine Mind trying to find itself, that everything was interrelated and purposeful, that as this Mind became more self-aware it would be reflected in increasing levels of consciousness among human beings culminating in an ideal utopian social arrangement. This is the daaaaaawning of the Age of Aquarius, the Age of Aquarius…

Philosophy makes for strange bedfellows. Imagine: December 21, 2012. A ray of crystal light emerges from the Temple of Kukulcan in the Mayan ruins, piercing the center of the Milky Way. Humans ascend to a new level of consciousness. And all around the world people throw off their shackles and self-organize into intentional communities exactly resembling early 19th century Prussia.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 150 Comments

Society Is Fixed, Biology Is Mutable

Today during an otherwise terrible lecture on ADHD I realized something important we get sort of backwards.

There’s this stereotype that the Left believes that human characteristics are socially determined, and therefore mutable. And social problems are easy to fix, through things like education and social services and public awareness campaigns and “calling people out”, and so we have a responsiblity to fix them, thus radically improving society and making life better for everyone.

But the Right (by now I guess the far right) believes human characteristics are biologically determined, and biology is fixed. Therefore we shouldn’t bother trying to improve things, and any attempt is just utopianism or “immanentizing the eschaton” or a shady justification for tyranny and busybodyness.

And I think I reject this whole premise.

See, my terrible lecture on ADHD suggested several reasons for the increasing prevalence of the disease. Of these I remember two: the spiritual desert of modern adolescence, and insufficient iron in the diet. And I remember thinking “Man, I hope it’s the iron one, because that seems a lot easier to fix.”

Society is really hard to change. We figured drug use was “just” a social problem, and it’s obvious how to solve social problems, so we gave kids nice little lessons in school about how you should Just Say No. There were advertisements in sports and video games about how Winners Don’t Do Drugs. And just in case that didn’t work, the cherry on the social engineering sundae was putting all the drug users in jail, where they would have a lot of time to think about what they’d done and be so moved by the prospect of further punishment that they would come clean.

And that is why, even to this day, nobody uses drugs.

On the other hand, biology is gratifyingly easy to change. Sometimes it’s just giving people more iron supplements. But the best example is lead. Banning lead was probably kind of controversial at the time, but in the end some refineries probably had to change their refining process and some gas stations had to put up “UNLEADED” signs and then we were done. And crime dropped like fifty percent in a couple of decades – including many forms of drug abuse.

Saying “Tendency toward drug abuse is primarily determined by fixed brain structure” sounds callous, like you’re abandoning drug abusers to die. But maybe it means you can fight the problem head-on instead of forcing kids to attend more and more useless classes where cartoon animals sing about how happy they are not using cocaine.

What about obesity? We put a lot of social effort into fighting obesity: labeling foods, banning soda machines from school, banning large sodas from New York, programs in schools to promote healthy eating, doctors chewing people out when they gain weight, the profusion of gyms and Weight Watchers programs, and let’s not forget a level of stigma against obese people so strong that I am constantly having to deal with their weight-related suicide attempts. As a result, everyone…keeps gaining weight at exactly the same rate they have been for the past couple decades. Wouldn’t it be nice if increasing obesity was driven at least in part by changes in the intestinal microbiota that we could reverse through careful antibiotic use? Or by trans-fats?

What about poor school performance? From the social angle, we try No Child Left Behind, Common Core Curriculum, stronger teachers’ unions, weaker teachers’ unions, more pay for teachers, less pay for teachers, more prayer in school, banning prayer in school, condemning racism, condemning racism even more, et cetera. But the poorest fifth or so of kids show spectacular cognitive gains from multivitamin supplementation, and doctors continue to tell everyone schools should start later so children can get enough sleep and continue to be totally ignored despite strong evidence in favor.

Even the most politically radioactive biological explanation – genetics – doesn’t seem that scary to me. The more things turn out to be genetic, the more I support universal funding for implantable contraception that allow people to choose when they do or don’t want children – thus breaking the cycle where people too impulsive or confused to use contraception have more children and increase frequency of those undesirable genes. I think I’d have a heck of a lot easier a time changing gene frequency in the population than you would changing people’s locus of control or self-efficacy or whatever, even if I wasn’t allowed to do anything immoral (except by very silly religious standards of “immoral”).

I’m not saying that all problems are purely biological and none are social. But I do worry there’s a consensus that biological things are unfixable but social things are easy – or that social solutions are morally unambiguous but biological solutions necessarily monstrous – and so for any given biological/social breakdown of a problem, we figure we might as well put all our resources into attacking the more tractable social side and dismiss the biological side. I think there’s a sense in which that’s backwards, and in which it’s possible to marry scientific rigor with human compassion for the evils of the world.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 373 Comments

Links For September 2014

If he’d posted it here it would have been a Comment Of The Month, but since he posted it on Less Wrong I’m reduced to linking it: Viliam Bur on why Freud is not your strawman of Freud.

Last links post I brought in Sariasan’s research showing that growing up poor doesn’t increase your chances of turning to crime as an adult once you adjust out heritable factors. I wasn’t aware he also has another study showing that growing up in a bad neighborhood doesn’t affect very much either.

One Hundred Actual Titles Of Real Eighteenth Century Novels. Number 25: “Flim-Flams! Or, The Life And Errors Of My Uncle, And The Amours Of My Aunt! With Illustrations And Obscurities, By Messieurs Tag, Rag, And Bobtail. With An Illuminating Index!”

A recent story that went viral on Facebook suggests that one in six French citizens support the Islamic State. I think the attraction might have been a dig at the French Muslim community for being radicalized or something, but the Washington Post points out that, among other problems, far fewer than one in six French citizens is even Muslim, which makes the number somewhat suspect. Their preferred explanation: most people don’t know what “The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” is, so when people hear a question of the form “Do you support…the Islamic State of Iraq…” they think it’s some kind of referendum on the Iraq War or the Iraqi government or something.

Cryptology enthusiast, Bitcoin pioneer, and occasional Less Wronger Hal Finney has passed away of ALS and been cryonically frozen. My favorite mini-eulogy is that of Ryan Carey, who pointed out on Facebook that “he is now the all-time winner of the Ice Bucket Challenge”.

There is an algal toxin, one of whose symptoms is “feeling like cold things feel hot and hot things feel cold.” I wonder if this can be converted to a party trick the same way Miracle Berries were. Probably better not, since “symptoms usually go away after days, but can last for years.”

Possibly the most amazingly trollish scientific study ever: Feminist Activist Women Are Masculinized In Terms Of Digit Ratio And Dominance: A Possible Explanation For The Feminist Paradox. Digit ratio is a measure of the lengths of different fingers that shows how much testosterone one received in the womb and seems to represent by proxy some sort of measure of biological “masculinity” or “feminity” – for example, transgender people have a digit ratio more like that of the sex they transition to. They found a masculinization in the feminist activists that was highly statistically significant (alpha = 0.0005, I think they mean p but I’m not sure why they said alpha) and an extremely large effect size (d = 0.6 – 1.6). In fact, on the right hand the feminists were more masculine even than men. The authors try to use this to explain what they call the “feminist paradox” – which is that feminism purports to be fighting for women but most women do not identify as feminists. I think they’re thinking that feminists are either those women who are so masculinized as to be unhappy with female gender roles, or so masculinized as to be uniquely aggressive about their unhappiness. The most convincing alternative I can think of is that high-IQ people of both sexes tend to have more androgynous digit ratios (so high-IQ women will have more male digit ratios). If feminist activists tend to come from the upper-class college-educated part of the population, then that might be a confounder which would be worth addressing.

Wikipedia: Naturally Superhuman People. “Wim Hof is nearly impervious to extreme temperatures. In 2009, he ran a marathon, wearing only shorts and a cap (no shoes), in -20C temperatures. He owns the Guinness World Record for the longest ice bath (nearly two hours). In 2011, he ran a marathon in 40C temperatures without drinking a drop of water during the run.”

S-adenosyl methionine (SAMe) versus escitalopram and placebo in major depression RCT: efficacy and effects of histamine and carnitine as moderators of response. Sorta-natural antidepressant supplement SAMe comes somewhere between equaling and surpassing first-line antidepressant escitalopram (Lexapro). Just one study, but several others have shown the same. It is starting to reach the point where if I had any say in the matter (which I don’t right now) I would be considering trying SAMe before an SSRI. Needless to say this could (but probably won’t) totally revolutionize psychiatry to a degree unprecedented for several decades.

I may have said some bad things about airport security now and then, but I’ve changed my mind. I love airport security. Airport security is the best. Please keep searching everyone’s luggage as much as possible with no concern for personal privacy.

@newmantras: A theme Twitter that mixes dating site profiles with Hindu verses on the glory of God.

Private companies are starting to invest in nuclear fusion, not that the amount of money they’re putting in changes much in a non-symbolic way.

Human pathos: Wannabe jihadis about to leave for Syria order Islam for Dummies off Amazon.

Cigar Aficionado’s biography of Churchill is 20% boring stuff about the cigars he liked, 80% awesome. Key quote:

While exhibiting great valor in coordinating the escape of many of the troops who were aboard the train, Churchill was captured by the Boers and taken as a prisoner of war. Although treated well by his captors, he later wrote of his time as a POW, “I certainly hated every minute of my captivity more than I have ever hated any other period in my whole life.” He hated captivity above all because it thwarted his ambition for heroic action: “The war was going on, great events are in progress, fine opportunities for action and adventure are slipping away.” So, after unsuccessfully appealing his capture on the grounds that he was a noncombatant, Churchill escaped from prison. Before escaping, however, he left a letter of apology on his bed to Louis de Souza, the Boer secretary for war. The letter began: “I have the honour to inform you that as I do not consider that your Government have any right to detain me as a military prisoner, I have decided to escape from your custody.” It ended: “Regretting that I am unable to bid you a more ceremonious or a personal farewell, I have the honour to be, Sir, your most obedient servant, Winston Churchill.”

As several people have already noted, there is this really weird issue among opponents of better replication efforts in the social sciences, where they are extremely sensitive to worries that there might be flaws in the replication studies, yet fail to draw the obvious conclusion that there might also be those same flaws in originals and therefore replications are indeed needed (see: Beware Isolated Demands For Rigor). Neuroskeptic takes one such argument to task.

Presburger arithmetic is an alternative to normal (“Peano”) arithmetic in which you are allowed to add, but cannot multiply. It possesses some impressive mathematical properties, including being provably consistent, provably complete (no Godel here!) and “decidable”, which means you can automatically prove any theorem you want using brute force alone (though it might take a while). I’m convinced – if we switch to Presburger, not only do we get free proofs for whatever we want, but we don’t have to memorize our times tables either!

Ever wonder what happened to that Honduran charter city idea? It’s still going ahead, but it looks like it’s doing so in the worst possible way – corrupt, opaque, and having kicked out everyone with principles in favor of steamrolling forward. On the other hand, part of the attraction of the idea was that it could work even in worst case scenarios – it’s designed for countries with terrible governments that can’t do anything properly. So at the very least this will give it a fair test on its own terms.

From Taymon Beal: A proof of the Halting Problem in the style of Dr. Seuss.

Things that exist: the go-away bird. This might be my spirit animal.

Scientific American comes out in favor of cryptographic locks on military weaponry.

A heartbreaking article on youth homelessness among gay teens kicked out by their families. Quote: “It sounds so paradoxical, but the kid who’s been abused and neglected from childhood, in this very perverse way, they’re ready for the trauma that’s to come on the streets. But queer youth who grew up in a family where they were taken care of, and there was ice cream in the freezer at night, they face an extra challenge of really not being prepared for the culture of the streets or the foster-care system.” A good reminder why everyone is (rightly) so concerned about homophobia.

Noahpinion: an interesting debate over the validity of those statistics you always hear about how America gets worse health care than other countries while spending much more money. Content note: one instance of fatphobia/insults to fat people.

Cell: Altering The Intestinal Microbiota During A Critical Developmental Window Has Lasting Metabolic Consequences. For example, give someone antibiotics as a baby, and you might kill their gut flora and cause them to be more obese as an adult. We are nowhere near the level of evidence where anyone should be denying a child life-saving antibiotics for a dangerous infection, but FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, PARENTS, STOP DEMANDING ANTIBIOTICS EVERY TIME YOUR KID HAS A VIRAL INFECTION THERE IS NO REASON TO DO THIS EVEN IF THEY *DIDN’T* HAVE ALL SORTS OF SIDE EFFECTS *WHICH THEY DO*.

This rebuttal of some common anti-vaxxer arguments caught my eye as a cute use of the Proving Too Much technique. This one is maybe a little less cute, but it had to be said.

@sarahdoingthing, who is either Sarah C or Sister Y or possibly some other Sarah entirely, has been plugging things into a program that purports to tell you what Myers-Briggs type you are by your writing. While this seems likely to be a faulty implementation of a faulty idea, it sure seems to be picking up something. Here’s Less Wrong posts by year, part one and two.

McDonald’s new CEO is a roboticist who, when first recruited by the company, thought he was going to an interview with McDonnell-Douglas. Also an inspiring story of Poor Young Black Kid Making It Big.

This is possibly the most important news story of the decade, although no one else will tell you that: Vasalgel preclinical studies making great progress. Vasalgel is the FDA-friendly, America-marketable version of RISUG, the permanent, easy, cheap, easily reversible contraceptive procedure for men. Once it exists, why not not fund free RISUG for every high school boy (as well as promising to fund the reversal operation) and cut accidental pregnancies down to zero? There’s your solution to fifty percent of social problems right there.

H/t Vipul Naik: Quora: what are your options if a restaurant demands exactly pi dollars? Some clever answers, as well as some groaners.

Saving the best for last: Steven Pinker – The Ivy League Is Broken And Only Standardized Tests Can Fix It. Starts with a review of the same book (Excellent Sheep) that I linked to a savage review of last month. Pinker re-tears it apart, then talks about how so-called “holistic” admissions perpetuate the advantages of the upper class, then goes over some of the research showing standardized tests are a fair and unbiased assessment of merit, then demands that colleges switch to a more SAT-centric admissons policy (the opposite of the current trend) in the name of fairness for the poor. I’ve been making this same argument for years and I’m glad to see it finally get the respect it deserves.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 181 Comments

Open Thread 4: The Quick And The Thread

1. Big thanks to Bakkot and Alice for adding the script last month that highlights new comments in green and makes this place much more readable.

2. I’ve closed comments on any posts older than one month in order to cut down the spam problem. If anyone has objections you can voice them here, but they better include some other way of dealing with spam. I already use Akismet.

3. There’s been some discussion of improving the comment sections of very controversial posts (eg on feminism) by closing comments there, then making a comment section on a separate thread. The hope is that all the random people linked there by Reddit and Instapundit and whoever get confused and go away, but other people who specifically read this blog will find it and be able to talk about it. I’ll probably try that next time I’ve got something controversial to say.

4. Comment of the month is this description of algorithms and the halting problem.

5. Ozy and I will be in the Bay Area for a few days starting September 19. Is anyone able to lend us a room to crash in for some of that time? We will take you out to dinner or something for your trouble. (we are in town for a wedding and probably won’t stay too long, but if there is some big community social event going on around then we will try to attend) [solved! thanks to everyone who volunteered space!]


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 290 Comments